What does “deeper learning” mean?

(cross-posted from K12 Open Ed)

I’m working on another MOOC, this one focused on deeper learning, and it is prompting me to think a lot about what deeper learning means to me.

(As background, the Deeper Learning MOOC or DLMOOC is a free, flexible, nine-week online course that will allow K-16 educators to learn about how deeper learning can be put into practice. It starts on January 20.)

To me, deeper learning is about the kind of learning experiences where you immerse yourself in something and learn in a way that sticks with you for life.

Thinking back on my own academic experiences, I realize that while I was in many ways the model student in elementary and secondary school, I rarely experienced deeper learning. I wasn’t particularly “smart,” but I was very good at the game of school. I was an excellent reader and writer, and perhaps most relevant to my success, I was a great test taker. I could whip through textbooks and ace whatever assessments were given, but I retained little. The few K-12 experiences I had that I would characterize as deeper learning were out of the mainstream of the curriculum – a science fair project, several independent study projects, extensive journaling on topics that mattered to me. These are the learning experiences that have stuck with me over the years and influenced my life and work as an adult.

The Hewlett Foundation defines deeper learning as “using … knowledge and skills in a way that prepares [students] for real life.” It is “mastering core academic content…, while learning how to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves (known as an ‘academic mindset’).” Curiously, this is a good description of my graduate school experience. It was filled with academic content, critical readings, collaborative group projects, and presentations. And yet, here too, I don’t feel that I learned deeply. Instead, I was fulfilling requirements to get a piece of paper.

In truth, this may be my own fault, more so than the program’s. While I was in graduate school, I was also working a 60+ hour a week job. Ironically, this job was where I experienced deep learning. There I was engaged in real-world content that consumed me, and my work had real implications. The elements of content, critical thinking, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindsets were present in both grad school and my job – but the learning experience was completely different.

As a teacher, I think the best example of deeper learning in my east African classroom was when we threw out our British curriculum for six weeks and engaged in a cross-disciplinary African studies unit. We still learned math, science, history, and language arts, but it was suddenly brought to life by hands on projects based in a more relevant context.

What do these personal experiences in deeper learning have in common? Personal relevance. In-depth exploration. Getting lost in discovery and problem solving. Immersive learning. Perhaps the particular strategies for achieving this (project-based learning, maker activities, etc.) should vary with the learner and the context. Certainly, there is no magic formula for achieving success. As with curriculum, good teachers can be successful with bad materials/methods and vice versa.

What does “deeper learning” mean to you? If you are interested in puzzling through what deeper learning means and seeing some stellar examples of deeper learning in action, perhaps you’ll join us for DLMOOC in January. You can sign up here.