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National Research Council Validates Shift to ‘Deeper Learning’

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July 11, 2012 04:43 pm

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national research

Since 2010, the Alliance for Excellent Education has been working to develop and promote policies that support 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. Our premise, spelled out in a policy brief issued in 2011, was that these competencies are essential for career success and civic life in an increasingly complex world.

This week the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report that confirmed this view and showed how deeper learning can be taught and assessed. The report provides an important scientific grounding for a shift in policy and practice that enables all students to develop the deeper learning competencies they will need to succeed.

The report notes that deeper learning is significant because it enables students to transfer their learning from one setting to another. The report states:

If the goal of instruction is to prepare students to accomplish tasks or solve problems exactly like the ones addressed during instruction, then deeper learning is not needed. For example, if someone’s job calls for adding lists of numbers accurately, that individual needs to learn to become proficient in using the addition procedure, but does not need deeper learning about the nature of number and number theory that will allow transfer to new situations that involve the application of mathematical principles. [But] technology has reduced demand for such routine skills. Success in work and life in the 21st century is associated with the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies that allow individuals to adapt effectively to changing situations rather than to rely solely on well-worn procedures. When the goal is to prepare students to be successful in solving new problems and adapting to new situations, then deeper learning is called for. [Emphasis added]

The report shows that there is evidence that suggests that these abilities, particularly the ability to think critically and solve problems, is associated with positive outcomes, and that there is considerable evidence that increased educational attainment strongly predicts adult earnings, health, and civic engagement.

The good news is that states are moving to shift their education systems to support deeper learning by adopting the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics. As the report shows clearly, these standards call for deeper learning in a number of ways; for example, by 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 call for deeper learning.

There are two significant challenges to making that promise a reality, the report notes. One 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. States and districts must work hard to ensure that all teachers understand those principles and can apply them effectively.

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 21st century competencies as part of disciplinary instruction.” The nation, and its students, have a lot riding on the success of these assessments.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.

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