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Deeper Learning in Practice

Jennifer Kabaker

Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise
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Two students looking over papers and talking

Across the education sector, we define what students need to know and should be able to do for succeeding in college and career. We know that they need more than just the ability read and write -- today's constantly changing workforce shows that they must be able to master academic content, communicate and collaborate effectively, think critically, and become life-long learners.

Supporting students as they develop these skills, understandings, and mindsets often requires a shift in how we think about classroom learning and the competencies needed by teachers to facilitate that learning.

6 Categories of Deeper Learning Skills

What does this type of learning look like in practice? Educators across the country are using the deeper learning framework, developed by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in their classrooms. Through design thinking challenges, project-based learning activities, Genius Hours, and more, teachers can ensure that students are engaged, motivated to persist, and developing key skills.

For example, students in a sixth grade robotics classroom might build controllers for swimming robots. One group experiments with settings to sink the robots by filling a bladder with water. Another works to perfect the speed controls on the motor. Yet another tests the robot design to ensure that it can easily move through the water. Students are engaged and focused as they apply math, engineering, and science knowledge to their work.

These students are engaged in the six categories of Deeper Learning skills described below.

1. Master Academic Content

In addition to building foundational academic skills in reading, math, science, and social studies, teachers use many approaches to support students taking their learning and exploration to the next level. These approaches -- such as rooting projects in real-world problems or mapping facts and concepts to help build on prior knowledge -- enable students to connect ideas and apply knowledge across content areas.

In the aforementioned robotics classroom, students engage deeply with math and physics as they measure and assess the impact of the changes they are making to control their robots' speed, agility, and water displacement.

2. Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems

As students seek to tackle problems, they must be able to analyze those problems, develop solutions, and carry out plans to address them. Teachers integrate these skills into instruction through engaging activities that rely on competencies such as researching, brainstorming, and design thinking.

The robotics students are testing their hypotheses and designing solutions to the unexpected challenges they confront in their robot design.

3. Work Collaboratively

Working collaboratively in school helps students become better team members in the future as they learn to identify strengths, assign responsibilities, and reflect on successes. By planning thoughtful group activities, creating expectations around group work, and encouraging conversations about open-mindedness, teachers support these skills.

In each robotics group, students have created team agreements, identified group leaders, and divided responsibilities equally.

4. Communicate Effectively

Students develop their communication skills throughout their academic careers as writers, presenters, artists, and team members. Teachers strengthen those skills by providing students tools to communicate clearly, effectively, and persuasively across all grades and subjects.

After the students have perfected their robots, they will present them to their classmates to explain the adjustments they made to the controllers.

5. Learn How to Learn

In addition to guiding students through instruction, teachers help them become self-directed learners who drive their own exploration. With support from their teachers, students set goals, track their progress, reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement, and can turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

In robotics class, students identify daily goals for their robot design in their groups, create challenges for their teams, and push their own learning to meet these goals.

6. Develop Academic Mindsets

Beyond learning academic skills, students need to become life-long learners who take initiative, are persistent, and build relationships to access resources. Teachers support these mindsets through activities and discussions that focus on ethical behavior, resilience, and mindfulness.

While not every experiment that the students try with their robots will be successful, they will not rest until they have found the best approach. Once the robots are complete, students will enter them in the Robot Olympics to determine the fastest, most agile, and most creative robots!

Earning Micro-Credentials

Digital Promise recently released a report, "Developing a System of Micro-Credentials: Supporting Deeper Learning in the Classroom," that further explores the six categories above. The report also showcases 40 educator micro-credentials that Digital Promise designed to recognize educators who have developed competencies that support deeper learning. Micro-credentials recognize teachers for the skills and competencies they develop throughout their careers.

Through the deeper learning micro-credentials, educators identify and demonstrate key competencies they can apply in their classrooms to ensure that their students enter college and the workforce ready to tackle complex challenges. Micro-credentials allow these educators to share these competencies with their peers, building a stronger professional learning community. As teachers seek to strengthen their instruction, it is vital that we support them in developing these competencies and provide meaningful recognition for those who do.

