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Deep Conceptual Learning: Creating Connections That Last

DCL is critical to students’ success in and out of the classroom.
Credit: Shutterstock

We are in the midst of a significant transformation in K12 education as we focus on getting our students ready for success in college and careers and to compete in the global economy.
Previously, to prepare for state assessments, we provided teachers with pages upon pages of standards in each subject area. Often, however, there wasn’t enough time to cover them all. Moving at such a rapid pace made it easy for students to become surface learners. Through memorization and rote learning, they mastered enough to get by on the next test but didn’t necessarily absorb the information.
Looking forward, we see the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and assessments. Since I began my career in education as a math and science teacher, I have become convinced that the move toward greater focus and coherence in these content areas is a step in the right direction. The new math standards and the framework for the forthcoming science standards stress conceptual understanding of key ideas and place a greater emphasis on depth over breadth. This will make it possible for teachers to focus their attention on making sure students have the knowledge and skills they need to be successful at higher levels.
This transformation, however, isn’t as simple as switching from one assessment to another. It requires a shift in the way teachers teach and students learn.
We know that deep conceptual learning (DCL) is critical to students’ success in meeting the CCSS and to their success outside school. Underlying this deep learning is the ability to make connections—connections between prior knowledge and current learning, connections between academic disciplines, connections to the real world. As administrators, it is up to us to give our teachers and students the time, the support and the resources they need to create those connections.

Connecting educators

With the CCSS, we are asking teachers to teach in a way that may be different from how they were taught. As a result, we must provide teachers with the professional development they need to make this shift. However, professional development is wasted unless we make sure that expertise is transferred to the classroom. I regularly visit classrooms and watch teachers’ instruction, as do the school principals. More important, we provide teachers with the ongoing coaching they need to implement new skills and strategies and to make them their own.
We also invest deeply in professional learning communities. PLCs provide opportunities for teachers to deepen their pedagogy to and enhance their methods and processes through collaboration with one another. Giving teachers the opportunity to meet in department or grade-level groups on a regular basis allows them to discuss what they want students to learn and how they will go about achieving that. It allows them to think more deeply about their craft, share best practices, and hone their skills as they work to help students become deep learners.

Connecting students to prior knowledge

The goal of DCL is to take what students know and to deepen their understanding. Toward that end, a well-sequenced curriculum is essential. Well-sequenced learning experiences help students make effective use of previously learned material so they can connect concepts and deepen their learning. In addition, the curriculum should promote inquiry and curiosity so that students want to understand the material and learn more. A curious student is a student who will engage in classroom discussion and collaborate with his or her peers as they work to master the material.

Connecting concepts and the real world

We employ a variety of DCL methods to help students move from memorization to become deep learners. Several of these methods were described recently in a white paper titled “Deep Conceptual Learning in Science and Mathematics” by Peter Rillero and Helen Padgett from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. 
Methods such as discovery learning, multiple representations, analogies and challenge-based learning move far beyond rote memorization for a test. Instead, these methods ask students to deepen their learning by joining concepts together and applying them to real-world situations.

Connecting to the promise of technology

Technology has helped support our students in this respect by allowing them to engage in hands-on virtual learning experiences, including those that otherwise couldn’t be done in class because of safety concerns or a lack of equipment or materials.
For example, at one of our middle schools, Madison Park School of Dynamic Interactive Learning, we use a Web-based concept-mastery program called Adaptive Curriculum Science as part of a blended learning model combining teacher-led instruction and online learning. In an online instructional unit on endothermic and exothermic reactions, students experiment and learn about heat energy changes in chemical reactions. They mix substances and observe temperature changes, and they learn the differences between endothermic and exothermic reactions and also how to use them in combination. This active learning approach not only engages students, but it takes learning to a higher level by motivating them to explore, make hypotheses, manipulate items, and see the impact of their decisions. Of course, technology is only effective if it’s used in the way it’s intended to be used. We require all our teachers to “earn” their technology. If teachers want to implement a tool such as an interactive whiteboard or a curriculum software program, they are required to participate in training courses to learn how to utilize it effectively.

Connecting to success

Our students continually outperform students across the state and the nation on standardized tests, and our math and science programs surpass the state curriculum standards. I believe our ongoing focus on DCL is a key part of our success.
It may seem counterintuitive, but depth gives students more breadth. When students can think deeply about key concepts, they broaden their ability to apply that knowledge and make connections, even when they encounter unfamiliar situations or problems. Whether it’s on a classroom test or on an annual assessment or in a future career, a deep conceptual learner can find a solution—to this problem, and the next, and the next.


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Tim Ham is superintendent of Madison Elementary School District 38 in Phoenix. He has an extensive background in education, having been a teacher, principal, administrator and college professor.