Deeper Learning

The journey of schooling requires deeper learning, a teaching method more complex than textbooks or lectures.

By Kristen Downey, Upper Valley Educators Institute

School is back in session, and teachers and students are in the midst of their journey in formal schooling. Most students and teachers return feeling refreshed, with renewed anticipation and energy, perhaps with an idealistic notion of the possibilities of the upcoming year. Unfortunately, many students, especially in middle and high school, will quickly realize or remember that they find the journey of school largely boring.

Let me explain.

Too many students will be sitting passively in class, disengaged from the content being taught, moving very little during their day, and engaging in surface-level learning. Even students who are good at the game of school tend to focus on checking boxes rather than engage in deep and meaningful learning. This can be partially attributed to the status-quo of schooling: an emphasis on grades, scores and points; standardized testing; subject-centered learning; and siloed classes. A 2015 Gallup poll found that while 75 percent of surveyed fifth graders are engaged with school, only 33 percent of high school juniors report that they are engaged.

Use Your Mind

The book Horace’s Compromise by educational reformer Theodore Sizer (introduced to me in my first year as an educator by my mentor) questions the status quo of schooling. Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools to address the questions he had raised in his book. Under Sizer’s leadership, the coalition established 10 principles for effective schools starting with the essential principle that the purpose of schools is to help young people learn to use their minds well.

One of the joys of my work with new and experienced educators is helping them see the exciting possibilities student learning can present, and how they can be the fulcrum for helping students use their minds well. The anticipation and energy of September can continue all year long, but only if the type of learning we hope for students in school — deeper learning — is practiced.

I’ve been engaged in a year-long study on deeper learning in schools, so the subject is especially relevant to me. Deeper learning describes approaches that seek to develop students’ critical thinking, habits of mind, real world content knowledge, self-awareness about their own learning, positive mindsets, collaboration skills and communication skills. This form of teaching is considerably more complex than teachers’ direct transmission of knowledge to students via textbooks or lectures (status-quo schooling).

An Example

One of our master’s degree candidates, Michelle Goldsmith, teaches in a student-centered learning program within South Burlington High School called Big Picture. A great example of deeper learning is their annual Service Learning Term. Every year for the month of May, students work in groups to investigate an issue or need in the community and develop a project to help address that need. The students generate the topics, and then work with Big Picture staff to design the term.

During the initial investigation period of the term which involved a site visit at the Chittenden Solid Waste District, students learned that plastic bottle caps were not being recycled because they were too small to sort properly in the industrial recycling process and winding up in landfills. The group decided to find a way to recycle plastic bottle caps within the school to address a big issue at a local level. The Precious Plastics Project was born. Big Picture students are in year three of this complex and collaborative project. This is the stuff of powerful learning experiences.

I believe that learning is the most important journey of students’ lives, and it’s painful to see their engagement fade with each passing grade. The good news is that teachers in Vermont and New Hampshire have a lot of autonomy; despite systemic status quo schooling, there’s nothing stopping teachers from planning more complex and applied projects and engaging their students in creative and critical thinking. Even parents can fill the gaps when schools don’t. They can ask good questions, engage their children in real world learning, and spark curiosity.

If we provide students with the skills they need to navigate difficult crossings, work cooperatively with their fellow travelers, and understand the greater world with which they interact, they’ll be best prepared for the journey after formal schooling ends: to be thoughtful and responsible citizens of their community. My hope this fall — for students, teachers and parents — is that this will be the year to escape boredom, shrug off status-quo schooling, and spark excitement for learning.

Kristen Downey, MEd, is the Associate Director for Teacher Education at the Upper Valley Educators Institute where she is program faculty in the teaching and school leadership programs. Prior to her work at UVEI, she was a middle school language arts teacher in the Upper Valley for 11 years. Learn more at

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