Back to Skills

Deeper Learning, Smarter Testing

Back to Skills

Since 2003, more information is produced every two days than the total sum of information produced between that year and the dawn of time, the CEO of Google said in 2010.  Easily web-accessible facts, names and articles have grown exponentially, so much so that some say students can’t be taught like they were in the past, when rote memorization was the gold standard for learning and information wasn’t at almost everyone’s fingertips.

Clearly, teaching and learning have to change, but what does this new learning look like? How do administrators evaluate whether the students have acquired the skills they’ll need to continue on their paths to college or careers? And most importantly, how will those evaluations be used?

These were some of the questions posed by Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, during her presentation “Can School Reform Produce Deeper Learning?” at a November seminar on motivation organized by the Education Writers Association.

Darling-Hammond, an expert on educational equity, teaching quality, and school reform, is one of the leading forces behind California’s transformation of the educational landscape and a prominent national voice on school reform.

The classroom needs to be updated, Darling-Hammond argues, because memorizing disconnected pieces of information that are not applied to real-life problems or analyzed in depth has little value. Instead, what students need is “deeper learning,” the ability to apply core concepts and modes of inquiry to complex tasks, the kind of thinking and analysis that’s increasingly called for in the workplace.

“We want kids to learn to think like a historian, and that’s what deeper learning is all about,” she said. “The meaning and relevance of ideas, how to transfer knowledge to new situations, how you communicate ideas in different modalities and formats now, how you collaborate and problem-solve. These kinds of skills are becoming more in demand in the economy.”

They are the types of skills that are developed through effective international programs such as those in top international education powerhouses like Singapore or in the rigorous curriculum International Baccalaureate (IB), which studies suggest more effectively teaches and assesses complex thinking than other assessments used in this country. The United States, whose students on average perform worse in math and reading than other developed nations, is lagging behind for two reasons, according to Darling-Hammond: inequality and the way education is being provided.

“We’re teaching for the wrong kind of learning,” Darling-Hammond said. In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international evaluation that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years,“a third of the items (consist) of taking information and applying it for a new problem. The United States does well on application, but really bad on problem solving.”

While the world is moving ahead with new evaluation methods, the United States is “still pointed firmly at the 19th century. Or maybe the 20th,” she said. That’s because, for the most part, students are still being evaluated with multiple-choice tests, which do not measure the learning and thinking the new economy needs.

To develop this type of thinking, Darling-Hammond said, students have to be confident in themselves so they can persevere in solving difficult tasks. They need to have adequate support and motivation. They’ll have to be resilient and have positive mindsets, the kind that leading scholars like Carol Dweck and David Yeager have advocated for.

Students have to learn that mistakes are just part of the process, that collaboration is better than competition, Darling-Hammond said. And importantly, schools must adjust the academic calendar to allow students to absorb and retain complex information, and develop the emotional tools to help them pursue a deeper mastery of content.

Darling-Hammond said she has observed many schools that are already accomplishing all of this, and while they’re not all the same, they all feature:

  • Rigorous project-based instruction
  • Attention to psycho-emotional learning
  • Real-world integration
  • Authentic assessment
  • Culture of respect, responsibility and revision
  • Personalized structure

Mikhail Zinshteyn of EWA previously wrote about some of the multi-school efforts to develop deeper learning assessments:

“Project-based-learning schools like Envision Schools in the Bay Area of California are one example. A handful of schools have joined the New York Performance Standards consortium, which calls for continuous assessments that are project-based. The Innovation Lab Network, operated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is another deeper-learning initiative that’s partnered with several states, including California, Maine and Oregon. Its goal is to assess skills expected by the Common Core, with a focus on designing experiments, group collaboration, and intensive self-evaluations.”

Darling-Hammond also noted that many higher learning institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, already accept portfolios to complement students’ applications.

With Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the country is already moving toward a new era of assessments that promises to evaluate students in more challenging ways; numerous studies show that the multi-state tests measure students’ deeper thinking skills more than past state tests did.

Still, given the political backlash to new assessments, tougher may not be better in the eyes of some activists. But the opportunity exists for substantive changes that use tests as more than just diagnostic tools, Darling-Hammond said.

“Can we use assessments more sparingly and build these richer tools that have meaning at a local level?” Darling-Hammond asked. “How can we reconfigure the ways of schooling in light of what we know kids need to do in this century?”