An Anatomy of Deeper Learning and Implementation for 21st Century Education: The Research Findings

Description : 

21st century education is experiencing significant turbulence as a response to the call for more meaningful and relevant learning experiences that comply with students’ literacy needs and competencies required to succeed in their lives. 

Towards this end, deeper learning has emerged as a theory which could be the means to transform 21st century education when truly integrated in the classroom.

An Anatomy of Deeper Learning and Implementation for 21st Century Education: The Research Findings

Deep Learning Quote by: Kelsey Sheehy.  Image by: THE OFFICIAL ANDREASCY

Does this hold true? This article will attempt to provide some insights on the matter drawing from research findings from the last two decades.

What is Deeper Learning?

Deeper Learning is a broad term coined by the Hewlett Foundation and refers to the range of skills and knowledge required for students to acquire and master "in order to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life” (Hewlett Foundation, 2013). The essence of the concept entails a set of competencies incremental to students exposed in academic content. The intention is that through the instructional principles proposed by the deeper learning theory, students gain an in-depth level of knowledge and understanding on different subjects rather than superficial learning, and are in a position to achieve problem solving in and out of a school context, both in their school-word and their lifeworlds to be able to successfully cope with challenges in their college, career and life.

Can Deeper Learning Contribute to Succeeding 21st Century Education?

“Schools aren’t failing and don’t need reform”. Instead, a renown academic and researcher, Tony Wagner states, “we need to reinvent, re-imagine our schools.”.

In response to the dilemma for school leaders on what this transformation should entail for 21st century learning, educational researchers cohort that we should intend to cultivate deeper understandings and higher order thinking in a holistic manner by pursuing changes in terms of students, teachers, school culture, school systems and leadership (Figure 1).

An Anatomy of Deeper Learning and Best Strategies of Implementation for 21st Century Education: The Research Findings

Figure 1: Schools Tranformational Model by Lenz et al. (2015, p. 149)

In order to re-imagine schools in such a transformational and holistic way, deeper learning theory proposes 4 components that need to be implemented in a school setting (Infographic).

1. Policy makers and teachers should opt to create a strong school culture

2. Educational staff should be working collaboratively

3. Teachers should design instructional content that is meaningful and relevant to students' lives

4. Deeper Learning outcomes should be the ultimate intention of each learning experience

An Anatomy of Deeper Learning and Best Strategies of Implementation for 21st Century Education: The Research Findings 

Infographic: 4 Components of Deeper Learning Outcomes (by Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath)

One key indicator of whether learning has been improved, is student learning outcomes. The latter relates to achieving 21st century skills or the four Cs of learning as they are commonly referred to: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration (University of Prince Edward Island). In deeper learning theory, student driven outcomes are more specifically addressed and  interpreted in terms of the following:

Mastering core academic content: Students attain and master core key subjects and use a metalanguage to fulfill certain tasks

Think critically and solve complex problems: It is imperative for students to exhibit competency in thinking critically, analytical thinking process and creativity in solving problems

Work collaboratively: Students should be familiarized and feel confident working in groups to be better prepared to respond in a team setting later in their lives and succeed several goals.

Communicate effectively: Students should be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing. They must cultivate their presentation skills and developing logical and convincing arguments that are appropriate for communicating in a variety of settings. 

Self-directed learning and ability to incorporate feedback: It is imperative that students grow into mature learning, be able to set their own learning pace, determine goals and monitor their progress, as well as strive to improve.

“Academic mindset”: The term refers to the mental state students have by feeling confident based on their skills and abilities, in a way that they are empowered to overcome obstacles.

These outcomes are incremental towards an authentic deeper learning approach.

Deeper Learning in Practice: The Strategies

Deeper Learning is far from a generic theory. In fact, it has already been utilized in a range of settings that extend beyond the scope of education, such as in training in businesses. However, the focus in this article is to examine the practical implementation and strategies pertaining to schools. 

