Learning First Alliance

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21st Century Skills: Deeper Learning is Essential Ingredient for Success

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Deeper learning will ensure students possess transferable knowledge, or the ability to use their knowledge and skills to solve problems and navigate new situations. As a 21st century skill set, it should be a core element of the public education academic experience.  A recent report from the National Research Council, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century argues that when facilitated through teaching and learning of academic subjects, this approach to learning pushes students beyond rote memorization of facts and procedure, and prepares them to succeed in work and life. This opportunity ensures that we are teaching and assessing the skillsets that we want our students to acquire as a majority of states work to implement the Common Core State Standards. Emphasizing deeper learning will require several shifts, in teaching methods, curricula, and assessments much like the shifts that are necessary to ensure success for Common Core.

This deeper learning effort involves numerous stakeholders, from teachers and professional development specialists, to colleges of teacher education, policy-makers, and school and district administrators.  The report defines deeper learning as “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 report describes 21st century competencies organized into three overarching domains: the cognitive, the intrapersonal and the interpersonal.  Research is still limited in linking 21st competencies and positive outcomes in education, work and other areas in life, but there is a positive and consistent correlation between cognitive competencies and positive outcomes in education, health, and the workplace. With intrapersonal competencies, desirable outcomes are exhibited by conscientiousness – such as being organized, responsible and hardworking. Continued research will provide a better understanding of the connection between such competencies and positive outcomes in adulthood.

The report recommends the following research-based methods as instructional strategies teachers should us to support the development of transferable interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies in the classroom:

  • Start with clear learning goals of how learning is expected to develop, a step that will help coordinate instruction and assessment
  • Use multiple and varied representations of concepts, such as diagrams, numerical and mathematical representations, and simulations, along with support to help students interpret them.
  • Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation – for example, prompting students who are reading a history text to explain the material aloud to themselves or others as they read.
  • Encourage learners in challenging tasks, while also supporting them with guidance, feedback, and encouragement to reflect on their own learning processes.
  • Teach with examples and cases, such as modeling step-by-step how students can carry out a procedure to solve a problem while explaining the reason for each step.
  • Prime student motivation by connecting topics to students’ personal lives and interests, engaging students in problem solving, and drawing attention to the knowledge and skills students are developing and their relevance, rather than to grades and scores.
  • Use “formative’ assessment, which continuously monitors students’ progress and provides feedback to teachers and students for use in adjusting their teaching and learning strategies.

As the conversation surrounding 21st century skills and college and career-ready standards continues, the report notes that research is needed to increase our understanding of the relationship between 21st century competencies and adult outcomes; shed light on how to design instruction to help students, develop transferable knowledge and skills in the interpersonal and intrapersonal domains; and determine whether and to what extent knowledge and skills developed in one discipline or subject area can transfer to another. Answers in these areas can help inform policy and practice moving forward.

Finally, in order to ensure students are first prepared for new assessments and standards, ones that are more focused on measuring these deeper learning and 21st century skills, policymakers at the local, state and national levels must focus on four areas: curriculum, assessments, accountability and teacher education. Given the heightened tensions around many of these areas, it is critical that all stakeholders are at the table when it comes to policy-making. Everyone has a role to play as we work to prepare our students for work and life, and the capacity to collaborate and partner in this effort will determine our success or failure. 

I think that it is also

I think that it is also important to evaluate teachers not on test scores but on the variety of learning experiences they make available to their students. The students can find out how they learn best, through writing reports, working puzzles, explaining concepts to others, listening to a teacher or other adult explain, attending or acting in a play, working on a project, learning through art, music, or dance, and many others. The teachers can observe the students as they work; such observation is a better assessment than a multiple choice test.

Hi Tarsi, Great post.

Hi Tarsi,

Great post. Understanding the different mechanisms that are involved in learning, and the individual differences between students, is vital to design the most effective instruction techniques. It's no good acquiring knowledge in a linear fashion as it is quickly forgotten. Cognitive psychology has a lot to offer in pinpointing the best ways to impart knowledge and develop 21st century skills. Students entering the modern world will be best equipped if they can build on the foundations of the knowledge and skills they have acquired.

I was unable to pull up the

I was unable to pull up the entire report, so I can only comment on this summary which is still timely and urgent. This "concept" of deeper learning is not new as are existing processes that are used in many schools. The reading and writing workshops (Atwell, Calkins, Graves, et al) are decades old and provide practical, productive protocols for developing deeper levels of comprehension and expression. In addition, the inquiry process, inherent in science instruction, is equally transferrable to other core subjects in augmenting collaborative, explorative, and scaffolded learning. Another more recent protocol is Standards Based Grading, an outgrowth of the work of James Popham and Dylan William. SBG emphasizes standards-aligned instruction tied to summative assessments that measure understanding, not coverage, of these standards which can be Common Core and state inspired. SBG emphasizes the constant use of formative assessment to modify and to adjust instruction. Typical grades of A,B, C, D, and F are eschewed in favor of clear demonstrations of proficiency to which a student has multiple opportunities to demonstrate.
The advantages outweigh the obstacles inherent in its adoption precisely because the latter represents a stubborn adherence to teaching and learning as usual. As such, teachers must be experts in their particular subject area; therefore, they must abandon adherence to their particular canon. Proficiency is defined only through mastery of clearly defined standards of performance which, for comparison's sake merits a grade of C. Grades of B and A are awarded for deeper and more extensive demonstrations of understanding. There is no D, per se, because an F is very difficult to earn and attendance or behavior is not factored into the assessment.
For those teachers who have relied on old plans regurgitated to "fit" yearly sets of students, it's a challenge. For parents who wish to see an actual grade, it can be problematic. I have found, however, that fewer students actually fail an SBG class, students do not abuse the multiple attempts at demonstrating proficiency, and special ed students and teachers appreciate the ability to mold IEPs into the fabric of classes where standards are clear, where students are assessed informally, and where there are multiple attempts at achieving proficiency.

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