Deeper Learning Defined

Just what are educators supposed to teach?
Better yet, what are students supposed to learn?

These are questions that educators must consider at a much deeper level than my teachers did when I was college student in the 1980’s, and even when I was a graduate student 10 then again 20 years later. For generations, educators worried about information. How do we find it? How do we access and consume and create it? We had much less information to analyze than today’s students and we had far fewer tools to create and disseminate information.

In the digital world, information is no longer our problem. We have far more information at our fingertips than ever and it is growing such that it no longer makes sense to try to quantify it. For humans, there is an infinite amount of information. In this world, we have the responsibility to help our students navigate and participate in the ocean of digital information. Our schools should be about deeper learning for students.

The idea of deeper learning has been used and reused for a generation, with different groups and individuals applying different characteristics to their definition, but there appears to be some agreement emerging. Buder and Hesse (2016) prepared one of the better summaries I have read, and it has become the document I use when sharing the concept with others. Their definition of deeper learning is grounded in several characteristics.

Deeper learning approaches problems as whole phenomena. While we do deconstruct problems in our classrooms and solve parts, teaching for deeper learning finds faculty framing whole problems and helping students see what it is a part of as well as what parts it has. This allows teachers and students to see connections rather than to solve problems or apply knowledge in isolation.

Teaching for deeper learning finds faculty teaching themes and broad concepts in addition to declarative information. This approach helps students to structure and organize information; this both improves their ability to remember the declarative knowledge in the current curriculum, but also to integrate new information into these concepts.

Thinking skills are central to deeper learning as well. Deep learning requires both logical analysis of arguments and evidence and the ability to evaluate both information needs and the quality of information.

Those who have experienced deeper learning have learned how to learn.  Obviously, learning is a multifaceted endeavor, and those who have learned how to learn have hone their executive abilities to control their approaches and they have gained experience learning on their own and with others. The social nature of human cognition is an important theme of those who teach for deeper learning, and they seek to provide opportunities for students to collaborate to create something no one member of the groups could create alone.

It is dangerous to summarize complex ideas in bullet lists, but here is my attempt to summarize teaching for deeper learning in a bullet list:

  • Focus the curriculum around complex problems;
  • Teach ideas, concepts, and theories, not simply facts or information;
  • Coach your students in thinking about the problems in your field;
  • Help students become independent and collaborative learners

Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching for deeper learning, and the biggest difference between the teaching we need to do now and what has been done by previous generations, is the vertical nature of this work.

Every educator must participate in every aspect of teaching for deeper learning. It is no longer tenable to say, “I teach the content, they learn to apply it next year.” Deeper learning is everyone’s responsibility.


Buder, J., & Hesse, F. W. (2016). Designing Digital Technologies for Deeper Learning. In M. J. Spector, B. B. Lockee, & M. D. Childress (Eds.), Learning, Design, and Technology (pp. 1–24).