Advocates of “deeper learning” say deeper learning has become even more important in a changing economy that demands critical thinking. But only about a fifth of high school classrooms are learning deeply, according to one national study.

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What does it mean to learn deeply?  A group of researchers who’ve studied that approach say it’s more than mastering a subject.  Students in deep-learning classrooms are able to explain why they are learning something, and to apply what they’ve learned.

But that kind of instruction occurs in only about one in five classrooms, a recent study of high schools across the country found.  And those classrooms are more likely to be in private schools, or public schools serving affluent communities.

And that’s a problem, the researchers say, given that our changing economy demands that students be able to think critically.

The concept of deeper learning is “not exactly new,” but it’s taken on a greater urgency, researcher Jal Mehta said last week at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Boston. In order to vote, get a job or confront ethical questions, students will need to know more than how to find the correct answer on a multiple-choice test.

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“The economy has shifted,” said Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “These are skills that everyone needs.”

Mehta was one of the researchers for “In Search of Deeper Learning,” a study of schools that aspire to offer rigorous, challenging and engaging instruction.  Mehta and his co-researchers observed classrooms in 30 high schools in 2013 and interviewed parents, students and teachers about instruction and learning. In total, they observed more than 750 hours of classroom time and spoke with more than 200 people in range of high schools.

Three elements — identity, mastery and creativity — have to come together for there to be deeper learning, Mehta said.  In classrooms that achieve it, the researchers found, teachers ask appropriate questions but refrain from simply giving answers. The students grapple with uncertainty, with failure being a real possibility. As a result, the students do most of the mental work, and “create knowledge, rather than receive knowledge,” Mehta said.

The students in such classrooms also enjoy coming to school, the researchers found, which is in sharp contrast with the general high school population.  Overall, the researchers found, 70 percent of high-school students report they are bored at school every day.

During his Boston presentation, Mehta displayed a picture of a cross-section of an animal cell and asked attendees what they would see in a classroom if the teacher was practicing deeper learning. The journalists made some guesses, including that the students would be able to compare the parts of the cell – the nucleus, ribosomes and vacuole.

Mehta explained that students would learn one of the keys to biology — that everything has a function. In a deeper learning classroom, the students would be able to identify the task of each part of the cell, how each part fits within the cell’s system, and what would happen if one part of the cell was damaged or taken away. Students in these classrooms, in other words, would be able to go deeper than simply writing down the name and definition of each part.

So why is deeper learning so rare? Mehta said his research points to several reasons.  Few teachers have experienced deeper learning in their own education, so may struggle to apply it in their own classrooms.

An emphasis on standardized tests also can take away the incentive for the kind of project-based learning that’s key to deeper learning, he said. Many adults the researchers interviewed talked about powerful learning experiences they’d had outside the classroom, pointing to extracurricular activities and electives as promising platforms for deeper learning.

The researchers found that the prevalence of deeper learning varies not only among schools, but within buildings — even in different classes taught by the same teacher.

Mehta recalled a time when he and a colleague were discussing two classes they had observed. His colleague watched a “good class,” one with debates and student projects. He watched a “bad class,” where the teacher showed a PowerPoint presentation to students and asked them to answer fill-in-the-blank questions.

They soon realized they had observed the same teacher, but in two different classes on different academic tracks.

“There was more variation within schools than across them,” he said.