Deeper Learning in Christian High Schools

Dan BeerensThe CACE Roundtable2 Comments

In their excellent bestseller, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, co-authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine take a comprehensive look at Deeper Learning in high school education in America. They focused on four types of high schools that offer deeper learning and/or rigorous traditional learning:

  1. Project based
  2. “No excuses”
  3. International Baccalaureate
  4. Comprehensive (traditional)

Mehta and Fine identified at least two major issues in most of the high schools they studied: lack of cognitive rigor and absence of deep student engagement. They summarize “the lack of cognitive rigor” as follows:

Roughly speaking, about four out of five classrooms we visited featured tasks that were in the bottom half of Bloom’s taxonomy, asking students to recall, comprehend, or apply, rather than to analyze, synthesize, or create. Another way of putting this: if we stapled ourselves to a student for a day, we likely would encounter one class, or occasionally two, that presented genuine opportunities for critical thinking or analysis. Consistent with prior studies, teacher talk far outran student talk; the modal task for students continues to be to take notes on teacher-delivered content about pre-established knowledge. Math tasks continued, on the whole, to be algorithmic, asking students to apply existing formulas to a series of practice problems. (24)

By contrast, the best teachers they observed often started with “a puzzling question or authentic overall task, then integrated content and skill building into the unit.” (25)

The data on student engagement over the past decades has remained depressingly the same: the longer a student is in school, the more engagement decreases. For example, the 2015 Gallup Student Poll shows a 75% engagement rate in 5th grade crumbling down to a 32% engagement rate of those still in school by grade 11 (those who haven’t dropped out already). Other indicators such as the HSSSE (High School Study of School Engagement) consistently demonstrate that 66% of high school students are bored daily.

Mehta and Fine see Deeper Learning as the central goal for all schools. What is defined as Deeper Learning? The authors use the Hewlett Foundation definition: “those combined characteristics of schooling that enable learners to ‘develop significant understanding of core academic content, exhibit critical thinking and problem-solving skills, collaborate, communicate, direct their own learning, and possess an ‘academic mindset.’” They suggest that Deeper Learning takes place at the intersection of the three elements of mastery, identity, and creativity:

In the spaces that teachers, students, and our own observations identified as the most compelling, students had opportunities to develop knowledge and skill (mastery), they came to see their core selves as vitally connected to what they were learning and doing (identity), and they had opportunities to enact their learning by producing something rather than simply receiving knowledge (creativity). (6)

What was exciting for me was seeing the words mastery, identity and creativity as the three elements they identified, then reflecting how that is carried out in the Christian school context  as defined in the Christian Deeper Learning document that a number of us have authored. The three foundations for designing Deeper Learning experiences is summarized as follows:

What is also interesting is that these elements emerged when students described their most powerful learning experiences in school:

Powerful learning experiences integrate seemingly opposing virtues: mastery, identity, and creativity. Whether in classes, extracurriculars, clubs, or elsewhere, students identified their most powerful learning experiences as those that gave them opportunities to develop knowledge and skill (mastery), become intensely connected to a domain (identity), and have an ability to enact their understandings by trying to make something meaningful to them (creativity). Apprenticeship models, in which students tried (and often failed) to do something under the watchful eye of more experienced teachers and students, were particularly well aligned with this integrated mode of learning. (Mehta and Fine 42)

We could illustrate how our elements of Christian Deeper Learning connects with the concepts of Identity, Mastery, and Creativity suggested by the authors:

Christian high schools need to wrestle with how much Deeper Learning is happening in their classrooms. Here are some compelling questions for further discussion from In Search Of Deeper Learning:

  1. Do we want high schools to be places where students look to the future by venturing into the unknown, or do we want them to be places where students master the timeless building blocks of disciplinary knowledge?
  2. Should we care more about cultivating passions and dispositions, or about building cultural literacy and a shared foundation of skills?
  3. Should the field empower teachers to be “adventurous” in their work, or, given that adventure entails the nontrivial possibility of failure, should it instead provide clear frameworks for what and how to teach as a hedge against inconsistency?
  4. Does the pursuit of divergence run counter to the pursuit of equity? (95)

In my next blog post, I would like to explore the defining characteristics of the four types of high schools identified by the authors and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. I will also identify Christian high schools that are developing quality Deeper Learning experiences for students.

Please drop me a note at if you have an idea you would be willing to share about the work your high school is doing in the areas of Identity (People of God’s Story), Mastery (Beautiful Work) and Creativity (Serving God and Neighbor) in the context of student learning. Or share it in the Comments section of this post.

If you are interested in exploring Christian Deeper Learning with those already doing it, I invite you to attend our upcoming conference in Denver February 26-28. To register, please visit our website.


2 Comments on “Deeper Learning in Christian High Schools”

  1. Excellent article, Dan. I am responsible for Teaching and Learning at a Christian school in Sydney, Australia, where we are employing Fullan’s model of Deep Learning and using the CACE definition. Your outline here will be most helpful next year as we begin to place more emphasis on critical and creative thinking.

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