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Dilemmas of Defining Deeper Learning

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This post is by Jon Snyder, executive director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

How to define our goals for public education has always been a bone of much contention in the United States. Goals are, at heart, a statement of values, so much of the contention has been political--as it should be within democracy. Thus, not just the goals themselves, but also who should decide them and how to do so traverse conflictual terrain. There is also, however, another bone that arises--how precisely, if at all, to define our goals. This is an issue that will grow in salience for deeper learning as it moves from funded projects and academic debate into attempting to embed itself in policies, programs, and practices at the state, district, school, and classroom levels.

On the one hand, the proponents of little to no definition argue that defining a complex, human, and holistic goal or set of goals inevitably trivializes the goals, limits creativity, and diminishes access to a rich and diverse curriculum. They also argue that a precise definition is not necessary because, as with all human achievements, one knows excellence when one sees it. The proponents of more precise goal definition argue that if one does not know where one is going, that is exactly where one will ultimately alight. In addition, they argue that definition lets people know what matters (i.e., the "right answer") and this increases the opportunity for equitable outcomes. If some people are privy to what is going to matter, they will be more likely to succeed than those who are not. Finally, if the goals are not publicly defined and known, given the tight coupling of goals, assessments, and consequences of current approaches to accountability, the default is that test makers will determine what matters--not only hiding the goals behind a mask of objectivity, but removing the public from public education.

Both sides make valid points, and as usual, the answer is both/and rather than either/or. It is a matter of balance. Somewhere in the middle (a challenging construct in our current context where politics has been conflated with partisanship) resides a balance that establishes a north star for the essential values a state, its inhabitants, and its educators can follow to more closely approximate in the education of the next generation. The work of the "deeper learning community" has provided a starting point for the road ahead. There is a definition of deeper learning that is clear enough to provide direction without limiting creativity. Investments in high-quality performance assessments of and developing educator capacity for deeper learning continue. We have, however, only just embarked upon the road ahead of us.  

As we travel further along the road to embedding opportunities for deeper learning for each and every one of our children, it will be important to keep (at least) two issues in mind. One is balancing the locus of decision making. The passage of ESSA devolved significant decision making from the federal government back to the states and, in theory, opened the door for greater community engagement in public education policy. This raises multiple related and gnarly questions. What is the nature of the relationship between state goals and community goals? What is a compelling state interest and thus should be determined at the state level? What is best left to the local communities?  What is the democratic balance between levels of governance? What is the appropriate role for professional educator decision making in a public system? Should the state define standards (for instance, put "deeper learning" into state-wide policy) or leave that definition to each local community? Likewise, should a state stipulate one common assessment or allow for multiple measures? A mix of each with some common state-wide assessments and some locally-determined assessments? Again, who makes that determination? How? What if local communities make decisions counter to compelling state interests? Counter to ethical and/or legal matters? How are disputes mediated or resolved? What is the state's role, as embedded in each state's constitution, to provide public education? In what ways can reciprocity be established among and between classroom, school, district, community, and state responsibilities?

A second issue is the nature of the relationship between standards (i.e., the definition of what we value), assessments of those standards, and the consequences attached to those assessments. While clearly inter-related, they are separate issues. Assessments do not need to define goals. We can develop teaching worth testing to rather than tests worth teaching to. Consequences of assessments can be used to support student and educator learning. We can educate our children rather than sort them into futures of someone else's choosing. What "is" is not what "has to be."

The road ahead is undoubtedly long and winding and chances are there will be many roads untaken that will make much difference. The road, however, is not just inevitable, it is essential to the well-being of our children, our communities, and the future of America's experiment in democracy. Bon Courage!

 

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