American students lag behind their international peers in their ability to apply knowledge to problem solving.

Mere proficiency in regurgitating facts is not enough, the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) said in a policy brief released May 26: To be competitive in today’s complex society, students need to be exposed to “deeper learning” that will allow them to be more prepared for college or a career.

“Deeper learning is simply what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways, allowing them to learn and then apply what they have learned,” said Bob Wise, AEE’s president.

The brief, entitled “A Time for Deeper Learning: Preparing Students for a Changing World,” outlined the policy changes necessary to provide students with learning that develops more than mere familiarity with content.

According the report, deeper learning prepares students to do the following:

  1. Know and master core academic content.
  2. Think critically and solve complex problems.
  3. Work collaboratively.
  4. Communicate effectively.
  5. Be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.

AEE said this kind of deeper learning produces higher academic performances and allows for the application of lessons to real-world situations.

“A Time for Deeper Learning” argues that the United States has a two-tier system of education, where affluent students have more of an opportunity to achieve deeper learning, whereas low-income students learn only basic skills and knowledge. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) highlight the fact that American students lag behind their international peers in using their knowledge to solve reading, math, and science problems.

AEE cited the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development’s analysis of the PISA results, which measure 15-year-olds’ knowledge every three years.

According to OCED, “PISA assessments are designed not only to find out whether students have mastered a particular curriculum, but also whether they can apply the knowledge they have gained and the skills they have acquired to the new challenges of an increasingly industrialized world. Thus, the purpose of the assessments is to inform countries on the degree to which students are prepared for life.”

To illustrate what deeper learning looks like, the policy brief cited a math problem-solving application used by Envision Schools.

The Really Super Amazing Technical Dive tells the story of a dedicated teacher, Ms. Lundin, who will perform a technical dive from a Ferris wheel into a tub of water to help her students learn,” it says. “As the Ferris wheel turns, Ms. Lundin needs to jump at exactly the right time, so that she will land safely in the tub of water and will not get injured in her attempt. Unlike math problems that measure just basic skills and not application, students are asked not only to solve the problem and show the final equation, but they are asked to determine exactly when Ms. Lundin should jump (time) and from what height (distance) so she lands safely in the tub.”

To complete the task, students must know the subject matter content—in this case, algebraic functions and physics. They must be able to think critically about all the variables and use their knowledge to formulate and solve a problem, just as they would in college and the workplace. They must be able to communicate effectively, explain their solution using evidence, and—because the work is team-based—they must collaborate with their peers. Finally, the students must be able reflect on their work and show that they have “learned how to learn.”

A major issue, according to AEE, is that some people argue that American schools need to focus on the fundamentals and leave deeper learning to schools with better funding. AEE calls this argument “shortsighted” and said “it will only weaken the nation’s ability to compete economically with its international counterparts.”

“Many state standards focus on breadth of coverage and do not emphasize a depth and application of understanding,” AEE said in its briefing.

Deeper learning will require “supportive policies” that align with this educational approach, the paper said, such as more time for students to collaborate, more time for teachers to plan engaging and complex challenges that require students to apply what they’ve learned, and a new set of tests that can assess whether students have developed a deeper understanding of the material.

AEE said that a large number of the assessments currently used by states for accountability purposes under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) don’t measure the deeper learning skills that colleges and professionals look for. However, the group holds out hope that the $330 million the federal government has just invested in developing new assessments that measure the full range of college and career readiness will result in new tests that can measure these skills.

“True deeper learning is developing competencies that enable graduating high school students to be college and career ready and then make maximum use of their knowledge in life and in work,” Wise said.

With the upcoming reauthorization of ESEA, the brief said, federal lawmakers have the ability to create opportunities for states to create the policies that deeper learning requires.

AEE held a webinar in February discussing how deeper learning can increase economic opportunity and prepare students for a globally competitive workforce. Video from the webinar is available here.