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Designing a Curriculum for Deeper Learning

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This post is by Bob Lenz, co-founder and chief of innovation at Envision Education.

Teaching is a creative and demanding profession. To do it well--to instill in students the skills, competencies, and content that will help them succeed--great teachers use design skills each and every day. This means that they consider their end goal--what they want students to learn--and then map backwards to build the best curricula, assessments, and instructional designs for helping their students achieve the goal. For teachers devoted to deeper learning, this means keeping a few key design principles in mind as they create powerful, effective learning experiences. These principles incorporate the idea that deeper learning, among other things:

  • Insists on depth over breadth;
  • Creates something that did not exist before; and
  • Tells a story.

Teachers have long struggled with the tension between breadth and depth.

It's a hard choice, hard enough that we are tempted to avoid it, dismiss it as a false choice, or contend that it is a dilemma we can dissolve through tinkering. Maybe we don't have to choose between covering a lot of content and focusing on a particular concept or skill. Maybe we can find a way to do both at the same time.

We shouldn't kid ourselves. The tension is inescapable, and the choice is unavoidable: go with depth.

Depth is what the world demands of us. The explosion of human knowledge is not a 21st century phenomenon; it happened in the last century. Today, in this era of Big Data, explosive can hardly describe the exponential rate of growth. "Every two days," says former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, "we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003."

So the answer to exploding knowledge is not more schooling but a different kind of schooling. This is what the concept of deeper learning is all about and why it came to be. To pretend that we can "cover" everything that students need to know is to tilt at windmills. We must rid ourselves of any residual notions that education is the transmission of needed knowledge. Rather, we must embrace the reality that we are teaching skills, and one skill most generally: how to ride a tsunami of knowledge whose future content we can't even begin to imagine.

What this means, ultimately, is that content, though still vitally important, is always a means to the end of some underlying, conceptual understanding. Decades of research bear this out: when deep, conceptual understanding is achieved, learning is enduring, flexible, and real.

One of the highest forms of learning is creation. The act of creation allows for the deepest expression of understanding. For learning to be meaningful and long lasting, it should culminate in the creation of something that never existed before.

Creativity is strongly associated with the arts, but in education, we can define the word more expansively. The creative work can be an argument, a scientific conclusion, a story, an interview, a research report, a short film, a photograph, a relationship, a script, a slide deck, a lesson plan, a video game, a puzzle, a proposed solution, an advertisement, a recommendation, an editorial, a website, a blog, a proposal, a logo, a sign, a map, a dramatic performance, a historical interpretation, a business plan, a piece of music, a cost-benefit analysis, a symposium, a caption, an exhibit, a slogan, a translation, a letter, a computer program, a blueprint, a data chart, a brochure, an app, a review... .

You get the idea, and probably have many of your own. The basic idea here is to give students a product, something they can point to that demonstrates and represents what they learned and what they are capable of doing with the knowledge. The act of creation will help students internalize what they have learned, cementing the information in ways few other experiences can.

What do you remember most vividly from high school? We've made a point to ask that question of adults over the years, and here are typical responses:

  • Prom [or some other social event equivalent]
  • That cliffhanger of a [fill in the sport] game
  • Performing in the [arts event]
  • (And occasionally) The fond recollection of a favorite teacher (testifying to the lasting influence that good and caring teachers can have in our lives)

What is striking is not what's said but what goes unsaid: there is hardly ever mention of a specific academic learning experience--a paper that led to an intellectual discovery, a science project that pointed the road to a college major, a debate that opened the door to a new sense of self, a strategy that unlocked new intellectual abilities.

Striking--but perhaps not surprising. We remember what is memorable. Sporting events, performances, and prom parties have features in common that make them memorable: anticipation, rising action, possible conflict, climax, and resolution. In other words, they contain the raw materials of storytelling.

Human beings are, at heart, storytellers, and telling stories is the primary way that we make sense of our experiences and keep them alive. The most important events in our lives are the ones we continue to share with others as the years go by, and good teaching and learning is able to harness this kind of narrative force. It's called reflection: an intentional, critical component of learning that gives each student an opportunity to tell a story about what he or she has learned. More often than not, telling that story is the moment when the learning takes hold: reflection leads to retention.

A school design that elevates reflection to its rightful place in the learning process must accept an attending challenge: if we want students to tell stories of their learning, school must provide experiences worth telling stories about. Here is where football games and spring musicals and prom parties can teach us something: experiences are often memorable because they've been designed to be memorable. Every academic experience can--and should--have all the makings for a good story.

When teachers use the design elements outlined above, the resulting classrooms are dynamic, exciting places where students want to be, and where those same students are gathering exactly what they need to grow and succeed in their future endeavors, whatever those might be.

Depth, Creativity, and Reflection: these are just some of the elements of well designed Deeper Learning experiences. They point us in the right direction for helping students thrive in the 21st Century. Read more about school design in Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, published this past January by Wiley.

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