What are some moments that stand out to you from school? Are they moments from sports teams or club activities? Engaging debates or a school science fair? What do you think makes them particularly memorable to you? Chances are they touched on something emotionally significant that solidified the experience and committed it to long-term memory.

One particular experience that stands out for me was a sixth-grade science project in which we created, calculated, and launched an experiment with eggs — literally, we launched eggs from the rooftop of the school, housed inside carefully constructed containers, deciphering which of those containers kept the eggs safely intact. As you can imagine, designing, constructing, and watching the launch of my egg container stands out in my memory as a particularly exciting school day.

Deeper learning in Education

While what learners do on the daily in class may not be as delightful as launching eggs from a school rooftop, tapping into deeper learning is necessary because it is the basis for the skills and knowledge future citizens need for jobs revolving around advanced technology and for engaging in civic life. In fact, curricula often reflect this dual focus on academic learning and real-world application. As K-12 educators design their lessons, they do so considering that what children do in their classes is training for how the same children will navigate their future lives and careers. To that end, how can teachers decide which skills are necessary for deeper learning?

Researchers at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have identified six dimensions of competencies, and housed within these is a set of skills and knowledge promoting communication and analytical thinking, i.e., deeper learning. They are:

  • Mastery of core academic content
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Working collaboratively in groups
  • Communicating clearly and effectively
  • Learning how to learn

According to the study, students would do especially well if they were given opportunities to gain real-world experiences, and they can do this through:

  • Internship opportunities allowing for connections to the working world
  • Group work and long-term assessments such as portfolios and exhibitions aiding them in collaboration and communication skills (people skills and self-control)
  • Study groups and student participation in decision-making, developing academic mindsets, and supporting growth in learning how to learn

You may be wondering where this leaves tests and lecture-based learning. This is not an argument for the dismissal of testing and memorization of key concepts; there is a necessary place for these structures in education. But students require a range of experiences at school that will allow them to tap into deeper learning. Experts say that these include project-based learning, portfolios, and student exhibitions, all of which demonstrate mastery of core academic content and critical thinking skills put to work while giving students opportunities to work within schedules and deadlines, collaborate, and resolve issues in teams.

Students must be able to communicate their ideas effectively, think creatively, work collaboratively to solve problems, and take ownership of their own learning. And they need to experience tension and adversity so that they can practice resilience and persevere, creatively if need be, when challenges arise. The reality of our future work and globalized society is the need for people who can come in and devise their own solutions to solve problems and then share these strategies with their co-workers. Students who have practiced this at the school level emerge as citizens capable of achieving this as adults.

Not sure where to start? Ask your students! Educator Rob Riordan reported that in one of his sixth-grade classes, students had varying comments and questions about the end of the world. As a result, the course ended up studying asteroids, earthquakes, the Mayan calendar, and other apocalyptic events, and the students were actively engaged in this self-appointed topic.

Before starting your students on a project, take a look at “The Six A’s of Designing Projects,” which provides some excellent guidelines informing teachers of what they can be collecting from their brilliant minds. There are excellent questions which can be either adapted and given to students or used as an assessment. Some example questions are:

  • “Do students develop higher-order thinking skills and habits of mind, such as searching for evidence or taking different perspectives?”
  • “Do students create or produce something that has personal and/or social value beyond the school setting?”
  • “Do adults from outside the classroom help students develop a sense of real-world standards for this type of work?”

No matter which competency is used, whether working in groups to meet an objective, demonstrating mastery of academic content through a presentation, practicing communication with an audience, or another method that can help students experience deeper learning, these opportunities should be plentiful in academic contexts. If they are, students can carry these meaningful lessons with them into adulthood and our ever-evolving world.

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