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.”

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