Placing Deeper Learning

Schools have been caught in the middle of a debate over their purpose for a long time. In the United States one of the central players in that debate was John Dewey. He is well-known for founding and leading the University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1896. The school was designed to focus the teaching on students’ interests along with the real-world. For Dewey, “education was not preparation for life, it was life itself,” and his curriculum and instruction modeled that. Students operated cobbler shops, worked in wood shops and kitchens, and similar spaces to learn the reading, writing, and mathematics skills they needed so function in those spaces. In addition, students participated in the rulemaking and governance of the schools. Even thought that school had a brief history, it continues to serve as a model for educators who seek to teach for deeper learning. 

If Dewey is held as an example of education in America that can be grounded in the real world, then Edward Thorndike can be held as an example of education in American that is grounded in abstractions. Thorndike believed education can be reduced to objectively defined and measured skills and knowledge, and he produced series of workbooks and other materials that taught skills that were dissociated from the real-world (along with educating many school leaders who adopted similar beliefs). Tomlinson (1997) commented on Thorndike, “he and his followers have frustrated clear understanding of the complexity of the learning situation, systematically ignoring the creative, sentient, and culturally embedded character of human experience” (p. 367). 

If we place Dewey at one end and Thorndike on the other and try to decide where along the resulting continuum one should one align practice when organizing curriculum for deeper learning, the answer is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but with problems and the real-world being given more consideration and organizing more lessons than abstract concepts. Problems are tasks, situations, and questions that frame and give a context for the information and skills students are to learn; they are the focus of transdisciplinary learning, but they can also organize curriculum in other situations. Buder and Hesse (2016) suggested “Deeper learning, in fact, any kind of learning involves individuals trying to make sense of their environment” (p. 3).   


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).

Tomlinson, S. (1997). Edward Lee Thorndike and John Dewey on the science of education. Oxford Review of Education 23(3), 365-383.