TOPICS > Education

Teachers Embrace ‘Deep Learning,’ Translating Lessons Into Practical Skills

January 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Special correspondent John Tulenko looks at some schools that institute real world applications into lesson plans and emphasize the importance of improvement over intelligence. The schools are less interested in testing but rather making sure students have the life skills they need once they leave the classroom.

GWEN IFILL: Now a different approach to teaching that’s catching on in some schools.

It’s less focused on testing, per se, and more on making sure that students are picking up skills they can apply in the real world.

Special correspondent John Tulenko from our colleagues at the Learning Matters team has the story.

JOHN TULENKO: For a dozen years, education policy-makers bet more testing and more accountability would mean more learning.

But the gains have been modest at best and achievement gaps persist. And then there’s everything that’s not on the tests, like creativity, responsibility and self-motivation. Leaders in business and academia say not enough is being done to develop these vital traits.

One possible solution? Give students ways to apply their learning to bigger things than taking tests.

STUDENT: We’re building robots that are made to collect resources, which are ping-pong balls.

JOHN TULENKO: This was 13-year-old Nathaniel Yungrin’s introduction to the idea that nations compete for scarce energy resources.

STUDENT: You can do whatever you want to make them do this, but they have to be able to go out, get ping-pong balls, and bring them back.

JOHN TULENKO: Building robots kicked of a four-month study of energy by eighth grade students at King Middle School in Portland, Maine. It’s the theme of all their classes, and it’s led by science teacher Peter Hill.

PETER HILL, King Middle School: The school’s approach is, if everybody’s engaged, everybody’s learning as much as possible. So we plan exciting real-world things that are tangible for the kids, and then do something really meaningful with it.

So we need to revolutionize the way we use energy so we can improve people’s lives.

JOHN TULENKO: Hill handed the students an ambitious assignment to finish by the end of the course: to build their own alternative energy devices.

PETER HILL: You’re going to create a device that captures natural energy and transforms it into something that’s useful for people in some part of the world.

JOHN TULENKO: The idea that schoolwork can and should have a real-world application is central to the philosophy at King.

PETER HILL: Second to last one says a building that uses passive solar technology.

JOHN TULENKO: And a hallmark of what is called deeper learning.

PETER HILL: They see the meaningful and the purposefulness behind what they’re doing. That’s what gets kids to sink their teeth into the content.

JOHN TULENKO: Kids like Leva Pierce.

STUDENT: I’m actually really excited to be creating this device. It really makes you feel, I don’t know, grown up, I guess, because you can actually grow up and do that. It’s not just learning. It’s experiencing.

STUDENT: Oh, two. We got two.

JOHN TULENKO: The approach is similar at P.S.-130, a public elementary school in Brooklyn, New York.

SARAH PROVOST, ArtsConnection: The puppet designers, who do we need to think about as we design our characters?

STUDENT: The audience.


JOHN TULENKO: Visiting artist Sarah Provost comes here twice a week to help fourth graders learn about Native American culture by turning the myth they’re reading in class into a puppet show.

How is this better than just reading the story, sitting in group and talking it through?

SARAH PROVOST: So many ways. It’s so — it’s — I think it really makes — it makes the story come to life, obviously. They really internalize the story. They kind of get to live the story, you know?

JOHN TULENKO: They’re also learning other lessons. Here’s how. Each student is making a puppet, but we were surprised so many puppets looked alike. Turns out they represent the same character, but at different points in the story.

STUDENT: Let’s make it that color.

JOHN TULENKO: It’s done this way to encourage collaboration, another hallmark of deeper learning.

SARAH PROVOST: Do you think the audience will know that this is the same character?



SARAH PROVOST: They did an awesome job.

We’re asking them to really think like artists, to really listen to one another’s ideas, share their ideas. Then that’s how they do it in the — at their design team.

JOHN TULENKO: Social skills matter, but most public schools, under pressure to raise test scores, put a higher premium on academics, and that doesn’t sit well with deeper learning advocates like Katie Hong.

KATIE HONG, The Raikes Foundation: I think just by focusing on just the academic content, we left behind, right, all of these other aspects of the whole child that are really also important to develop.

STUDENT: Let me see. Turn around.

JOHN TULENKO: Deeper learning advocates believe it’s not just what students know that will shape the course of their adult lives. What matters as much is who they are and how they see themselves. And that starts at a fundamental level with how each child views their own capacity to learn.

KATIE HONG: So, for example, having a growth mind-set vs. a fixed mind-set, so the idea that intelligence is not something that you’re born with, but it’s something that you can get good at if you put in effort.

JOHN TULENKO: What can teachers do to develop the kinds of things that you’re talking about?

KATIE HONG: Very simplistically, the way a teacher gives feedback on a test.

JOHN TULENKO: Hong cites a study in which teachers told a group of students they’d done well on a test because they were smart, and another group because they had tried hard. Then they offered the students a chance to take the test again.

KATIE HONG: The first group where they were told that they were smart actually don’t really want to retake it, because if you feel like every kind of test or exam is really the — like a test on whether you’re good or you’re not, it’s not something that’s motivating to you to want to continue to try harder at, whereas someone with a growth mind-set would take something and they say, huh, I didn’t do as well, but you know what? If I actually put in the effort, I could get better at it.


JOHN TULENKO: Deeper learning advocates are interested in developing other traits, like initiative, conscientiousness and perseverance, all of which, they say, can be developed with the right teacher.

KATIE HONG: You actually have to give rigorous instruction and set really clear goals, so that the student has enough mastery experiences where, if the student, right, can actually see, wow, I set out to do this, and I did do it.

ELEANOR TERRY, Telecommunication Arts and Technology High School: Homework out, please.

JOHN TULENKO: The goal in Eleanor Terry’s A.P. statistics class at Telecommunication Arts and Technology High School in New York City is for students to learn to be producers, rather than consumers.

ELEANOR TERRY: So I want to hear words like random number table.

 In most math classes, the teacher gives information, and it’s kind of linear. You know, I’m going to — I do, you do, we do, and then they’re tested on it. The students feel like this is happening to me. In the statistics class, they are going to create their own math.

STUDENT: We will get a large variety.

JOHN TULENKO: Last fall, Ms. Terry’s students were debating the pros and cons of various polling techniques. But to go deeper, she had students create exit polls of their own.

STUDENT: Exit polls for an A.P. statistics class.

JOHN TULENKO: And on Election Day, they gave them to voters across the city.

ELEANOR TERRY: If you want them to learn how to do statistics, let them be statisticians. We’re going to end up with thousands of exit polls, large data sets that you have to clean up. And it’s going to be messy, and no one will have done that before. So that data is theirs. And whatever they discover is theirs.

NINA PENA, Student: On November 6, everybody has off because it’s Election Day, but we’re going out and we’re learning. And it’s like a lot of us aren’t mad or disappointed that we’re going to be something school-related that day. We’re happy because we’re learning more.

STUDENT: Thank you so much.

WOMAN: You’re welcome.

WOMAN: On your mark, get set, go.

JOHN TULENKO: Back in Portland, Maine, where students will create their own alternative energy devices, phase one of the project ended with a robotics contest.

PETER HILL: One of the possible pitfalls that people from the outside might see in this learning is that it’s all hands-on. It’s all fun and trust falls and kumbaya around a campfire.

What they need to know is that we really are fundamentally looking at, what do kids need to know? If it’s meaningful and kids can apply it to situations, that’s something that’s fundamental.

JOHN TULENKO: In the weeks ahead, these eighth graders will examine wind energy and build model turbines in preparation for their final project: creating an energy-generating device of their own.