Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s recent book, In Search of Deeper Learning, makes a powerful case for the importance of deeper learning in K–12 schools. Deeper learning, they argue, ignites students’ passions for learning and prepares them for life in the real world by fostering mastery of knowledge and skills, identity formation that connects students’ core selves to what they are learning, and the creativity that happens when students learn through producing something.

Deeper learning’s dilemma

Unfortunately, as Mehta and Fine point out, deeper learning is the exception more than the rule for most US schools. They liken the deeper learning aims of many schools they visited to the titular character in the play Waiting for Godot: always imminent but never appearing.

At an AEI event about the book, David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, made a telling observation as to why deeper learning seems illusive. Steiner notes that schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Korea are very good at producing high achievement results as measured on standardized tests, but wrestle with concerns about their lack of deeper learning. Meanwhile Finland—a country often regarded as a citadel of deeper learning practices—is now gravitating back to more standardized and structured approaches as its student achievement results have declined. 

Steiner’s point: there seems to be a fundamental tension between deeper learning and systematic content coverage. Deeper learning practices may be better at engaging students, improving conceptual understanding and retention, and developing noncognitive skills. But it’s hard to cover the breadth of content called for in predominant education systems using methods aimed to foster deeper learning. 

Mehta and Fine agree. In their final chapter they note that, “… for traditional comprehensive high schools, it will be impossible to realize powerful learning environments without giving something up. For example, the rush of teaching and testing for enormous amounts of content in various subjects, with all that entails, would need to be rethought if the goal were to give students a deeper learning experience in those subjects.”

In short, teachers and schools seem caught in an endless tug of war between breadth v. depth. The value of deeper learning seems self-evident. But when teachers and schools feel pressure to deliver test results and certify that their students have received the content and credits they need to be prepared for high school and then college, the natural response is systematic content coverage, teaching as transmission, scope and sequence documents, pacing guides, and didactic lesson plans.

If history is our guide, deeper learning and broader learning seem locked in a zero-sum game: gains in one area can only come at the expense of another. If this is the case, then the path forward for deeper learning advocates is a long and tough battle: building a movement that can shift the values of entrenched education systems and society more broadly toward their corner. But what if there were a way to negate this tradeoff and expand the frontier of possibilities so students could get both breadth and depth of knowledge? What if the future didn’t have to look like the past?

An enabling technology for depth and breadth

For many who champion deeper learning, online learning may seem anathema—perceived as synonymous with mind-numbing drill and kill exercises on a computer. But online learning may be exactly what will allow deeper learning practices to scale. 

When done right, online learning can be a powerful engine for one side of the education tug of war: coherent content coverage. Online videos that teachers either create or curate from sources such as Khan Academy, Crash Course, and TED-Ed can offer engaging alternatives for “covering the material.” Furthermore, research shows that interactive learning software from organizations like DreamBox Learning, Waterford UPSTART, Khan Academy, Mindspark, and i-Ready can effectively produce gains in student achievement. 

Admittedly, most online instructional resources on their own do not stimulate learning at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. But that’s not necessarily what we should expect of them. Instead, when it comes to helping students master basic facts and skills, online learning excels in three areas that are challenging for teachers to do for every student individually: providing immediate feedback, adapting instruction to every student’s current level of understanding, and making transparent the connection between effort and mastery.

Without question, online learning has an improvement trajectory it needs to follow. Adaptive software can get better at identifying and addressing students’ underlying misconceptions so they don’t get stuck and frustrated. Online videos can provide more engaging, thorough, and aligned coverage of content standards. 

But as online learning resources become increasingly effective and efficient at covering and reviewing content, they can free teachers to worry less about standards and test scores and focus instead on activities that foster collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. In other words, online learning could actually enable deeper learning by expanding teachers’ available time and energy for focusing on deeper learning. 

In short, deeper learning needs online learning to help it scale. Whereas teachers may seem forced to make tradeoffs between breadth and depth, well-designed blended learning can give them a way to do both. This is the key to enabling deeper learning approaches to maintain their integrity at scale while simultaneously ensuring every student succeeds at developing core knowledge and skills demanded by education systems today. 

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.