What is Deeper Learning?

Raylene Olinger

As a newer user of Twitter, I very often find myself reading the posts of people I follow and am curious about the various hashtags that are used to categorize the topics being talked about. Sometimes in the world of education, these tags signify a particular Twitter chat or an organizational conference. Recently, I realized I was often seeing #deeperlearning in the feeds of the people I follow. I wondered if it was merely a buzzword or if there really was a specific movement called deeper learning; I decided to check it out.

Deeper learning is in fact, a framework of competencies. While these ideas are definitely not new to education, they have been more formalized through the work of the Hewlett Foundation. Deeper learning competencies are designed to more fully engage students with meaningful work in ways that are relevant to them. The following are the six competencies that students should be equipped with: the ability to master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, learn how to learn, and develop academic mindsets.

Deeper learning prepares students to be life-long learners.  In the video, Diving Into Deeper Learning, Marc Chun discusses the idea that transfer of what has been learned to new situations is a crucial skill and that the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge will grow in importance as students enter the workplace. While it is true that students can’t possibly be taught all they will need to know, focusing on the above-mentioned competencies can help students be prepared for the types of jobs they will encounter, which increasingly require the ability to work collaboratively, communicate, and solve problems. According to Chun, a 1970 survey of Fortune 500 companies showed teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills as #10, 12 and 13 on a list of most desirable traits for employees. However, by 1990, a similar survey found those same three skills were the top three most desired traits in employees, with oral communication skills as #4. Chun remarked that more recent information indicated the same thing. Equipping our students with these skills is essential for their economic well being.

Deeper learning competencies result in work that matters for students. There seem to be many ways that schools and teachers are approaching the ideas laid out in these six competencies. Here in the Northwest Colorado BOCES, some districts have embarked on Project-Based Learning initiatives to bring a greater sense of authenticity to learning. I was inspired recently to read a blog post by Katie Martin which had me thinking about these initiatives. It is unimportant, in my opinion, whether we call what we are doing with students project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, or design thinking. I realize there are differences in these approaches, but to the point of the blog post, what is important is the learning. Experiences that focus on empowering students to have a choice, create and solve problems, collaborate and communicate, and reflect and revise for an authentic audience will create learning that is powerful, meaningful and lasting.  

Deeper learning can be “business as usual” as opposed to the one-time project. Early in my career, I was so fortunate to work with an imaginative and committed team of teachers. We taught and engaged students in “interdisciplinary projects” which resulted in some very rich learning, albeit maybe not as authentic or as connected to standards as we might have hoped. These were novel and usually engaging for students, but would not have been considered as the everyday learning of our classrooms. I advocate for an approach written about by Kristyn Kamps in Promoting a PBL Mindset in Mainstream Settings: The Dimmer Switch Approach. She suggests taking the best of what this approach (in this case the Gold Standard PBL design elements) has to offer and instead of thinking of them like an on/off switch, consider picking and choosing from them as a matter of course in your classroom, more like using the dimmer switch. Some experiences would use more of these design elements, some less, but the mindset of PBL (or more broadly any of the types of deeper learning approaches) would be an anchor in the instructional practices and learning experiences in our classrooms.



Hewlett Foundation. (2013, April). Deeper Learning Defined. Retrieved from https://hewlett.org/library/deeper-learning-defined/

Kamps, K. (2017, May 10). Promoting a PBL Mindset in Mainstream Settings: The Dimmer Switch Approach [web log] Retrieved from https://www.bie.org/blog/promoting_a_pbl_mindset_in_mainstream_settings_the_dimmer_switch_approach

Martin, K. (2018, July 14). Project-based Learning: Are You Focused on the Project or the Learning? [web log] Retrieved from https://katielmartin.com/2018/07/14/project-based-learning-are-you-focused-on-the-project-or-the-learning/

TEDx Denver Teachers. (2013, March 24). Marc Chun: Diving into deeper learning [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6BmbdzPcrY