by Brett Vaden

In a report by the National Research Council, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, the Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills gives the following definition for “deeper learning”:

We define “deeper learning” as the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations … The product of deeper learning is transferable knowledge, including content knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this  knowledge to answer questions and solve problems … While other types of learning may allow an individual to recall facts, concepts, or procedures, deeper learning allows the individual to transfer what was learned to solve new problems.

As a model for deeper learning, the authors of Equal Opportunity for Deeper Learning describe how Brooklyn teacher Jordan Fullam was able to get students to think for themselves and express their opinions after reading selections from philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche:

Through debate, highly interactive Socratic seminars, and connecting the philosophical subject matter to familiar contemporary themes, Fullam created a classroom environment in which his students felt comfortable asking questions and probing the underlying meaning of material they initially regarded as dense and impenetrable. In follow-up interviews, several remarked that they felt “smarter” because they had been challenged—and pushed themselves—to grapple with material that took them time to grasp.

After seeing a video of students in Fullam’s class, I was impressed by how these low-income teenagers seemed not only engaged in their discussions/debates, but that at least some of them seemed to have read and formed opinions about the assigned reading. Indeed, it seemed they were diving into a deeper level of learning than many people might expect from them. On the other hand, what stood out even more was the great value placed on subjectivity and individual opinion. As the teacher, Mr. Fullam, said, “I think that students learn best when they are just able to sit in a circle, to talk about their interpretations and perspectives…. I want them to be able to be creative, and I also want them to feel like they’re running the class, like they’re facilitating the class and the class revolves around them and their interests, rather than me standing up in the front and having the class revolve around me and my opinions and perspectives. It is student-centered: centered around the student and their perspectives.”

On the one hand, there’s something very right about training students to think for themselves. Classical education is all about producing thinking, feeling individuals who can form their own opinions and express them in public. Being able to speak for oneself is one of the twin goals stated in what is probably the oldest definition of classical education: “to teach [a student] … to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds” (Iliad, Book II).

On the other hand, there is something more important than being able to express oneself, or to be able to apply one’s knowledge and experiences to answer difficult questions or state one’s opinion. What proponents of “deeper learning” seem to overlook is Truth. While it may be well and good to push students beyond parroting what they hear from their teacher or read in a book, what good is it if, at the end of the day, students can freely express their perspectives without worrying if they are actually correct? When the student is placed at the center, what happens to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty?

People who ascribe to this view make a fundamental error by assuming that the task of education is not to teach a specific body of knowledge (i.e., a curriculum), but to train students how to find answers for themselves (often in peer groups, not from older authority figures). In other words, a teacher’s purpose is not to provide good answers for students or even good guidelines for discerning good answers, but to provide an ‘environment’ in which students can hash it out themselves. The folly of this assumption is summed up in the words of the sage who said, “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin” (Proverbs 10:8).

No, teachers should not think they have served students well if they haven’t trained them to think and speak for themselves. But neither should they forswear their highest task: to help students become ‘wise of heart’ by directing them to the Truth that is beyond them.


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