The Banality of Deeper Learning

Deeper Learning is the current term for an old idea.  The notion is that schools spend too much time focused on the acquisition of knowledge, especially knowing facts.  In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills.  Now it is deeper learning.  

These ideas represent a variety of approaches to curriculum and pedagogy.  They are not all the same, but they share one characteristic.  All are advertised as transcending, and therefore superior to, academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines.  It is not enough for students to know the major events of U.S. history, for example, but to be able to critically analyze the histories, any history, that one studies.  Knowing about science is inferior to doing science.  It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems.

My hope is that readers of this Chalkboard post will be skeptical when encountering deeper learning in the future.  I will describe two examples of deeper learning that readers should find troubling.  I will not offer a thorough critique of deeper learning or its philosophical kin.  For that, I urge you to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them.  Published in 1996, the book pre-dates today’s deeper learning fad but convincingly rebuts its twentieth century ancestors, showing not only that these anti-knowledge movements lack anything resembling evidentiary support for their claims, but that they also, in disparaging academic content taught in public schools, exacerbate social inequality.  The premise is simple.  If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

So let’s turn to two examples of deeper learning.

First Grade Math

A blog post by James V. Shuls in January 2013 tells the story of parents trying to understand the objectives of their son’s first grade math program.  The first graders were being taught addition of two-digit and one-digit numbers using word problems.  The school offered an example to parents:

Stuart has fifteen pencils. Trae gives him five more.  How many pencils does Stuart have altogether?

Three acceptable strategies were shown for solving the problem.  All involved “chunking” the numbers into groups (in the case of fifteen, three groups of five or one group of ten and another group of five), with each group presented in a circle or box.  The groups are then added together.  The addition must be shown graphically.

One unacceptable strategy was also shown:

Please do not have your child stack numbers and add them like this.





The Shulses were alarmed that the standard algorithm for addition was being discouraged, let alone not being taught as the simplest, most efficient method for solving addition problems.  After several tutoring sessions with their son that turned adversarial (“my teacher doesn’t do it that way”), the parents met with the teacher and school principal.  The educators explained that the district had adopted a math program from the 1990s, Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI), to implement the Common Core State Standards for mathematics in first grade.  The program emphasizes deep understanding.

A compromise was struck at the meeting.  Solutions using standard algorithms would not be marked wrong, the parents were told, but their son would be required to “illustrate his understanding” through graphical representations of math problems.  In his blog, Shuls includes a worksheet that shows the laborious process his son went through, drawing with the uncertain strokes and still developing fine motor skills of a first grader, to prove that three tens make a total of thirty and three fifteens make a total of forty-five.

The Shulses observed several classrooms using CGI for math instruction at the school.   They eventually withdrew their children and sent them to private school.

PISA’s Reading Literacy  

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment of reading, math, and scientific literacy given to 15 year olds every three years.  The 2012 PISA results will be released this coming December and will surely receive widespread attention.  According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “PISA exams are some of the best available and most widely used tests of deeper learning.”   Released items from PISA illustrate what deeper learning entails in terms of reading literacy (available here and here).

Most U.S. students who take the PISA exam are in the first semester of their sophomore year of high school, tenth grade.  These students’ English Language Arts courses are where literacy is taught, primarily by reading selections of fiction and non-fiction prose, poetry, and plays, discussing them in class, and writing about them in essays or short assignments. 

PISA is an international assessment, so it must understandably avoid using item prompts that would favor one culture over another.  That is not as difficult as one might think because PISA philosophically views literacy as the reading skills needed for adult life.  That encompasses many kinds of text, not just good literature.  Text encountered during the conduct of everyday life is more universal than any particular nation’s literary heritage.

