Deeper Learning: Moving Students Beyond Memorization

deeperlearningAs students work their way though school, they may be memorizing information in each grade level, but are they really learning? In the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the answer likely ‘no’ – or at least not in way that will actually promotes critical thinking and communication. The focus on memorization, fueled by standardized testing, has obstructed learning, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who argues that students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school.

But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. Enter “deeper learning” – the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations. Students “transfer” knowledge rather than just memorize it. The benefits of deeper learning, says Darling-Hammond, can’t be overstated.

“It’s is the only way to get students ready for success in the modern world,” she says, adding that the Common Core standards emphasize the kind of performance-based skills that foster deeper learning.

Darling-Hamond was one of the experts called by the National Research Council in 2011 to identify the competencies that can develop deeper learning skills. The team identified the essential skills as thinking and reasoning, managing behavior and emotions, and the ability to articulate ideas and communicate properly.

A recent report by the American Institute for Research (AIR) finds that students who attend deeper learning schools were more likely to graduate from high school on time and low-achieving students were more likely to seek postsecondary education. Furthermore, the students who participated in the study score better on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) than students at non-network schools. And the students at participating schools developed comparatively better interpersonal skills.

“These students tend to learn more deeply and they tend to perform better, not only on traditional achievement tests but also on assessments of more complex understanding,” adds Darling-Hammond.

Not Just Learning Facts Out of a Textbook

So how does all this look in an actual classroom?

At Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, 11th-grade chemistry teacher Brooke Teller teaches atmospheric chemistry. After lessons using traditional methods, including videos for background, her students begin actively looking at the impact fossil fuels have on climate change. She places students into 12 groups, each of them assigned to a different green gas for a project called “villains of the atmosphere.”

Normally, these students might make a presentation using project display boards. But Teller prefers a more innovative approach: Each group makes video news segments that demonstrated how these gasses relate to climate change. Once finished, the students played their videos to local elementary students. And yet, their study on the use of fossil fuels doesn’t end in Teller’s class.

Social studies and English classes at Casco Bay teach the same topic. Currently, in their 11th-grade English and social studies classes, they are working on a public policy project whose focus is on changing the direction of fossil fuel usage in the U.S. Then they will create documentaries by “zeroing in on areas impacted by our dependence on fossil fuels,” Teller explained

“A lot of the work we do is about presenting curriculum in new ways that match well with the concepts of deeper learning,” she said, adding that the educators make sure “the curriculum we’re presenting is relevant for our students so that it doesn’t feel they’re just learning facts out of a textbook.”

At Casco Bay, students also participate in internships, another component of deeper learning. These internships have landed some Casco Bay Students paid positions, while others may have  discovered that a specific career track wasn’t a good fit. This opportunity is valuable, Teller said, because it helps students discover hat they like or don’t like, helping them to focus on long-term professional goals.

Sean McComb

Sean McComb

Personal and Academic Development

Internships during high school are especially beneficial to low-income students, said Sean McComb, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a passionate deep learning advocate. Many of his low-income students have wanted to go into the medical field or education.

“It’s really hard to motivate yourself to become something if you don’t know what it looks like,” explains McComb, an English teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County. “Deeper learning recognizes both sides: that we have to attend to the person and his or her personal development as well as their academic development.”

McComb believes deeper learning supports student achievement because “students have shared decision-making. Students who might be disengaged might do better in a school that allows them to work through their passion and learn.”

A recent project on human trafficking, for example, provided McComb’s students with the opportunity to interview activists and be exposed to their commitment – an experience not usually found in a research paper.

“I saw students become engulfed in the issues and they came to class telling me what they wanted to learn. It was something that they were deeply invested in,” McComb said.

Deeper learning schools usually have smaller but diverse student populations, with both low and high achievers. About 30 percent of Casco Bay’s 11th graders are English Language Learners.

The high expectations associated with deeper learning keep students in school, Teller said. Creating a connection to the real world by showing them how they can foster change keeps them engaged. It’s much more stimulating than flipping through textbooks, she said, which may cause students to tune out.

“Nobody is falling through the cracks,” Teller said. “They get more attention and I think it brings students along to do their best work.”