Promoting deeper learning and thinking for 21st century education

The face of 21st century education is shifting to embrace challenges and needs for incorporating the technological innovations and globalization imperatives, revised conceptualizations of learning and the need to provide with meaningful and relevant to students’ lives experiences. Deeper learning is proposed as an approach that might bring a fundamental change in education.

What the core concept entails

Deeper Learning is “an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life” (Hewlett Foundation, 2013). It was first introduced by the Hewlett Foundation and at its core is a set of competencies that students must posit so that they develop a keen understanding of academic content and solve problems in the classroom and on their future workplace.

More specifically, deeper learning prepares students for the following outcomes:

  • Know and master core academic content; This relates to learning in key subjects such as reading, writing, math, and science. Students master core principles, use appropriate language and draw on their knowledge to fulfill tasks
  • Think critically and solve complex problems; A crucial proponent for students engaging in deeper learning, is to be able to think critically, reflect analytically and creatively upon problems to find solutions.
  • Work collaboratively; Students should be familiarized and able to work collaboratively as this will help them to work better in a team setting later in their lives towards a common goal.
  • Communicate effectively; It is essential that students communicate effectively in both oral and written manners, meaningfully elaborate upon their arguments and discuss according to the level of their audience.
  • Be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback; Students develop their own learning pace, set goals and monitor their progress, as well as work to improve.
  • Possess an “academic mindset”; This mindset refers to the students having confidence in themselves, their skills and abilities, and overcome obstacles.

The above competencies are essential characteristics of teaching and learning that embraces deeper learning.

Deeper learning and 21st century education: is this the roadmap to future success?

Wagner notes that “Schools aren’t failing and don’t need reform”. Instead, says Wagner (2012), “we need to reinvent, re-imagine our schools.” One dilemma for school leaders is what this transformation should entail for 21st century learning. Educating our children for the 21st century should intend to go above and beyond the surface to cultivate deeper understandings and higher order thinking that apart mere subject knowledge, will help students conquer the skills necessary to master that subject.

Silva (2008) cohorts that, “integrating 21st century skills into teaching and assessment, then, is not only an economic imperative, driven by changes in the workforce, but a vital aspect of improving learning” (p. 12). To evaluate whether learning has been improved, a key indicator is student learning outcomes. These refers to achieving 21st century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking as well as being productive users of technology.

Deeper Learning could be the path towards achieving these 21st century competencies. However, it requires such instructional design that requires more than superficial activities that fill classroom time, and relate to real life situations and problems. More specifically, they include approaches such as connected learning, which encourages students to deal with challenges in out of school settings. Further to this, these activities enable case-based learning, to master abstract concepts from real life situations. What is more, deeper learning activities entail apprenticeship-based learning, which refers to having a mentor with a real-world role. Another approach is employing collaborative learning, where teams of students deal with complex situations and finally learning for transfer, which means ways to apply knowledge in real life settings.

Strategies for Implementation in the classroom

According to the National Research Council in its 2012 report Education for Life and Work, the following research-based methods are proposed for developing deeper learning: use of multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks, encouraging elaboration, questioning, and self-explanation, engaging learners in challenging tasks, with supportive guidance and feedback, teaching with examples and cases, encourage student motivation, and use formative assessment.

In Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century (2014), Dr Monica Martinez illustrates how eight public schools educate students through an inspiring and expanded vision by developing the below Deeper Learning principles with six core strategies:

  1. Empowering students to lead their own learning through applying practices such as disruptive experiences. Students as self-learners are awarded with leadership roles and manage complex projects and assignments, while they can reflect on what they’ve learned. Being able to self-direct their actions and purposes is fundamental for true deeper learning.
  2. Emphasize meaningful learning experiences through inquiry-based learning that explores real-world complex situations. Students work collaboratively to critically reflect and solve problems. Teachers act as facilitators in the learning experience, gaining roles such as curriculum designers, advisors, and coaches.
  3. Design connected experiences and subjects around central concepts and ideas to acquire Deeper learning outcomes and content knowledge and skills. This creates a coherent sense for the students of what their in-school learning is.
  4. Extend learning experiences beyond school with authentic and relevant activities, opportunities to learn and contribute to local communities by reaching out to museums, organizations and corporations.
  5. Personalize learning to cater for students’ individual needs is an imperative element of a deeper learning instructional strategy. This requires substantial time and dedication to prepare a profile with insights of each student’s needs, abilities and competence in order to then design appropriate and meaningful lessons and activities.
  6. A most powerful tool in succeeding deeper learning in the schools researched by Martinez is the use of technology in purposeful ways, to enhance learning. To develop students’ research, creative and critical thinking skills, as well as communication and collaboration effectively, teachers by means of projects that exploit digital methods pursue digital literacy.

Deeper Learning is not just another buzzword that is passing by. It is a whole different way of conceptualizing teaching and learning that is here to stay. If applied properly with advocates, it could be the key ingredient to reimagine 21st century education and apply it in our schools.

Keane, W.F., Keane, T. () Deep Learning, ICT and 21st Century Skills Leading for Education Quality. Swinburne University, Victoria, Australia

National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.

Silva, E. (2008). Measuring Skills for the 21st Century. pp.1-18. Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2015]

The Hewlett Foundation (2013) Deeper Learning Competencies. Available from: [Accessed 8th December 2015]

Wagner, T. (2012) Connecting innovators. The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Scribner.

Promoting deeper learning and thinking for 21st century education

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