Be skeptical of ‘deeper learning’

Beware of educators promising deeper learning, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

The notion is that schools spend too much time focused on the acquisition of knowledge, especially knowing facts. In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills.  Now it is deeper learning.

All such strategies claim to transcend learning academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines, writes Loveless.  For example, it’s more important for students to be able to analyze any history they study than to learn the major events of U.S. history. It’s better for students to do science than to know about science. “It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems.”

As E.D. Hirsch argued in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, these anti-knowledge movements lack evidence to support their claims, Loveless writes. Furthermore, “in disparaging academic content” they “exacerbate social inequality.”

If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

Common Core won’t be able to test deeper learning, writes John Merrow on Taking Note. A recent NewsHour story looked at a four-month “expeditionary learning” project at a Maine middle school.

. . . what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

In a comment, Merrow calls for spending whatever’s necessary “to develop a sophisticated instrument that can assess those skills and capabilities that we value.”

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think we should spend whatever’s necessary to develop a sophisticated instrument that will bring a unicorn to any boy or girl who wants one.

    What, you say that’s impossible? Can you prove it’s impossible? I didn’t think so. Therefore, we should have a crash program to do it.

    Okay, that’s really sarcastic. Do I think there should be no attempt to “assess those skills and capabilities that we value”? No, but I think we should start small, see what works, and build up. Education has too many brilliant ideas that are imposed on schools because they sound good and “should work.” There are major limits to what schools can do.

    Look at what we do now to try to assess something simple like factual knowledge. We test students immediately after they have covered it in class or after the material has been reviewed. That winds up testing relatively short-term memory. Test a few months later and it turns out that the students who “knew” the material don’t “know” it any more.

    • With no intent to be insulting, “start small, see what works, and build up” isn’t a plan that hasn’t been thought of before. In fact, it’s a perfectly obvious, appropriately cautious and eminently responsible way to proceed.

      So why is it that when it comes to education we don’t?

      Why is it that, rather then starting small, seeing what works and then building up from there state and local education authorities seem to breathlessly await the latest result of ed school peristalsis, fall avidly upon it and pronounce it uniformly delicious?

      Until there’s a workable explanation for the rejection of the cautious, responsible and thoughtful in favor of the hare-brained, self-parodying and inexplicable the latter will continue to exclude the former to the detriment of society.

  2. Without facts, all the analytical abilities in the world have nothing to analyze.

    The article mentions history and that’s a good example. I’ve spent decades reading up on history (only took the minimum required history in school) and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to start forming my own answers to analytic questions, such as “Who thought prohibition was a good idea and why?” or “Where did the great progressive impulse of the early 20th century in the US come from?” or “What was the deal with the New Deal?”

    Facts, that’s where it starts.

  3. If you want to dig a ‘deeper hole’ you start at the surface, did a shallow hole, and then deepen it. Also, as you deepen, you also need to widen, or the sides will cave in.

    If you teleported to the place you expected the hole to end, you’d be suffocated by the dirt and end up with nothing to show for your efforts.

    Teachers who try to go directly to ‘deeper learning’ suffocate their students and teach them nothing.

    Even their METAPHORS betray a lack of understanding of the real world!

  4. “If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well […] rich kids will get it somewhere else. Poor kids won’t.”

    Thanks for starting this discussion, so overdue in an age of ideologies and assessment fanatics. Deeper learning (or whatever you’d like to call it) is the result of knowledge and automaticity (being able to access that knowledge effortlessly). It’s the flower on the plant that has been systematically from a roots up.

    Knowledge = Facts + context + practice.

  5. BadaBing says:

    “Ed school peristalsis!” That’s hilarious! And it’s right on, too. Somebody pick me up from the floor when it’s over, if I ever catch my breath again! You hit the nail with that one, allen.

    • Thanks.

      LaShonda, the little-known muse of smartaleckiness, was feeling generous. Sadly, her generosity tends to run to the scatological so a little courts the danger of being too much.

      But it’s the question that precedes that I’d rather have considered: what is it about the public education system that causes otherwise seemingly intelligent adults to develop a preference for self-evident crap over the effective and responsible?

      • “preference for self-evident crap over the effective and responsible?”

        Because Allen – the effective and responsible stuff had nasty side effects. It creates achievement gaps, large numbers of kids didn’t get equal outcomes, etc, etc. EP and some other people bravely posit WHY different groups perform differently and why it’s silly to expect equal outcomes, but there can be no rational discussion about it. At the end of that road, we might find a ROOT CAUSE, and somebody might be to blame. Perhaps parent choices might be faulted. That’s not acceptable in the modern value neutral world. People have an enormous capacity to delude themselves about the value of unpleasant facts and situations.

        As a newbie teacher I wondered why some of my students disappeared right before Christmas, and didn’t reappear until about Presidents day. I started wondering in mid Jan where they were and asked the veteran teachers. “Oh, they went back to “The Old Country” for the holidays.” Catch them up when they get back. Yeah, OK; because missing 6 weeks of proof based geometry won’t leave a gap. Yet I read articles about this group having a stubborn achievement gap…well, I know what a prominent part of my Ishikawa diagram would be… and I know nobody wants to hear it. So the problem persists.

        Now excuse me while I continue surfing for the latest pill to make me svelte, happy, charming and witty with no effort on my part.

        • Ah, a Koolaid-drinker.


          You’ll find plenty of fellow travelers who fiercely believe in such chimera as the vast supply of crack-addicted mommies, institutional, subconscious and climatic racism, the inherent nobility of teachers and the sad reality that the DSM-V doesn’t define a lack of faith in the public education system as a mental disorder.

