Deep Learning and Curriculum: Part 3a
In parts one and two of this series of deep learning commentaries, I suggest some key characteristics of deep learning education and the beliefs and behaviors associated with a culture that supports deep learning. In this first commentary in part three, I will look at the importance of the curriculum for organizing a deep learning program, and how to adopt a curriculum that is consistent with a deep learning approach. In part 3b, the second of this deep learning curriculum commentary, I will examine ways to adapt an existing curriculum to promote deep learning.
A crucial factor in whether deep learning is or is not instituted in schools and classrooms is whether the framework of the adopted curriculum supports deep learning. A deep learning curriculum is usually focused around critical content in order to provide more time for student engagement, reflection, and processing. Many of its activities promote meaning and understanding, encourage thoughtfulness, use performance assessments such as reflective writing and projects, and provide opportunities for students to apply their learning to authentic, real life situations. All of this takes time and can be done when there are fewer units to be taught and learned or there is a focus on a few key learnings within a unit.
Unfortunately, the traditional school curriculum often makes it difficult to develop a deep learning approach. Today’s textbook-driven curriculum often teaches too much content, suggests activities that don’t support deep learning, and doesn’t provide enough time to implement a multitude of suggested activities. This more traditional curriculum framework often includes too many worksheets, contains mostly traditional assessments, and provides few if any opportunities to apply learning beyond the school experience. It often leads teachers to use a teaching approach that is focused around superficial learning and passive student activities such as lecture and recitation. Unfortunately, curricula that instead promote deep learning have often had trouble being adopted by large numbers of educators, and today are still often found outside the curriculum mainstream.
Curricula in today’s classrooms are often in conflict with deep learning approaches because the curriculum selection process rarely uses deep learning criteria as the primary consideration for curriculum selection. That often means that schools and teachers select curricula that are not compatible with a deep learning approach, and, if deep learning is to occur, adopted curricula often require considerable adaptation and effort on the part of teachers. This mismatch often makes it extremely difficult to implement a deep learning classroom and school program.
In order to change this, educators need to begin to consider using curriculum adoption criteria that provide better curriculum consistency to deep learning approaches. Some examples of questions focus curriculum adoption around deep learning criteria include the following: Do the curricula materials:
- Limit learning by focusing learning goals around a few meaningful core ideas and understandings, key processes and skills, or a few essential questions?
- Go beyond surface learning to include thoughtful, reflective, interactive activities that promote meaning and understanding?
- Create expectations and incorporate activities so that students will learn to effectively use high level thinking processes and skills?
- Promote positive attitudes towards learning?
- Incorporate the use of multiple texts, readings and other sources of information?
- Provide students with many opportunities to use multiple types of assessments that demonstrate whether students can apply and transfer learning and show understanding?
- Include a multitude of well-designed learning experiences that foster deep learning in realistic time frames?
While it is important to use the above or similar criteria to determine if current and future curricula are “deep learning” ready, there are already a number of available curricula that are consistent with a deep learning approach and available for adoption. Below a number of curricular examples that promote deep learning are listed and described:
International Baccalaureate Program: The International Baccalaureate program consists of three separate components: a Primary Years Program, a Middle Years Program, and the high school IB diploma program. All three have similar characteristics: programs that minimize the traditional approach to education in favor of an education that fosters inquiry, conceptual understanding, thinking, communication, ethics, open-mindedness, caring, risk-taking, balance, and reflection. It is a more global-oriented curriculum than US programs, since it is adopted worldwide. The program regularly uses open-ended assessments, extended essays, and projects as key instructional activities. More information about the program and its requirements can be found at http://www.ibo.org/programmes/diploma-programme/curriculum/
Cambridge Assessment International Education is an education program designed for students, ages 5-19. Over 10,000 schools in 160 countries offer its programs. It focuses on providing a strong liberal arts education, rich texts, and well thought out argumentation using essays and research as primary learning and assessment tools. It prizes depth over breadth. For more information: go to
Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP): IMP is a four-year high school program of problem-based mathematics designed to replace the traditional Algebra-Geometry-Trigonometry-Pre-calculus mathematics sequence. The IMP curriculum integrates traditional material with additional topics recommended by the NCTM Standards, such as statistics, probability, curve fitting, and matrix algebra. IMP units are generally structured around a complex central problem. Although each unit has a specific mathematical focus, other topics are brought in as needed to solve the central problem, rather than narrowly restricting the mathematical content. Ideas that are developed in one unit are usually revisited and deepened in one or more later units. The IMP curriculum has beenthoroughly field-tested. For example, Dr. Norman Webb, of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, has done several studies comparing the performance of students using the IMP curriculum with the performance of students in traditional programs. Dr. Webb has found that IMP students do as well as students in traditional mathematics classes on standardized tests such as the SAT. Dr. Webb also conducted three separate studies involving students at different grade levels and in different locations to measure learning in mathematics subjects not covered by traditional tests. IMP students outperformed their counterparts in traditional programs in these subject areas by a statistically significant margin. More about IMP at https://www.iat.com/courses/mathematics/
Hands on-Minds on Science Programs: Kit Based Science Programs for the Elementary Grades usually concentrate on fewer units of study and help students actively and more deeply explore science concepts and phenomena. Three widely used kit-based programs are FOSS (Full Options Science Program) http://www.deltaeducation.com/foss/how-foss-works
and GEMS . http://lhsgems.org/.