What does deeper learning mean to you? How do you engage students with deeper learning experiences in your classroom and beyond? What competencies have supported your success? We'd love to hear what you think in the comments below.

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Jennifer Kabaker

Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise

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mathmom's picture

I appreciate the thoughts and information provided about the deeper learning format. This is the first time that I have heard about the Deeper learning framework and I am very interested in seeing and hearing how educators of core subject areas have implemented this framework. I am a bit skeptic on how this would work in a high school mathematics classroom especially in NYS where we have adopted a new APPR and our jobs are dependent on how well our students perform on the state assessments. Many of my colleagues have resorted back to the drill and kill methodology of teaching and teaching to the test instead developing the mathematical comprehension necessary.

Jennifer Kabaker's picture
Jennifer Kabaker
Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise

Thanks so much for your thoughts, @mathmom! The Hewlett Foundation's Deeper Learning website has some great examples of Deeper Learning in action in a variety of grade levels and subject areas, which you can find here:

One of the great challenges and opportunities of Deeper Learning is using it as a vehicle to support standards-based instruction. We think that Deeper Learning can help students engage more deeply with content by applying knowledge in a variety of subject areas at once.

EDIT: I just came across this really cool example of Deeper Learning in a high school geometry class. Check it out:

Margot Schultz's picture
Margot Schultz
Waldorf Teacher

I love the practice of rooting learning in real world experiences, a perfect example you listed being the building of the robot. It is not through learning alone that we succeed, but through doing as well. It's all just knowledge until it's implemented -- that's when it becomes mastery.

At Waldorf we are always looking for ways to move beyond informational learning into experiential learning through 'doing' and real-world projects. This has been proven by numerous studies to actually create new neural pathways in the brain which permanently wires in the knowledge and skills, especially in children whose brains are being shaped for the rest of their life in highly formative ways. Great article.

Jennifer Kabaker's picture
Jennifer Kabaker
Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise

Thanks so much Margot! I love to hear that this is happening at Waldorf. Would be great to see examples of how Waldorf is making this happen for students.

fc's picture

Thank you for sharing this information. I am a first year teacher and as the end of the year is approaching, I am already thinking of ways to improve my practice for the following school year. I teach Spanish so connecting the content to the real world is extremely important to keep some of these students engaged. It was extremely helpful as you added examples of each step in practice in the robotics classroom. I look forward to learning more about deeper learning in practice to implement into my classroom for the 2015-16 school year.

Jennifer Kabaker's picture
Jennifer Kabaker
Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise

Thanks for your thoughts, @fc. I hope to hear more about how you incorporate Deeper Learning into Spanish instruction - what a great way to make language acquisition real and significant for students!

FMayes's picture

I think the deeper learning framework is essential to student achievement. To me, the six categories of Deeper Learning skills encapsulate what learning is all about. One of the categories in particular resonates with me: Learn How to Learn.
In my 10th grade (and occasionally 12th grade) English classroom, I have a poster that shows a stack of books with the caption: "Learning how to learn is life's most important skill." This, in my opinion, is necessary to facilitate some of the other categories you mention, such as Develop Academic Mindsets and Think Critically and Solve Complex Problems. More and more as educators we are asked to differentiate instruction to enable learning for all students according to the process(es) that work best for them. But this strategy, while of benefit to our diverse learners, isn't terribly realistic--life won't be nearly so accommodating. As they advance, students (and later, career professionals) will have to "figure it out" for themselves with minimal--or no--instruction. They will have to fashion their own analysis or critical thinking based on how they are able to construct or decode information in a meaningful way. By helping students to identify and improve upon their strengths and understand their own learning process, teachers can help them to become self-directed and life-long learners. These Deeper Learning Skills connect the classroom with the real world in a significant way.

Jennifer Kabaker's picture
Jennifer Kabaker
Director of Educator Micro-credentials Initiative, Digital Promise

This is such a compelling take on Deeper Learning - thank you for your thoughts! I agree that "Learn How to Learn" is the foundation for so much in school and in life. It is fantastic to hear that you are making this concrete for your students every day. Do you have any tips for others on how to help their students "learn how to learn"?

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