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NRC Report Highlights Importance of Deeper Learning

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Co-written by Tom Vander Ark and Carri Schneider, Getting Smart Director of Policy & Research

Not surprisingly, researchers found that real, transferable career preparation is valuable. Earlier this month the National Research Council released a study, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century , sponsored by the
William and Flora Hewlett , John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, and Nellie Mae Education foundations.

The paper poses a new definition for deeper learning, "The process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations - in other words, learning for 'transfer.'"

"The term 'deeper learning' may be new, but its basic concepts are not," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, in reaction to the report in Monday's Straight A's newsletter. "Deeper learning is what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned. The NRC report confirms that this type of education--once available to only a few elite students--is now necessary for all."

While that definition purportedly shifts from "21st century skills" to broader "21st century competencies" including skills, knowledge, and expertise, the definition seems accurate - but a bit shallow.

The Hewlett Foundation suggests that deeper learning prepares students to master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and learn how to learn (e.g., self-directed learning).

The paper suggests there are three broad domains of competence:

  • Cognitive domain, which includes thinking, reasoning, and related skills
  • Intrapersonal domain, which involves self-management, including the ability to regulate one's behavior and emotions to reach goals; and
  • Interpersonal domain, which involves expressing information to others, as well as interpreting others.


Again, this formulation seems accurate but shallow. Compare them, for example, with David Conley's four categories: think, know, act, and go.

  • Think : Key cognitive strategies include problem solving strategies, conducting research, interpreting results, and constructing quality work products.
  • Know : Key Content Knowledge includes structure of knowledge in core subjects, the value of career related knowledge, and willingness to expend effort to get it.
  • Act : Key Learning skills and techniques include ownership of learning, and learning techniques such as time management, note taking, memorizing, strategic reading, and collaborative learning.
  • Go : Key transition knowledge and skills include post secondary aspirations and norms, awareness of postsecondary costs and aid opportunities, knowledge of eligibility and admissions criteria, career awareness, role and identity, and self-advocacy.


In Conley's formulation we see more (of what Ted Sizer and Debbie Meier would call) habits of mind, more agency, and more (of Webb's) depth of knowledge. The distinction could be that Conley looked more specifically at access to post-secondary options.

The NCR suggests that pedagogy is a key part of deeper learning when it states, "Emerging evidence indicates that cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies can be taught and learned in ways that support transfer. Teaching that emphasizes not only content knowledge, but also how, when, and why to apply this knowledge is essential to transfer."

The following strategies are suggested to facilitate deeper learning:

  • Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks
  • Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation
  • Engage learners in challenging tasks
  • Teach with examples and cases
  • Prime student motivation; and
  • Use "formative assessments."


Technology (technological literacy, digital citizenship, etc.) is mentioned in the context of competencies/domains. Yet, there is not a full discussion of the way that tech can facilitate deeper learning opportunities. There are a couple of studies cited that start to make this point. For example, "In structured after-school settings, as in the in-school environment, a few examples illustrate the potential of technology- and game-based approaches to develop transferable knowledge and skills." We think this is both a shortcoming of the study and a lack of research in an emerging area of practice.

We think there is a fair amount of evidence how digital learning is boosting achievement and promoting deeper learning. In fact, we think it's not really possible to promote deeper learning at scale without a high-access environment that powers the six instructional strategies outlined in the paper: social media tools for collaboration, supporting project-based learning, simulations, adaptive assessments, etc.

The concluding recommendations suggest, "The states and the federal government should establish policies and programs--in the areas of assessment, accountability, curriculum and materials, and teacher education--to support students' acquisition of transferable competencies."

We'd go a step further and suggest that states and districts support plans for expanded student access to technology and adoption of blended learning school models. We don't think it would be practical to advance the paper's recommendations without an accompanying digital learning agenda.

View the full paper, the four-page brief, or download it (scroll down to download fully or see by chapter).

OpenEd manages Hewlett-sponsored Automated Student Assessment Prize.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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