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Time to Expand Access to Deeper Learning So All Students Can Benefit

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June 03, 2011 02:16 pm


In a June 1 article for the New York Times, Jenny Anderson profiles Calhoun School, which, according to its website is a “progressive, independent, college preparatory school located in the heart of Manhattan’s West Side. Founded in 1896, Calhoun has grown into a two-building coeducational institution with 670 students, ranging from three-year-olds to twelfth graders.” While Anderson doesn’t refer to it directly in her article, it appears that the students at Calhoun benefit from an educational approach known to many as “deeper learning.”

Last month, the Alliance released a brief on deeper learning, “A Time for Deeper Learning: Preparing Students for a Changing World.” The brief argues that deeper learning provides students with the deep content knowledge they need to succeed after high school and the critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills that today’s jobs demand.

Those skills are certainly in development at Calhoun. According to the article, a group of six students spent more than an hour and a half discussing the role of social class in “Year of Wonders,” a historical novel about an English village hit by the plague in the 17th century. But their conversation went beyond themes covered in your normal English class. These students were identifying topics for research papers in the science and social studies class, called Disease and Society. Anderson notes that one student wanted to tackle 17th-century grave digging in London while another would explore the obligation midwives had to report illegitimate children.

As the Alliance brief explains, students engaging in deeper learning must know the subject matter content, but they must also be able to think critically about other variables that relate to the topic at hand. They must be able to communicate effectively, to explain their arguments using evidence, and, because the work is often team-based, they must collaborate with their peers. Finally, the students must be able reflect on their work and show that they have learned how to learn.

Described in that way, deeper learning is not an unfamiliar concept. As Alliance President Bob Wise says in the video to the right, “The term ‘deeper learning’ may be new, but its basic concepts are not,” he says. “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.”

Although individual schools and systems are successfully applying deeper learning and can demonstrate its effectiveness and practicality, bringing such experiences to all students is a formidable undertaking.

For years, U.S. schools have tended to offer a two-tiered curriculum, in which some students, primarily white and relatively affluent, have had opportunities for deeper learning, while others, primarily low-income and students of color, have focused almost exclusively on basic skills and knowledge. More-affluent students, such as those at Calhoun, get to analyze works of literature and write extensively, while low-income and minority students tend to complete worksheets that focus on memorization.

Graph from Georgetown Center on Education and the WorkforceForty years ago, such a formula worked fine for the United States economy. Those who were prepared went to college while other students landed good manufacturing jobs that required a high school diploma and sometimes less. For example, in 1973, nearly a third of the available jobs went to individuals without a high school diploma. By 2007, that number had fallen to only 11 percent, as shown in the graph to the right. During the same time period, the percentage of jobs requiring some education after high school grew from 28 percent to 59 percent, according to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The nation’s prosperity in the near future will depend more than ever on students from underserved groups. Minorities now account for about half of all births in the United States, and by 2050 the U.S. is expected to become -majority-minority-that is, more than half the population will be made up of people of color, compared with 35 percent in 2010. The U.S. economy can only thrive if the whole population, not less than half, is equipped to succeed.

Thankfully, supportive policies such as the adoption of common core state standards that support college and career readiness, the development of next-generational assessments aligned to those standards, and recent developments in educational technology indicate that policymakers are starting to come together on the changes and investments that are needed.

However, in order for both students and teachers to benefit from this kind of deeper, more comprehensive approach, schools need supportive policies in place that align with this kind of educational approach. For example, schools that incorporate deeper learning principles provide both teachers and students time for collaboration; student performance is based on the mastery of both rigorous content and skills and measured by more than a simple multiple choice test; students have access to technology and resources that will help guide and inform their project work; and teachers are encouraged to create more complex problems that require students to utilize a variety of skills and content knowledge.

The Alliance’s brief notes that the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, presents the right timing for federal policymakers to create opportunities for states and districts to put into place the kinds of policies and practices that a deeper learning environment requires. It outlines policy actions that support deeper learning in five different areas-standards, assessments, accountability, professional development and teaching practice, and state-level polices-and provides a picture of what deeper learning might look in the classroom.

In the New York Times article, Daniel Isquith, who has taught math at Calhoun for eight years, speaks highly of an approach that allows for longer class time-two hours in this case-with a specific subject. “Once you live in this and get a sense of pacing,” Isquith said, “it’s incredible what you can accomplish in terms of real actual understanding versus proficiency.”

The benefits of deeper learning are clear-students are better able to demonstrate their knowledge in real-world application and are better prepared for college and careers. The challenge is ensuring that all students have access to this type of approach.


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