I’m working on another MOOC, this one focused on deeper learning, and it is prompting me to think a lot about what deeper learning means to me.

(As background, the Deeper Learning MOOC or DLMOOC is a free, flexible, nine-week online course that will allow K-16 educators to learn about how deeper learning can be put into practice. It starts on January 20.)

To me, deeper learning is about the kind of learning experiences where you immerse yourself in something and learn in a way that sticks with you for life.

Thinking back on my own academic experiences, I realize that while I was in many ways the model student in elementary and secondary school, I rarely experienced deeper learning. I wasn’t particularly “smart,” but I was very good at the game of school. I was an excellent reader and writer, and perhaps most relevant to my success, I was a great test taker. I could whip through textbooks and ace whatever assessments were given, but I retained little. The few K-12 experiences I had that I would characterize as deeper learning were out of the mainstream of the curriculum – a science fair project, several independent study projects, extensive journaling on topics that mattered to me. These are the learning experiences that have stuck with me over the years and influenced my life and work as an adult.

The Hewlett Foundation defines deeper learning as “using … knowledge and skills in a way that prepares [students] for real life.” It is “mastering core academic content…, while learning how to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves (known as an ‘academic mindset’).” Curiously, this is a good description of my graduate school experience. It was filled with academic content, critical readings, collaborative group projects, and presentations. And yet, here too, I don’t feel that I learned deeply. Instead, I was fulfilling requirements to get a piece of paper.

In truth, this may be my own fault, more so than the program’s. While I was in graduate school, I was also working a 60+ hour a week job. Ironically, this job was where I experienced deep learning. There I was engaged in real-world content that consumed me, and my work had real implications. The elements of content, critical thinking, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindsets were present in both grad school and my job – but the learning experience was completely different.

Credit: Mark Hillary
Credit: Mark Hillary

As a teacher, I think the best example of deeper learning in my east African classroom was when we threw out our British curriculum for six weeks and engaged in a cross-disciplinary African studies unit. We still learned math, science, history, and language arts, but it was suddenly brought to life by hands on projects based in a more relevant context.

What do these personal experiences in deeper learning have in common? Personal relevance. In-depth exploration. Getting lost in discovery and problem solving. Immersive learning. Perhaps the particular strategies for achieving this (project-based learning, maker activities, etc.) should vary with the learner and the context. Certainly, there is no magic formula for achieving success. As with curriculum, good teachers can be successful with bad materials/methods and vice versa.

What does “deeper learning” mean to you? If you are interested in puzzling through what deeper learning means and seeing some stellar examples of deeper learning in action, perhaps you’ll join us for DLMOOC in January. You can sign up here.

What does “deeper learning” mean to you?
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4 thoughts on “What does “deeper learning” mean to you?

  • January 9, 2014 at 3:56 am

    I am joining you for this deep learning dive this month and following. As ever I selfishly look forward to the deep learning that follows in your wake. Deep for me anyway. One of the elements I hope to bring to this work is that of iconoclasm and idiosyncracy. I think that if we are going to use the ‘depth’ metaphor (and I will tell you right now that I am deeply suspicious of it) that we must extend it to what satisfies our own unique feelling of what amounts to ‘deep’. I suspect that it is all about a felt sense, a particular cognitive embodiment. In other words, I want to ask and answer this question: what does deep learning feel like. If I can get a clearer sense of that, then I think the Hewlett principles will click into place. As they are right now, they feel smooth and weightless in my mind’s pocket. I want that deep learning to gain heft and texture as it rolls around in our collaborative minds. I look … well I was going to say ‘forward to it’, but I am reminded that the Greeks of old had a very different notion of the future. They thought of the past and present as being in front of them. The future was behind them. That feels pretty deep to me if logic is an example of deep learning. What I mean is that if something is behind you, then you cannot see it. You can’t see the future, but you can feel it whistling up behind you into the present and off into the past. I trust that we will make something of this deep Muse.

    BTW, neat to know that you worked in east Africa. A story for later, yes?

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  • January 9, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Terry, I’m so glad you’ll be joining us in DLMOOC. I always learn so much from/with you!

    Your comments on “depth” resonate with me. As I’ve personally wrestled with what this might mean, I feel conflicted.

    I’ll look forward (or back? :) to more from you on what deeper learning feels like!

  • January 11, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    I can definitely relate to your academic experiences of learning. I kept a few notebooks/papers from my high school and uni days – they are in my hand writing but other than that there is no connection to them for me. And that is one of the things that I think is a key to deeper learning – connection. If a person can’t make a strong connection with something, it will fade away (as it should I suppose, imagine how overwhelming it would all be otherwise). You mentioned hands-on projects and relevant context – ” kids in classrooms often ask, “what does this have to do with me?” I think they are asking the right question, and hands-experiences provide a direct answer/connection. We need an education systerm that allows us (educators) to provide more opportunities for connections so they can ask and answer that question for themselves again and again.

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