How to Create A Classroom Culture of Deeper Learning



Andrew Waterhouse


by Andrew Waterhouse
Ballard High School, Jefferson County Public Schools

A question I’ve found myself asking lately is what in education is sustainable? As most teachers have experienced, the landscape of education constantly changes. Whether it’s standards-based grading, culturally-responsive teaching, project-based learning, or personalized learning, there always seems to be a new set of buzzwords. Teachers are burdened with the task of keeping up, and often give up trying to learn when they know it will eventually fade away. So how will we know if something is sustainable?

The latest buzzword to hit the chalkboards is “deeper learning.” Deeper learning combines in-depth academic knowledge (content standards) with 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, effective communication, etc. It focuses on student-centered learning environments where students are challenged with mastering the academic content through authentic and relevant ways.


Equity is celebrated here. Deeper learning creates an avenue where students can demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, not one specific way that marginalizes students.

Researchers are pointing to deeper learning as the key ingredient in preparing students for college and the workforce. A recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) 21st Century Skills ranked oral communication and critical thinking as the top two skills business executives and hiring managers look for. Deeper learning can provide students with opportunities to ignite their passions while preparing them for college and the workforce. It might be something that sustains in education.

So tangibly, what does deeper learning look like? Based on my experiences teaching at low and high performing schools, as well as based on my Ph.D. research, deeper learning can be achieved with six strategies.

Know your student’s interests

Teachers should not only build positive relationships with their students, but also highlight their interests as well. I have observed (as well as many others) a large increase in student engagement when they are interested in the content. Start the year with a student interest survey, and then build the interests into the curriculum. For example, last year some students said they didn’t like waiting on the teacher to change the powerpoint slide. So anytime we had guided notes, I used NearPod so that students could go at their own pace. They loved it!

Provide opportunities for student choice and voice

I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean giving students the option of something easy vs. something hard. Rather it looks like giving students options in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. This can be as simple as incorporating choice boards into assignments or allowing students to learn the content through a variety of mediums like Youtube, EdPuzzle videos, podcasts, NearPod, or independent research. It gives students more ownership of their learning.

Embed Performance Assessments

Performance assessments can be used for every single assessment, don’t be afraid to try them. Student’s learn in different ways, and we can do them a favor by giving them many possible avenues to demonstrate their learning. It can be a video (Flipgrid fever!), an oral presentation, a physical product, a poem or song, or maybe a research paper. The focus is the act of “creating.” Performance assessments still are standards-based and rigorous that combine content knowledge with 21st-century skills. Check out these Performance Assessment Tools for more examples.

Promote peer-to-peer feedback and collaboration

Feedback and collaboration complement each other. One of my favorite feedback strategies is peer-to-peer feedback. Students are grouped in pairs and are given a specific time and rubric to guide their session. I see so much growth and confidence after a feedback session between peers.  Peergrade has a library full of pre-made peer rubrics you can use.

One of the JCPS Backpack of Success Skills is productive collaborator. Visually, I see this as students working together to design or create a solution to a problem. When I have access to technology, I have the students collaborate with Google docs and google slides. As students are in teams, I circulate the room and assess this skill with the Buck Institute for Education collaboration rubric.

A push from structured to free inquiry

This is, without doubt, a difficult concept for teachers to enact. I have struggled with letting go and giving students more space to learn. In the past, I experienced complete chaos when I let students “figure it out.” After much reflection, I realized two key concepts.

  1. Chaos is okay in the right context
  2. The inquiry needs to be scaffolded.

I like to think of Inquiry-based learning as a grab-and-release model. The end goal is to have students designing the questions they want to be answered. In order to get there, it’s ideal to start with structured inquiry and slowly work towards free inquiry. Give your students multiple opportunities at each level, encouraging them to take risks and be open to other’s ideas.

Engage in high-quality professional development

If we are creating a student-centered culture that is personalized and interest-led, then wouldn’t we want teachers to experience the equivalent? Luckily there are some options. Micro-credentials are the latest wave of PD that meet the criteria. Micro-credentials are personalized, competency-based skills teachers can be recognized for. These and other personalized PD options such as ECET2Lou, Deeper Learning Symposium, and EdCampKY are becoming readily available for teachers.

The beauty of these six strategies can be used together or individually for the good of the student. Deeper learning is meant to encompass the whole student. Students who master the content while becoming an effective communicator, critical thinker, and productive collaborator prepared for college and the workforce. Deeper learning should be used for all levels of understanding. My challenge to you is to keep it simple by incorporating one or two of these strategies.  Master a piece of deeper learning and then add another in!