The conversation about what kids need to know and to be able to do by the end of high school has gradually shifted over the past several years to emphasize not just rigorous content goals, but also less tangible skills, such as creative thinking, problem-solving and collaboration. That shift has brought schools that are practicing “deeper learning” into focus.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been a big supporter of this work, defining deeper learning as a model that focuses on critical thinking, communication, collaboration, academic mindsets and learning how to learn, all through rigorous content. New research conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has found that the deeper learning model does have positive learning outcomes for students, regardless of their background.
The model is often critiqued as a framework that only works for high-achieving learners. The Hewlett Foundation commissioned this study to test whether the model works for all learners, choosing schools with a high proportion of low-income and English-language learners who often face more barriers to achievement. AIR investigators were also careful to choose schools that did not have a selective admissions process that might skew the student population toward high-achieving learners.
Researchers investigated 13 schools in Hewlett’s Deeper Learning Network and compared them with nearby schools with similar demographics. To strengthen the comparison, AIR researchers also chose individual students with similar demographic and academic characteristics when entering ninth grade and compared their learning outcomes.
“Students attending Deeper Learning Network schools graduated on time, that is, in four years, at a 9 percent higher rate than their matched counterparts at the comparison school,” said Jennifer O’Day, co-principal investigator for AIR. Additionally, students at deeper learning schools were more likely to attend four-year colleges and often enrolled in more selective institutions.
Positive stories in education often highlight one student who overcame the odds, or an exceptional teacher or school, noted Ron Berger, chief academic officer for Expeditionary Learning, one of the Deeper Learning Network school models. “This is a much more important story because it’s not about one student or one teacher or one school, or even one network,” Berger said.
The schools in the study all subscribe to the broad principles of deeper learning, but they implement those ideas in different ways. Still, the study found consistently better performance and reports from students at the Deeper Learning Network schools. “We’re talking about applying these principles of deeper learning broadly, and it’s not dependent on one great teacher or one kid,” Berger said.
To begin scaling up this model, the report recommends that educators take advantage of the growing number of deeper learning resources available, visit deeper learning schools and explore ways to change the system to allow for more learning of this kind.
One obvious barrier remains the importance of standardized test scores for determining school resources, leading to its paramount importance for many administrators. “The most important assessments happening in schools right now are not the big top-down assessments,” Berger said. “It’s the ones happening in the minds of students. Those are the kinds of things that need to be supported at the school level. It’s not that those big assessments are wrong, it’s that they are incredibly insufficient to build up these skills.”
O’Day has been working in the education field for 30 years and agreed that watching students articulate their own learning and growth was the most striking difference between Deeper Learning Network schools and more traditional schools in this study. “One of the things that we saw in these schools was that the teachers and students themselves were constantly engaged in thinking about what students were learning, and the students were reflecting on their learning and trying to improve it,” she said.
If this approach to teaching and learning is to take hold more broadly, however, a lot of pieces of the education system at many levels would have to change. Teachers need more professional development to learn how to scaffold and support student learning in this way. Administrators don’t often have the leadership skills to advocate and support the work. The accountability systems used by state and federal education bureaucracies would need to shift to align with the kinds of instruction taking place in the classroom. And schools need more resources to make sure all of this can take place.
AIR investigators also looked at more traditional measures of achievement — tests. They evaluated student scores on state exams (the Regents in New York and the High School Exit Exam in California) and on the OECD PISA-based Test for Schools, which is supposed to measure complex problem-solving skills as well as content. “We found on average that students in the network schools achieved higher scores in reading, math and science than students in comparison schools,” O’Day said.
Researchers also asked students about their personal experiences of school to make sure student opinion aligned with quantitative data. “It’s important to look at what students are actually experiencing because it’s not always what adults think they’re experiencing,” O’Day said. Students at deeper learning schools reported higher levels of engagement, motivation to learn, self-efficacy and collaboration skills than their peers.
Students were also asked about creative thinking skills, locus of control, perseverance and self-management, but the results were not significantly better for deeper learning schools in these areas than non-network schools. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that projects are very structured at Deeper Learning Network schools, so students feel supported and guided through the process, said Marc Chun, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. He suspects that this support led to lower scores on qualities such as control, self-management and perseverance.
“We feel pretty comfortable that the kinds of outcomes we are seeing are a result of the experiences [students] receive while in school,” O’Day said. The researchers found the results held true for students coming in as high-achieving middle schoolers and for those with low achievement.
“This consistency was across multiple measures, and it was across a variety of school models,” O’Day said. “This suggests that this concept of deeper learning has legs. And it also suggests that there’s not one right approach to doing this, that there may be multiple ways of helping students achieve these outcomes.”
Here is a list of networks in the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Community of Practice:
Big Picture Learning
High Tech High
Internationals Network for Public Schools
New Tech Network
New Visions for Public Schools