          As a newbie teacher have you come to terms yet with the fact that no one gives a damn, other then parents, how good you are at teaching?

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            “the DSM-V doesn’t define a lack of faith in the public education system as a mental disorder.”

            Yet, allen, yet. I understand the 6th edition will include a spectrum disorder that includes a lack of faith in public education, “free” healthcare, and the government’s ability to create jobs as criteria for a diagnosis of mental disorder – rightwing or libertarian variety – called Friedman Disorder. The Good news? 47% of the population of the US (and the entire state of Texas excluding Austin) will be eligible for the mental disorder treatments under Obamacare. The bad news? There is no real mental disorder treatments under Obamacare.

          • Hardly a Kool-aid drinker; nearer the opposite. I merely offered my hypothesis (and an illustrative anecdote) as to why people disregard the proven and effective – because if we used them, we might have to confront unpleasant truths and then we’d re-learn the old wisdom that choices have consequences.

            I should have also been completely explicit, rather than leaving the tense ambiguous – back when I was a newbie. And yes, it was obvious that nobody cares (usually not even parents) before I left gave up life on the corporate treadmill. I just thought I’d give it a whirl and see what life was like in the trenches.

          • I have a different reason to explain why public education professionals and politicians so widely ignore the proven and the responsible – there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

            As I’ve pointed out numerous times, teachers have had, at least until recently, no professional impetus to teach. In fact, no one employed by or in charge of the public education system has any responsibility to do any educating. Whether the kids learn anything or not is irrelevant to the size of the tax take, salaries and, to very great extent, the re-election chances of incumbent school board members.

            But just because the skills for which you were ostensibly hired are professionally irrelevant doesn’t mean you’ve lost the desire to distinguish yourself.

            For a teacher of course there’s really no means to attain professional respect since teaching skill’s unvalued as a result of the structure of the public education system. Hence the fairly fantastic turn-over rate among teachers. But for principals, and more so superintendents, the illusion of professional accomplishment can be achieved by avidly embracing the trendy and opaque.

            After all, the education of children is still a matter of structural indifference in the public education system, various efforts to retrofit public education with some semblance of that responsibility not withstanding, so professionally distinguishing one’s self is most easily achieved by encouraging the perception that education will occur as a result of the breathtakingly modern, like “deep learning”, championed by the professional out to make a name for themselves.

            And then they skedaddle before the rubes catch wise or more commonly, depend on the short memory of the public and the shaky connection between authority and responsibility that’s part of the public education system to free them from the need to explain their failure.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “what is it about the public education system that causes otherwise seemingly intelligent adults to develop a preference for self-evident crap over the effective and responsible?”

        Ah, if it only were that simple. What is self-evident to you may be crap to someone else, and vice-versa.

        Combine that with the fact that no organization, public or private, has come up with a way to make school “effective” for everyone–and the field is wide open for wishful thinking.

        • The question was rhetorical.

          I’ve already explained that a structural indifference to education results is the cause of the maladies that afflict public education and that there’s no way to save the public education system from its own shortcomings.

          My hypothesis, and one I’ve offered before, is that the force underlying the relentlessness of the reform of public education is a dawning realization that it – public education as it’s currently structured – is just a stupid idea. That realization is driving the empowerment of parents at the cost of the power of the public education system.

          What that means is that the determination of what is and isn’t crap will be made by people who care very much if a good education results and those people are unlikely to be impressed by a teaching certificate if it isn’t backed up by measurable results.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            “The question was rhetorical.”

            But your explanation above isn’t. It assumes that there is something “proven and responsible” that is then “widely ignored.”

            Alas, there isn’t. There is no proven way to teach most things to most students. Very little that is replicable and scalable.

            Ed schools would like you to think that they know–but they don’t. Many reformers hope that with transparency and competition, entrepreneurial educators will develop ways. Perhaps they will.

          • There are certainly proven means of teaching some things to kids one example of which is phonics. As pig-simple as it is reliable and boring.

            Given the uniform record of failure of whole language one would think that adherents of the idea would be ashamed to admit their affiliation. But they’re not. There’s always an excuse when forced to acknowledge failure. Usually there’s no admission of failure. Only an attack on those who are impertinent enough to mention the failures.

            The reading wars are an especially stark example of seemingly intelligent adults displaying a preference for self-evident crap over the effective and responsible. One method produces competent readers cheaply and reliably and the other doesn’t. That’s hardly a “tomato, tomawto” equivalence.

  6. Claire Boston says:

    As long as kids keep getting passed along, regardless of whether they master the material, or even just gain a nodding acquaintance with it, a great many kids, their parents, teachers, and those useless “tits on a boar hog” called administrators will continue living in their fantasy world.

    Right now, colleges know they have to make up the deficit – witness how widespread basic remedial classes are everywhere from community colleges to ivy league universities. And what many in the education establishment don’t know, or don’t care about, is that even when employers hire college graduates, they have to be trained in basic things like writing grammatically correct English, and at the employer’s expense.

    My former employer (I’m recently retired), a Fortune 500 company, hires graduates from top universities around the country and overseas. And it still takes about 2 years of ‘retraining’ to get them to unlearn the cr*p they’ve been fed in school and train them to the point that they can positively contribute to the bottom line. The exception is the business school grads – they never seem to actually contribute to the bottom line except in their own minds and the minds of those with the same backgrounds. Those who produce the product or deal with the customers directly are the ones who make money for a company – everyone else is ‘overhead’ and a drain on profits. This is the reality of the business world, and our schools are doing little to train our children to be ready for it.