Grounding Educational Practice in Learning Science
The term “deeper learning” is associated with several laundry lists of educational positives (see bottom of this post). These and other similar lists were developed from a combination of a) surveying leaders in the modern workplace about what is actually important for success, b) observations about what kinds of experiences appear to be well-suited to developing those qualities and characteristics through schooling, and c) mixing and matching what was found by other researchers. The Hewlett Foundation has awarded over $27 million in grants to further study what constitutes deeper learning in the schools that claim to be achieving it and to get the word out about how to make it happen in schools more broadly. This was all good work to bring attention to key issues in education but those laundry lists are only going to be productive in the short-term. Over the long-term a more consistent and scientifically grounded way of understanding deeper learning will enable us to achieve the kind of system transformation that is needed.
I am a psychologist whose specialty is deeper learning. In my writings on deeper learning I only rarely mention those laundry lists that have been assumed to define the term and the other work that has previously been associated with it. This is because my interest as a psychologist involves identifying the causal mechanisms behind those observations. If my work is worth the paper it is printed on then it will be entirely consistent with observations of the downstream results that leaders want to produce. However, work on causality is, by definition, based on looking upstream, in the opposite direction, in order to provide an explanation of how things come to be, regardless of how they turn out. A causal theory identifies relevant factors that influence how the outcome is determined. To put it simply, the most direct cause of deeper learning is engagement and engagement is driven by motivation.
Just this year Harvard Graduate School of Education's Jal Mehta, and High Tech High's Sarah Fine came out with a book called In Search of Deeper Learning. Their nationwide search led them to observe that in the schools that claim the mantle of deeper learning there are still islands of poor practice. They also found that in all the conventional schools they observed as points of comparison there were islands of deeper learning practices. But, what threw them for a loop was that in all the schools, the most consistently good practices were found, not in the core subjects where they expected to find them, but in electives and extracurricular activities. Ted Dintersmith made a similar observation in his book What School Could Bewhich was based on his visits to schools in all 50 of the United States. There are pockets of good and bad strewn about somewhat haphazardly throughout the system.
Another relevant observation is that there are a variety of pedagogical models that may be achieving a significant degree of deeper learning, but do not identify themselves with the term. Based on my own research into the psychology of motivation and the research on engagement by a team in Israel, there is peer-reviewed empirical evidence that some schools that have no association with the term “deeper learning” are providing the enabling conditions for it. They maintain the intrinsic motivation or engagement of their students. I conclude from these observations that the school system-as-a-whole is effectively incoherent. It is in chaos.
Based on 50 years of research into the psychology of motivation and engagement the most relevant factors that have been identified as the causes of shallow, fake, and deeper learning are the support or neglect of primary human needs. (There are more well-known factors that may have little or no influence, except to the degree they also address primary needs: mindsets, grit, self-esteem, self-control, etc.) Those schools that have been shown to maintain intrinsic motivation and engagement have done a better job of supporting primary human needs than all the mainstream schools that have been studied to date.
Identifying the relevant factors that determine the depth of learning was a theoretical breakthrough. This breakthrough was accomplished primarily by the researchers associated with Self-Determination Theory, even though they did not know that that was what they were doing. They set out to study motivation and engagement and it turns out that they were studying the most basic science behind learning. Many education practitioners have not yet realized that this breakthrough happened and what it means. Education policy makers are even less likely to be aware of this important work in the field and most have not yet realized that they are responsible for eliminating policies that undermine the primary needs of learners and teachers.
This development gives us a unique opportunity to see the future, not in the sense of knowing precisely what will happen, but in having confidence that the current conceptual chaos in education will soon disappear. When the system self-organizes around this scientific development, we will see a powerful wave of coherence sweep the field. There is now a powerful scientifically validated causal model to explain the psychological conditions that make teaching more or less effective. Without widespread understanding of this model many teachers and students are currently being subjected to conditions that are guaranteed to produce less effective learning. That is a waste when we know that optimizing those conditions produces more effective learning. The fact is that poor psychologicalconditions can render even the best pedagogicalchoices ineffective. It is time to improve all pedagogical choices by embedding the psychology of learning in policy in order to stop policy from undermining learning in classrooms everywhere. The long game for deeper learning is about shaping policy to better support the primary needs of all the humans in schools.
The mission of Deeper Learning Advocates is to serve as a catalyst for the powerful wave of coherence that is coming. We recognize that the most substantial barriers to good practice in schools are currently embedded in policy, so that is where we need to take action. You can help by getting in touch to discuss the opportunities you have to influence the schools in your community.
Deeper Learning Laundry Lists
- Master core academic content
- Think critically and solve complex problems
- Work collaboratively
- Communicate effectively
- Learn how to learn
- Develop academic mindsets
New Pedagogies for Deeper Learning
- Critical Thinking
Partnership for 21stCentury Skills
- Critical thinking