A new report from the National Research Council (NRC) finds that the educational approach known as “deeper learning”—deep content knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, and be self-reflective about learning—is “essential” for the development of twenty-first-century competencies that individuals need to succeed throughout their educational career and adult lives.
“The term ‘deeper learning’ may be new, but its basic concepts are not,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, in reaction to the report. “Deeper learning is what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned. The NRC report confirms that this type of education—once available to only a few elite students—is now necessary for all.”
According to the report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, deeper learning allows individuals to develop expertise in a particular domain of knowledge and/or performance that can then be applied to answer questions and solve problems. “While other types of learning may allow an individual to recall facts, concepts, or procedures, deeper learning allows the individual to transfer what was learned to solve new problems,” the report notes.
The report points out that technological advances have reduced the demand for routine skills in favor of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies that allow individuals to “adapt effectively” to changing situations. “When the goal is to prepare students to be able to be successful in solving new problems and adapting to new situations, then deeper learning is called for,” the report notes. “Calls for such ‘twenty-first-century skills’ as innovation, creativity, and creative problem-solving can also be seen as calls for deeper learning—helping students develop transferable knowledge that can be applied to solve new problems or respond effectively to new situations.”
The report cites evidence suggesting that these abilities, particularly the ability to think critically and solve problems, is associated with positive outcomes. It also finds considerable evidence that increased educational attainment strongly predicts higher adult earnings, better health, and increased civic engagement.
According to the report, the importance of these abilities is reflected in the common core state standards in English language arts and mathematics that have been adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia. For example, the standards place a heavy emphasis on asking students to use evidence to make arguments. The NRC framework for K–12 science education, which will form the basis of next-generation science standards that are currently under development, also calls for deeper learning, the report finds.
The report identifies two significant challenges to making deeper learning available to more students. The first is ensuring that teachers understand how to teach so that students learn deeply. Fortunately, there is evidence that instructional practices can work, and the report outlines a set of principles for instruction for deeper learning, as well as concrete examples of practices that produce impressive results. Unfortunately, the report notes that such instruction “remains rare” in U.S. classrooms because few effective strategies and programs to foster deeper learning exist.
The second challenge is around assessments. Because tests have such a strong influence on classroom practice, the design and implementation of assessments that measure deeper learning competencies is critical. Two consortia of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are developing assessments that are intended to measure student performance against the common core state standards, and they have pledged to create tests that measure the full range of standards. If they succeed—and if states use these assessments rather than fall back on less-expensive but more limited tests—the report states, “they will provide a strong incentive for states, districts, schools, and teachers to emphasize these critical facets of twenty-first-century competencies as part of disciplinary instruction.”
The report recommends that states and the federal government establish policies and programs—in the areas of assessment, accountability, curriculum and materials, and teacher education—to support students’ acquisition of transferable competencies. For example, it suggests that the Congress should “facilitate the systemic development, implementation, and evaluation of educational interventions targeting deeper learning processes and the development of transferable competencies” when it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act.
The complete report is available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13398.