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.”

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  • At Big Picture Learning (, we are particularly excited to be honoring Linda Darling-Hammon for her work in this area (amongst others). For more information, and if you might want to attend the awards ceremony as a part of our Leadership conference in Oakland, CA January 2015 –

  • MM

    How do parents find deep-learning schools? Is there a list or network to identify schools?

  • Greg

    Obviously Asian cultures that are years ahead of us found nothing wrong with memorization. You can memorize a formula and then understand it, you can memorize facts about the WWII and then research and comprehend the causes, what’s wrong with storing information in the long term memory part of the brain that can be recalled anytime?
    How do you recall the year Cristopher Columbus arrived in America from projects and using crayons and glue? And how does that obstruct learning?
    What’s wrong with using both, critical thinking and memorization? Why should our kids be ashamed of memorizing details?
    No wonder when traveling abroad, Americans are laughed at as ignorants for not knowing basic facts about the world we live in. I wonder how common core will change that perception.
    Bad article proving that nobody in our society knows which way the light at the end of the tunnel is.

    • unbelievable007

      Columbus never arrived in America….

      • Greg

        Yeah, and he never even took that voyage in 1492, or he probably got lost on the way…which exemplifies my comment about how the world sees Americans today. And let me guess, you’ve reached that conclusion not by memorizing your Social Studies textbook, but by deep critical thinking…

        • unbelievable007

          Actually, I was thinking how much more of a valuable learning experience it would be for students to explore the impact of Columbus finding the Caribbean both upon on indigenous people there and the Europeans. Of course, I’d also include the date in the lesson.

    • Walter

      Maybe we can test the students the way they do…selection of who gets to continue and only test the best and brightest. We are the only country in the world that allows every student, regardless of ability, to go to the 12th grade and then compare them with countries that limits their students to the top ones who get to go forward. Stop comparing apples and bananas!

  • Madlon

    This succeeds because it follows the path that brain research on learning and memory tells us. We learn through sensory intake, and store concept models and patterns before we use the idea in some product or activity. When other disciplines take up the same topic, new information is added to the first realization of the topic and builds that topic into a network of associated information. The Parallel Processing Group of the 1980’s, with Donald Norman, used semantic networks to represent how the brain sorts, associates, and deepens learning.

  • Teresa

    Seriously? Memorization and learning the basics in reading, math, science, writing, etc are a foundation in which we can apply and expand on that knowledge. I truly feel that the only people qualified to lead us in education are the teachers who have been classrooms for at least 10 years. By that, I mean teachers from K-12. . .not university professors or politicians who are clueless as to the workings of a classroom. The NEA and state teachers’ associations have been negligent in keeping our classrooms engaged in meaningful learning. One teacher is in charge of a classroom that has BD, ADHD, physically disabled, mentally challenged, students who bring in their dysfunctional home life, gifted, average, and below average students. Does not anyone see a problem here? How dare our public education system be compared to other countries that have completely different learning situations! How many other countries mainstream their students? Seriously? Why can I say this? Between my husband and I, we were in the classroom for 70 years, and it breaks our hearts at what is going on today. In our classroom we expected respect, responsibility, and making learning fun.

  • teachering2

    Memorization is a skill. To deepened understanding is to use that information in meaningful applications — projects, research, reports, discussions, debates, etc. I see students counting on their fingers coming up with a different answer almost each time when help memorizing multiplication tables would be a better use of time and skills. Using learned information in application projects, surveying, percentages, tables, graphs, etc. Using those math facts and seeing where and how to use that information would be a big plus. In many cultures story telling and passing on information through memorization was well-respected and still is. Like mastering printing and cursive both the brain is stimulated and intelligence is built to communicate. The art of teaching needs time to stimulate the basics to deepen and expand the basics in application often through science projects, social studies projects — hands on physical and mental opportunities for decision making — risking failure and success in the learning process, learning how to replicate as well as amend and/or make changes. Selecting and using materials, methods, technology — using education, using knowledge learned. Memorizing plays in sports or memorizing math facts, a poem, a story, a speech, a play — all of these allow greater learning to take place and opportunities to expand or utilize the information. Again, support of teaching time to have opportunities as well as the materials to do applications so students can get comfortable and fluent in using and deepening their learning is needed.

  • Lindamae1

    Without the base of memorized essential facts, students are no more than empty suits. The example of an interdisciplinary project above does not ensure learning has taken place. Studies support one or two projects per year more for the affective domain rather than cognitive. Second, too many independent scientists have questioned the belief man’s use of CO2 causing global warming. Critical thinking would demand both sides of the issue be presented. Wonder if the teacher did that? Some idiotic educational pundit claimed rote learning was a waste of time. Yet, we are expected to learn the basics in other fields. Would you go to a doctor who needed to have an open book in front of him to determine your problem? It’s ridiculous.

  • Subelle

    Greg, you are so right! Many students in my math classes never memorized their math facts and are absolutely helpless without a calculator, and some cannot even use those! It is a shame because they simply cannot make connections to other math concepts when they can’t do simple mental math in their heads, i.e, taking ½ a number or doubling a number.
    It is VERY difficult to build on a shaky foundation which some of these kids have. I pass them along with less than next year’s required skills because I got so many of them 2 or even 3 years behind in grade level. I can’t bring them up to grade level in just one year! Additionally, add onto that problem home-life issues, incarcerated parents, foster care, living with non-parent relatives, or non-English speakers, etc., plus living in an inner city and, well, do you catch my drift?

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  • Gary

    As both parents and teachers, my wife and I have taught our children to memorize from an early age and it has allowed them to be prepared to make the leap to “deeper learning” experiences with success (and relative ease).

    We have seen far too many of their peers having issues with spelling, math facts – facts of almost any kind – that need to be pulled rapidly from long-term memory in order to speed the processing of larger amounts of information to make the connections necessary for higher-level thinking.

    Memorization seems to have been relegated to “parlor trick” status by academia. As I near 60, I still practice memorization to keep my brain sharp. I believe it is akin to weight lifting for an athlete. While it will not ensure success, it is a base requirement that is needed to build upon for excellence.

  • Nick

    Before you read too far into the comments, take this from a student’s perspective. I am an engineering TECHNOLOGY student and I am also a design technician for an engineering company. This article IS NOT saying that “deeper learning” is the only way students are being taught. It is along side a standard education. The deeper learning should come no earlier than middle school. Students still need a strong base in basic math and spelling. That being said, I personally suck at spelling and math was not a strong suit for me until high school. But we live in a modern age with powerful calculators and spell check. Asian cultures that focus on memorization may be years ahead of us, but why should that apply? How much time do Asian students spend outside of memorizing facts? We all have a limited amount of time alive, why waste years of it with brute force memorization? Students already have enough trouble with actually caring about class. They are more interested and learn better with deeper learning. As someone that actually works for an engineering company, no calculations are solely based on math in someones head. It is ALWAYS done with a calculator at some point.

  • barcian

    India is a good place for the people who want to memorize the facts and formula and want to get success based upon this. For all people who are advocating the rote learning, “Indian Education System” welcomes with full heart.

    • barcian

      “Come to India and become a perfect memorising machine” – Indian education system.