Over the last decade the spotlight is on deeper learning principles (DLP). In regards to the previous, research findings has indicated substantial benefits from the use of deeper learning principles. The National Research Council in its 2012 report Education for Life and Work suggests the following research-based methods for developing true deeper learning: to employ multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, encourage elaboration, questioning, and self-explanation, engage learners in challenging tasks through supportive guidance and feedback, teach with examples and cases, promote student motivation, and implement formative assessment.

Other research has showed that among the prerequisites for a successful implementation of the theory are to design instructional content that extends beyond superficial activities and relate to authentic life situations and problems. Towards this direction, learning experiences for students should stem from project based, connected approaches and inquiry based learning principles. Further to these, deeper learning activities should rely on apprenticeship-based learning, which adheres to allocating mentors with a real-world role. All the above should take place in the context of a collaborative classroom setting where groups of students work together to solve complex real life problems and apply transferable knowledge.

 Dr Monica Martinez in her book "In Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century" (2014), draws on the example of eight public schools educating students based on the following six strategies for developing deeper learning principles:

1. Empowering students to lead their own learning (student owned learning) through disruptive learning experiences. Students as self-learners are empowered through taking over leadership roles, managing complex projects and assignments, as well as engaging in reflective practice. 

2. Emphasize meaningful learning experiences through inquiry-based learning that seeks solutions to real-world complex situations (student centered learning). Students in groups critically reflect and solve problems with teachers acting as facilitators in the learning experience.

3. Design connected experiences and subjects around central concepts and ideas that will lead to Deeper learning outcomes and content knowledge and skills (competency-based learning). In this way the instructional approach promotes a coherent picture of what in-school learning is.

4. Extend learning experiences beyond school with authentic and relevant entanglements and opportunities to learn. This can be achieved through interaction with local communities by reaching out to museums, organizations and corporations.

5. Personalized learning is incremental to cater for students’ individual needs. The latter requires substantial time and dedication to prepare a profile with insights of each student’s needs, abilities and competence in order to then design appropriate and meaningful lessons and activities. 

6. Use of technology is a powerful tool in succeeding deeper learning in the schools researched by Martinez in purposeful ways promotes meaningful learning. Engagement in digital literacy by means of projects can enhance students’ analytical, creative and critical thinking skills, as well as communicative and collaborative attributes effectively regardless of the location, anytime and anywhere.

The above strategies are schematically represented in Figure 2.

An Anatomy of Deeper Learning and Best Strategies of Implementation for 21st Century Education: The Research Findings

Figure 2: Strategies of Implementation to foster Deeper Learning

Research Evidence of the Impact of Deeper Learning

With educators constantly bombarded with new learning theories and best practices to reach the objectives of the new millennium, there is reason to be suspicious and reluctant to adopt new approaches. Nevertheless, in the case of deeper learning, substantial evidence exists on the beneficial impact from its systematic implementation. The vast majority of this work is based in the United States where deeper learning has been embraced by schools, universities and a range of other learning settings.

The American Institutes of Research conducted a study in 2014 which illustrates that students in deeper learning schools graduated at higher rates than others from non deeper learning schools. In particular, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Envision High Schools, fostering deeper learning principles, succeeded more than 90% of their students continuing to college, in comparison to the 50% of students graduating from all California High Schools. Importantly, students from these schools managed to score highest rates in the standardized Academic Performance Index tests, when comparing to all other California schools. And in many of these cases, these students were the first in their family to attend college.

As a result of the need to assess deeper learning, influential foundations have developed different formative assessments including the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is vastly used by more than 175 institutions across the United States. Internationally, the most reputable test is the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) exam, offering a reliable and widely acknowledged measure of key aspects of deeper learning. Further to these, the federal government has funded two unique consortia of states: SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) in order to develop the next generation of assessments that comply with the principles of deeper learning and contemporary education standards.  


The quest for deeper learning is not utopia. It is a complete theoretical approach with practical guidelines to integrate in variant school contexts. Although much research is still needed to determine its impact, the preliminary work being carried out so far illustrates that
  deeper learning could be the path to re-imagining teaching and learning for 21st century education.

RELATED READ: Six Learning Trends Driving Education

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