Among the PISA released items, you will see reading that involves interpreting graphs, charts, and tables, a health bulletin, internet posts, a tree diagram, a schedule, a magazine article, a warranty for a consumer product, an editorial, a comic strip, a consumer warning, an email, the results of an internet search, and some maps.  You will see almost no great literature.  As one who majored in English as an undergraduate, I am disheartened by that.  The readings of PISA are flat and lifeless.  Learning how to read great literature, a gift from both my high school and college teachers, electrified me as a teenager and has provided intellectual nourishment for a lifetime, even as I moved on to a profession centered on education research. 

The prose that is included in PISA items frequently seems out of place.  There is a baffling paragraph from One Hundred Years of Solitude, not enough to appreciate Gabriel García Márquez’s novel (see pp. 174-180).  Questions about the paragraph focus on separating fiction from reality, an important theme of magical realism in general and this novel in particular, but the superficial treatment here, although understandable, is glaring.  In the 2006 PISA, students read a short excerpt from a play, Amanda and the Duchess but, disappointingly, most of the questions are devoted to staging the play, not to plot or theme (see pp. 74-83).  A sample item in the 2009 framework asks about a metaphor (in the prompt, the night sky is compared to the sea) but the word “metaphor” is not used.  As explained in the scoring guide, the word is purposely avoided because “such metalinguistic knowledge is not part of PISA’s description of reading literacy (see p. 219).”[1] 

Skimming over big, sophisticated themes, posing questions about a play and focusing mostly on its staging, asking about a metaphor without using the word “metaphor”—these may be examples of the deeper learning valued by PISA’s admirers, but whether this type of literacy is valuable in the wider world is questionable.  And to bury questions on a few excerpts from literature in an avalanche of text (pardon the metaphor) drawn from everyday life calls PISA’s fundamental approach into question.


Let me conclude with a couple of points.  I am not disputing that some tasks are more cognitively demanding than others and some learning is more complex than other learning.   Educators have known that for a long time.  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain (1956) laid out a hierarchy of skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  It is difficult to identify a more powerful influence on the American school curriculum, and perhaps curricula worldwide, than Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The first two layers, knowledge and comprehension, are synonyms for remembering and understanding what one has learned.  Although the hierarchical structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been challenged, no serious model has emerged that eradicates the prerequisite roles of knowledge and comprehension.  It is difficult to think deeply about Shakespeare without actually having read his work, remembering it, and grasping at least a good part of what he was saying.

Deeper learning, like its intellectual ancestors, tries to turn all of this on its head and upend the pre-eminence of knowledge.  CGI and PISA both exist in opposition to an element of knowledge in the traditional school curriculum.  The first grade math curriculum of CGI wishes to move beyond algorithms, to dig beneath them, really, so as to uncover what is happening when two numbers, as in the example above, are added together. 

I appreciate that aim, but it doesn’t work.  Yes, I know, algorithms can be horribly boring, especially when taught as rote procedure; however, the algorithms of arithmetic are elegant procedures jam-packed with mathematics.  Long division, perhaps the most notorious of the algorithms learned in elementary school—notorious for being taught in a boring manner–carries within it four separate operations of whole numbers (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division), ironclad rules about place-value (if you put numbers in the wrong place, you get the wrong answer), and precursors for understanding fractions (remainders can be expressed as fractions, and all division problems can be expressed as a fraction).  That’s deeper knowledge that can be missed with deeper learning.

PISA involves the high school curriculum, and it’s upending of traditional approaches is more subtle.  I have critiqued PISA’s approach to math and science elsewhere (see here and here).  In high school reading instruction, PISA’s main project seems to be to take literature down a notch in the language arts curriculum.  In doing so, it elevates the trivial to the level of the sublime.  Bus schedules and recipes are as valuable as Twain and Faulkner in the United States, as Flaubert and Proust in France, and as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in Russia.  Worldwide, it seems, PISA wants to redefine what it means to be a literate person.    

In the days ahead, you will be hearing a lot about deeper learning.  Please be on guard.  This virtuous sounding term means much more than its two words imply.

[1] Oddly, students are required to know the word “metaphor” in another PISA item (see “Beatrice” on page 186.