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Beyond the Buzzwords: Understanding ‘Deeper Learning’

Back to Skills

Focusing on student learning, and structuring the school to fit students’ varied learning paces, is proving to be a game changer, said panelists at EWA’s recent National Seminar in Chicago, moderated by journalist Katrina Schwartz of Mindshift at KQED Public Radio.

But first, a definition. “Deeper learning,” which can include  “competency-based” education or “project-based” schooling  or “personalized learning,” is a burgeoning new approach that allows students to explore lessons in meaningful ways and choose to take them in their own directions.

What it’s not: A traditional model where students demonstrate how much they’ve memorized through multiple-choice exams.

With deeper learning, students advance once they’ve mastered the skills and knowledge of a course. But unlike a traditional class, where a “C” grade is enough to get by, this model requires students to show they’ve mastered all the material through portfolios, research projects, dissertations and presentations, and other ways.

“It’s really taking ownership of your learning,” said Johnna Noll, the director of instructional services for the West Allis – West Milwaukee School District in Wisconsin. “[School] is not something that the school or a teacher or a professional educator is doing to you.”

In some instances, students who are multiple years behind are able to catch up – and graduate ready to attend college or go into a career. And in some schools, the approach has lowered the number of high school dropouts, or eliminated them entirely.

At MC2STEM High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, adults sometimes balk when they see students in class. There are no bells or neat rows of desks, and it can be difficult to tell the upperclassmen apart from the teachers.

Instead, many students are working on projects or other activities. Some freshmen there are only at a fifth-grade math level, so tutors, mentors and student teachers are enlisted to help them progress. Every freshman takes Algebra 2, regardless of how far behind they are.

“We tell the kids: You’re not going to get an F or a D. You’re not done with Algebra 2 until you’re at an A level,” said Jeffrey McClellan, who founded and headed the 300-student school, and is now the founding director of SOLE (Self-Organized Learning Environments) CLE. “Some don’t finish until their junior year, but when they do – they’ve mastered it.”

In addition to academics, the high school incorporates “real world” experiences with professionals. Students might work with tutors from NASA, be mentored by engineers at General Electric or participate in an internship at another company.

“Traditional school is about what kids do, it doesn’t connect with who you are and what you’re trying to become,” McClellan said. But with deeper learning, the focus shifts. “What you’re doing and who you are come together.”

Walker Elementary School in West Allis, Wisconsin, also uses “performance-based” strategies. Students are not assigning grade levels, for example. Instead, they’re grouped in grade spans, such as kindergarten through third grade.

That allows some students to rapidly progress in certain subjects while spending more time in others. “We’re trying to make learning the constant and time the difference,” Noll said.

At first, parents were skeptical – but then they saw it in action. Those initially critical voices have become among the school’s biggest supporters, and parents are now lobbying for the nearby middle school to adopt the same approach.

“The biggest challenge was really changing the mindset of what education can be,” she said.

The approach has become a game changer, said Stephan Turnipseed, the executive director of strategic partnerships for LEGO Education and the chairman of P21, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

“Schools, by and large, are designed for adults,” he said of the traditional school model. “They’re not designed for children.”

Turnipseed said that in Kentucky, the Taylor County School District adopted personalized learning — and no student has dropped out in six years. In part, that’s thanks to a key shift in attitude among teachers and school staff, he said.

He credits three non-negotiable rules the school adopted: No student is allowed to drop out for any reason; no teacher is allowed to fail a student; and no student will be held back if they demonstrate mastery and intellectual capability to move forward.

“It means you have to work with them,” Turnipseed said.