At http://www.activatelearning.com/#home-section , you can learn more about active learning science programs at the elementary and secondary level – Active Science, IQWST, and IQWST IDE.
A series of active learning programs in Engineering, Math (IMP and others), and Middle and High School Science can be found at It’s About Time - https://www.iat.com/courses/
Word Gen and other SERP Programs: SERP stands for Strategic Education Research Partnership, which generates, collects and uses research to provide schools with practical programs to implement in schools. WordGen, its original program, has developed a curriculum for grades 4-8. The program is built around original, engaging texts that raise important questions, such as “Who should decide what we eat?” in 4th grade, and “Should secret wiretapping be legal?” in 8th grade. These lessons teach academic vocabulary and promote deep learning through vivid, engaging texts, discussion, debate, elaborate writing, etc. Word-Gen now also includes science and social studies middle school programs.
While WordGen is the most extensive program available through SERP, other programs are either also available or being developed. Also important - all programs are currently free of charge for download, with registration. More information at: http://serpinstitute.org/index.html
Teacher’s Curriculum Institute Programs (TCI) is best known for its elementary and secondary social studies-history curricula focused around essential questions, engaging and meaningful activities, and culminating projects. Although the programs have become more traditional over time, they still provide a more likely significant deep learning experience for students at all levels, K-12. TCI also publishes elementary and middle school science programs. More information at https://www.teachtci.com/about-us/
Junior Great Books is a program consisting of two elements – books and materials worth reading and a process for teaching. The “shared inquiry” method of teaching is a model for deep learning and is focused around the creation of interpretive questions designed to engage readers in listening and speaking, and also to promote close reading of text. Teachers can learn about shared inquiry without necessarily using the specific books and materials promoted by Junior Great Books, although the materials they provide are specifically designed to raise important and interesting questions and support shared inquiry discussions and writing. More information at
Touchstones Discussion Project has a similar deep learning focus to Junior Great Books. Touchstones includes reading materials in several subject areas, along with a model of instruction that promotes collaborative discussions. More information can be found at https://www.touchstones.org/
These are just a few of the many examples of deep learning curricular programs that are available. Many other deep learning curricular programs exist and can be adopted if the goal is to use curricula that will foster deep learning, and when deep learning criteria is used to select curriculum programs and materials. In today’s world of Internet accessibility and search capacity, there are many avenues for finding and selecting deep learning materials. In the next part of this series, part 3b, we will look at ways to redesign a more traditional adopted curriculum so that it promotes deep learning.
 The deep learning criteria are the following:
The teacher is striving for students to develop more in-depth understanding of the key concepts, ideas, and skills to be learned, rather than a superficial exposure to many facts, concepts, ideas, and skills;
Students take an active-interactive role in the learning process by asking questions, constructing meaning, talking to and learning from and with others, developing alternatives, providing insights, and generally being thoughtful and collaborative.
Students are frequently engaged in activities that foster deeper learning, such as building on prior learning, organizing information, conducting meaningful research, developing concepts and conceptual understanding, analyzing data, constructing interpretations, developing carefully constructed points of view, figuring out solutions to problems, and applying learning to new situations.
Students are given many opportunities to apply learning to authentic situations that illustrate the value of the learning beyond school.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design cadre member and trainer. He currently continues to write about and address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. His other many commentaries can be found on ASCD Edge, and his website can be found at: www.era3learning.org.