There is growing consensus in states across the nation that the primary goal of the K–12 education system is to prepare all students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. There is even agreement that for students to be college and career ready they need the same set of core academic skills, particularly in English/Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics and that all students also need strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

There is growing consensus in states across the nation that the primary goal of the K–12 education system is to prepare all students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. There is even agreement that for students to be college and career ready they need the same set of core academic skills, particularly in English/Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics and that all students also need strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. These areas of agreement are expressed in the Common Core State Standards for English and Math as well as the Next Generation Science Standards. At the same time, research is beginning to show a positive relationship between developing student’s social/emotional learning skills, metacognitive skills, behaviors, attitudes toward learning, and overall mindset and their academic performance.  Furthermore, business leaders are clear in stating their desire for graduates to have the capacity to be creative – to think about problems in new ways, design their own solutions, and be able to collaborate and communicate in multiple settings. Deeper Learning incorporates all of these outcomes in recognition that all students must have the opportunity to succeed in a rapidly changing and complex world. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation describes Deeper Learning outcomes as the following:

  • Mastery of Core Academic Content: Students build their academic foundation in subjects like reading, writing, math and science. They understand key principles and procedures, recall facts, use the correct language and draw on their knowledge to complete new tasks.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Students think critically, analytically and creatively. They know how to find, evaluate and synthesize information to construct arguments. They can design their own solutions to complex problems.
  • Collaboration: Collaborative students work well in teams. They communicate, understand and integrate multiple points of view, and they know how to cooperate to achieve a shared goal.
  • Effective Communication: Students communicate effectively in writing and in oral presentations. They structure information in meaningful ways, listen to and give feedback, and construct messages for particular audiences.
  • Self-directed Learning: Students develop an ability to direct their own learning. They set goals, monitor their own progress, and reflect on their own strengths and areas for improvement.
  • An “Academic Mindset”: Students with an academic mindset have a strong belief in themselves. They trust their own abilities and believe their hard work will pay off, so they persist to overcome obstacles. They see the relevance of their schoolwork to the real world and their own future success.

Deeper Learning can help us reimagine teaching and learning, emphasizing that the true measure of learning is not rote memorization but the ability of students to apply what they know in real world contexts.  In Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century, I take readers inside eight public schools that are educating students from a diverse range of backgrounds to offer an inspiring and expanded vision of what’s possible in schools today when teachers and principals want to focus on and ensure students develop deeper learning outcomes.  The eight schools profiled in my book are embracing Deeper Learning principles with six core strategies:

1. Empower: Activate Students to Lead Their Own Learning

The schools develop students as self-directed learners through a set of common practices:  disruptive experiences that signal new expectations of students’ role in learning;  socializing students through modeling and mentoring by the upper grade students and a school culture rich with messages and rituals signaling the expectations for learners; and implementation of a consistent pedagogical approach in which students manage complex projects and assignments, seek feedback, revise work and reflect on what they’ve learned. The capacity for self-direction is the foundation for learning and both the culture of the school and the instructional practices have to reinforce this.

2. Keep It Real: Provide meaning to students learning experiences

Whether it’s designing an app, organizing a “mock election” representative of the electoral process, or generating electricity by building wind turbines, schools that embrace Deeper Learning objectives emphasize inquiry-based learning that explores real world and complex situations or problems and get students working actively and productively in groups to create products or to solve problems together. Teachers constantly shift roles, from curriculum design to advising to coaching to networking.

3. Contextualize: Connect experiences and subjects

The acquisition of content knowledge and skills is promoted by purposefully designing learning experiences to be unified around central concepts and ideas. Teachers use themes and essential or guiding questions to integrate their otherwise separate courses and align them to content standards for each subject as well as key Deeper Learning outcomes.  As a result, students have a coherent context for every assignment, classroom activity, field work experience and project they undertake, as well as a deeper level of understand of what they are learning.  As Susan McCray, a teacher from Casco Bay High School states, “Everything is related. Everything matters, and we are all working all the time to help them [students] see the connections.”

4. Reach: Extend Learning Beyond the School

Schools extend learning beyond the school to provide students with access to experts, authentic learning experiences, opportunities to contribute, and extended networks of support and learning.  As consummate networkers, principals and teachers scout opportunities for their students by tapping local resources like museums, higher education institutions, community based organizations and corporations that match the school’s learning philosophy as well as students’ interests and projects. This is not limited to but includes the opportunity for students to explore potential career paths through internships or mentorships.

5. Inspire: Customize Learning to Each Student

Finding the spark—a subject, idea or project that makes a student light up—is the key to customizing learning experiences for individual students. In order to tailor learning to meet individual students’ educational needs and aspirations, teachers seek out and develop a balanced knowledge of each student’s unique tendencies, circumstances and interests through both formal processes(advisories) and informal processes (including casual conversations, insight from partner organizations, community members or other teachers).

6. Wire: Make Technology the Servant, Not the Master

Deeper Learning incorporates technology purposefully to enhance, rather than automate learning. This happens in several ways, among them using programs and applications that build students’ research and critical thinking skills; offering digital methods to design projects, collaborate and communicate within and outside of the school; and broadening students’ options for presenting work creatively and connecting with multiple experts. In all of these cases, technology is used as a tool to drive student learning.

This more robust and responsive set of educational practices offer a new framework for educators and schools to rise to the challenge of preparing all students for college, careers and the world today. However, we need champions to advocate, if not demand, that deeper learning becomes the new normal for all schools. Only then will we be able to reimagine teaching and learning thereby ensuring all students will thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Monica Martinez
Dr. Monica Martinez is an education strategist and consultant, author, presenter and appointee to the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Her career encompasses major programmatic, management and executive leadership roles, including hands-on experience running and supporting major foundation initiatives, and is marked by her expertise in secondary reform and college success. As an education strategist, Dr. Martinez serves in an advisory capacity to leaders of multiple organizations, including nonprofits, state systems and foundations to assist in creating, revising or implementing their education strategies and initiatives. Some of her clients have included The Carnegie Corporation, The Community College of Philadelphia, The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Dr. Martinez served as the CEO and President of the New Tech Network and Vice President for Education Strategy at KnowledgeWorks. Her book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century, shows how we can transform public schools for the 21st century.  She serves on the Board of Trustees for 10,000 Degrees and is a former AdvancED Board member.