A PBL Pathway to 21st Century Deeper Learning Schools

Deeper Learning Research: The AIR Study

Deeper Learning Research: The AIR Study

As a person who spends his time helping schools transform from the assembly-line model of the 20th Century to school models that ready students for living, learning and working in the 21st Century’s high-tech, global economy, I regularly wish for the research to catch up to the practice. Why? Because “What’s the research say?” is an important starter question. More importantly, the answer let’s us know that our track is going in the right direction or sending us off on a side-rail to the back-of-the yards.

Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation and its commissioned study on Deeper Learning High Schools, we now have a solid piece of research that helps answer the research question…and more. Hopefully, a follow-up study will be commissioned to investigate elementary schools engaged in deeper learning so we can see the impact of it practices on younger children.

For the moment, we have the gift of the secondary school study. Happily for those of us who believe in deeper learning, this study adds important credence as it shares its findings about “What do today’s students really need to learn in order to succeed, not only in the classroom but also later on in college, careers, and as engaged citizens? What role can deeper learning—”a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job”—play?”

Answers In A Nutshell

Here in the proverbial nutshell are the answers. “Students attending Deeper Learning Network schools graduated on time, that is, in four years, at a 9 percent higher rate than their matched counterparts at the comparison school,” said Jennifer O’Day, co-principal investigator for AIR.

In addition, the rigorous study showed that deeper learning graduates were:

  • More likely to earn higher test scores. Students who attended network schools achieved higher standardized test scores, including state assessments and an OECD PISA test. These assessments measure core content knowledge and complex problem solving skills thus supporting the deeper learning claim that its two-for-one effects were more powerful alone as well as together than the learning coming results of a factory school.
  • More likely to develop stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal skills: students who attended network schools reported higher levels of academic engagement, collaboration skills, motivation to learn and self-efficacy. These added outcomes support deeper learning advocates claims that deeper learning methods are better overall preparers of what is needed for 21st Century students’ future readiness for success.

Not By Accident For All Students

The report doesn’t end with this corroboration of deeper learning’s more complex outcomes affirming that this century’s schools need to do more than produce students who can recall facts and figures. The report details what the network teachers did to produce deeper learning outcomes.

  • Students enjoyed greater opportunities to learn with deeper learning practices.While in school, students were challenges on a daily basis with project-based learning, internship opportunities, and longer-term cumulative assessments. Such practices were not haphazard, incidental or popped in now and then at the end of a unit. They were planned as the primary ways to engage students with the content of the curriculum.
  • Regardless of a background or income,network students achieved the same positive deeper learning outcomes. Some advocates of deeper learning contend that the methods and the outcomes are good only for affluent students with supposedly special talents. This study showed that equal access to the deeper learning evidence-based best practices lead to similar results.
  • Graduates were more likely to attend a selective four-year college.After graduation, students who attended deeper learning network schools were more likely to continue in a four-year college and enroll in more selective institutions. When combined with the higher number of graduates from network schools, the greater numbers going off to college and select institutions is the capstone.

All in all, this study shows that deeper learning, although not new in any respect, is a concept that is backed by research. More importantly, that research details that deeper learning (a) starts with intentional adoption of select best practices (b) works equally well to raise content achievement enabled by the four Cs,(c) develops sharper interpersonal skills (d) increases readiness for advanced study and sends more students off to rigorous colleges without crimping the possibilities to those blocked in traditional schools because of background or income.

Answering the Driving Question

What is the value of this study? It provides us with data that says “Yep. We are on the right track.” It also suggests that we need added data about deeper learning in the elementary grades. For now, the worth is like a giant blinking sign in the middle of Times Square. It gives the news. Now, more need to read every word and respond with action to add their schools to the list of those transforming instruction so their students reap the benefits.


AIR, Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes, accessed at http://www.air.org/project/study-deeper-learning-opportunities-and-outcomes.


Upcoming Events:

ILASCD Lead and Learn 2017

October 25 and 26, 2017
Roosevelt University, Schaumberg
Read More

32nd International Self-Directed Learning Symposium

February 7-10, 2018
Cocoa Beach, Florida, USA
Read More

Contact Us

950 N. Michigan Ave. #3005
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Phone: 847-921-9174
Email: info@ilc21.org
A 501 C (3) Not-For-Profit Corporation


The Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools (Illinois 21) is a 501C3 not-for-profit organization. Illinois 21 is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims all liability for, damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on any information contained within the site. While the information contained within the site is periodically updated, no guarantee is given that the information provided in this Web site is correct, complete, and up-to-date.