Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 1 Month ago
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What is a deep learning culture? Part 2: Deep Learning Series

As I indicated in the first commentary of this series, deep learning is built around four criteria:

  • 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 key facts, concepts, ideas, and skills;
  • Students take an active-interactive role in the learning process by asking questions, constructing meaning, learning from and with others, developing alternatives, providing insights, and generally being thoughtful and collaborative.
  • The teacher frequently engages students in activity that fosters 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.

 As you walk around a school or observe a classroom, you can often determine pretty quickly whether its culture, beliefs and behaviors support deep learning. Here are examples of beliefs and related behaviors you are likely to observe or infer in a deep learning educational environment:

  1. Belief: All students can learn at a deeper level. In terms of deep learning,there is no distinction made between the “smart” students and others. All students are provided with the opportunity to read challenging books, explore open-ended questions, think more deeply, do challenging projects. They may do these activities at different levels, but every student is involved as a deep learner in the school and/or classroom.
  2. Belief: Learning should be meaningful to the learner.  Teachers are supported, even encouraged, to help students explore and examine important content in some depth, pose relevant and “essential” questions, create meaningful challenges, ask students to conduct investigations and/or use inquiry/problem-based learning strategies.
  3. Belief: Positive attitudes toward school and learning are an important part of a successful school experience. Every effort is made to support and create positive student attitudes towards school and learning, to build interest in learning, and to develop self-directed learners who are skilled at learning and also want to continue to deepen their learning on their own.
  4. Belief: “Less is more”. Teachers are not expected to “cover” content so that students pile knowledge on top of knowledge in superficial ways. Teachers are encouraged to limit the amount of content taught and teach fewer units of study, so that they have time and opportunity to deepen student learning.
  5. Belief: Learning is a social activity. Students are provided with interactive learning opportunities in a supportive environment. They work in small groups on challenging tasks, explore many questions together, solve open-ended problems, and have large group discussions. Students are involved in both independent and collaborative activities that require thoughtfulness.
  6. Belief: Student effort and responsibility, with a “growth” mentality, should be nurtured. Teacher and school expectations and language encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own learning, work hard, and think deeply in order to do well in school. The school culture focuses on effort and responsibility as key important components of successful learning, and trains teachers in how to help students develop self-responsibility and a growth mindset. Failure to learn is seen as an opportunity to examine why learning did not occur, and provide feedback that will help to improve learning.
  7. Belief: Learning how to think in a complex way is as important as building a knowledge base. Students are continually engaged in complex thinking activities that help them deepen learning. They are frequently asked to connect facts into concepts and key ideas, develop hypotheses, conduct analyses, develop and share opinions supported by evidence, write persuasive essays, develop interpretations, create alternative solutions to challenging problems.
  8. Belief: Reading deeply and reflecting on reading through discussion and writing is the way to build strong comprehension skills. Students are given many opportunities to learn new vocabulary in the context of their reading, read closely, build evidence-based reading skills, discuss their reading, write about what they have read, examine and learn concepts through reading.
  9. Belief: Multiple types and varieties of assessments should be used to assess student success. Assessments of learning go well beyond standardized and traditional tests, and often include research projects and reports, performance tasks, written reflections and essays, discussions, collaborative tasks, and teacher observations.
  10. Belief: Students need to see the “authentic” value of what they are learning beyond school. Students are engaged in activities and projects that provide authentic learning experiences and help them apply learning – field trips, simulations, and performance tasks that pose authentic problems and questions
  11. Belief: Good feedback should help students improve learning and performance The use of formative assessments and feedback for improvement is encouraged. On-going formative assessments provide learners with regular, timely, and user-friendly feedback, along with the opportunity to use feedback to improve learning.
  12. Belief: A goal of learning is to enable students to actively integrate new knowledge and skills into their prior experiences and background knowledge. Teachers are encouraged to help students actively integrate new information and ideas to what they already know and build on their current understanding and skill development.
  13. Belief: Learning is non-linear – it develops and deepens over time. Instead of a “once and done” attitude towards learning,students often revisit, refine, and revise core ideas and skills in order to develop more sophisticated, complex learning and understanding over time.


These beliefs, behaviors, and patterns are ingrained into the culture of a deep learning school and deep learning classrooms. They explicitly or implicitly form the norms and expectations of the school and classrooms. They are encouraged and supported. They blossom and grow. They are rewarded. Transitioning to a deep learning school or classroom means making the effort to transition the culture and beliefs of the school or classroom to those cited above.


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 website can be found at: www.era3learning.org.

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