Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 1 Month ago
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Deep Learning and Instruction: Part 5a

This series of commentaries is built on the idea that deep learning understanding, skills, and attitudes are important for all students to develop in a 21st century world. So far in this series we have focused on defining and describing the characteristics of deep learning; outlining a school or classroom culture and belief system that supports deep learning; explaining how to make curriculum adoptions and adaptations so that the curriculum supports deep learning; and suggesting assessment approaches that support deep learning. In this fifth commentary, I focus on another very important question - how might a teacher instruct for deep learning?

As stated in part 1 of this series, three key aspects of deep learning are

  • Students become active and interactive learners,
  • Students engage in reflective and thinking activities, and
  • Students have multiple opportunities to apply learning to authentic situations.

How does this happen? How do these deep learning aspects play out in the classroom? I suggest a four-part instructional model that is focused around a “unit” or “larger teaching episode”, not each individual lesson:


Activities here enable teachers to diagnose background knowledge, understandings and skills; engage students in exploring the goals of the unit; build interest; and share goals, assessments, and expected end products. Some examples of “setting the stage” activities include:

Activators are instructional strategies designed to develop a student’s interest in the goals of a unit, to activate prior knowledge related to the goals of a unit, and to set the stage for deep learning. They include many initial teaching strategies, such as 3-2-1, KWL, Journals, Anticipatory Sets, and others. Search for “educational activators” to find more information about activator strategies.

Essential Question activities are designed to introduce essential questions and use them to initiate writing and discussion activities that elevate interest and inquiry into the unit.

Performance and project introductions are designed to introduce activities that require performances, such as writing, discussion, and reflection and the introduction of culminating performance assessments and projects that students will complete.


These activities provide students with basic knowledge and tools they will need for digging deeper. Students not only learn background knowledge and key skills, but also build basic knowledge connections and relationships through sequencing, concept formation, narratives, and other relationship-building strategies. Some examples include:

Vocabulary Development and Connections – Learning, defining, connecting, and using key words and phrases related to what is being learned

Sequencing and Patterning – Creating chains of events, narratives, patterns that provide the basis for developing and understanding causal links, mathematical patterns, etc.

Concept Development – Development of abstract terms and ideas from multiple sets of data and facts – examples include the concepts of revolution, liberty, systems, patterns, variables, scientific investigation, and so on.

Basic Skill Development– Teaching of skillsthat support deeper learning, thinking, research, literacy, problem solving, project based learning, and so on.

Visual Organizers that help to visually make connections and build relationships.


These activities enable students develop deeper understanding, explain their reasoning, build theories, create interpretations, conduct analyses, Students learn and use higher order literacy and thinking skills, complex research skills, communication skills, and self-directed learning skills. Some examples of deep learning include:

  • Synthesize material from multiple sources
  • Compare and contrast multiple aspects and dimensions
  • Develop and test hypotheses
  • Develop a theory from basic information
  • Conduct research and write a complex research paper
  • Construct a real life solution to a challenging problem
  • Develop and argue for a position-point of view
  • Explain the process used for arriving at a solution
  • Explain a variety of alternative perspectives
  • Interpret a reading, literature
  • Design and Conduct an experiment
  • Analyze a document or data
  • Determine complex, multiple lines of cause and effect
  • Analyze diverse perspectives
  • Develop a new perspective
  • Critique a source, such as a textbook, TV station, social media, etc.
  • Create new ways to solve problems
  • Use the creative problem solving process to redefine and solve difficult problems
  • Participate in a Socratic dialogue
  • Debate
  • Write with a unique perspective and voice
  • Design and complete a culminating task that applies and deepens learning

Students are given an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned through:

  • Traditional tests,
  • Written reflective and analytical essays,
  • Completion and sharing of research papers and other writing assignments, Completion and sharing of presentations and explanations of final products,
  • Self-reflections.

                        These four dimensions can be used to promote deep learning with all classes and programs.

 Some might think that these four dimensions are designed for older students or students with high-level skill development, but in reality they can be applied to all levels of students and all types of learning.

To give a simple example: Imagine a class in which a children’s book is being read that has an interesting theme. Consider what might happen using all four dimensions of deep learning instruction:

  1. Setting the stage: The teacher introduces the book, provides some context for the book’s narrative, introduces a question that the students will explore while the book is read, asks students what they already know about the theme of the book;
  2. Basic learning: The teacher reads the book to students, introduces new vocabulary, and creates a visual organizer to outline the story;
  3. Deep learning: The teacher asks open-ended questions raises several ethical issues examined in the book, or asks for an interpretation of the book’s theme;
  4. Closure: The teacher asks students to write a brief reflection of the book, its strengths, what they liked about the book, what they learned as a result of reading and discussing the book.

In fact, deep learning is helpful at all levels of a traditional education program, but also useful for career and technical education programs, special education programs, gifted programs, college level courses, project based learning, and so on. The four key dimensions of deep learning instruction are useful for all educational approaches, methods, and ideas.


                                                                                          Some additional points

  1. Diagnostic and formative assessments are used throughout deep learning instruction. Diagnostic activities enable teachers to know the background knowledge of students prior to teaching, so that teaching can occur that supports the variety of learning and is not repetitive of what students already know. Formative assessments enable teachers to check for understanding and skill development in order to provide students with feedback for improvement or to adapt teaching to what students know and don’t know, or can do and can’t do.
  1. The four dimensions of deep learning are not designed to be thought of as a strict sequence, but rather as a set of dimensions that should be included in a teaching plan. A more traditional teacher might see this as a set of stages for planning their teaching, beginning by setting the stage, developing basic knowledge and skills, creating activities that deepen learning, and developing closing activities. However, a teacher using a project based learning approach might think of these deep learning dimensions as recursive – starting out with a project that begins to develop and build project based learning understanding and skills, then conducting a second project that deepens skills and understanding of the process, and so on.
  1. Deep learning dimensions should not be incorporated into every lesson – in other words, the four dimensions are not to be construed as a lesson formula. Some lessons might be focused around all four dimensions, but many will include only one or two dimensions. For example, at the beginning of unit instruction, the first few lessons might be focused around “setting the stage”. A group of lessons might be used to introduce basic knowledge and skills through guided teaching strategies. Later, a group of lessons might be focused around holding an open-ended discussion designed to interpret a piece of literature. Culminating lessons might be focused around completing a project and preparing students to present their results to an outside audience.
  1. Deep learning instruction is focused around the “merit badge model of learning”. With merit badge learning, the only thing that really counts is performance. There is much that is done to prepare for the performance, but in the end it is the ability to perform that earns the badge. The same is true for schooling – the goal is to create the opportunities that allow students to demonstrate competence through performance, and a deep learning plan is designed to assure that students can perform up to standard.


 In a world of rapid technological and social change, facts are easy to come by, high paying work is focused around brains, not brawn, and good citizenship requires sophisticated media skills. In this 21st century world, it is imperative that we shift to a deep learning instructional focus that develops analytic and creative thinking, among other things.

In this commentary, I have tried to distill the essential features of deep learning instruction into four dimensions:

  • SETTING THE STAGE: engaging students, developing interest, building curiosity, setting goals
  • BASIC LEARNING: Equipping students with background knowledge and core skills
  • DEEP LEARNING: Refining, enlarging and extending understanding, processes and skills, and applying learning to new and novel situations
  • CLOSURE: Opportunities for students to complete a product or products, demonstrate and explain what they have learned, and share their work with others.

These dimensions are not meant to be thought of as a formula or sequence, but rather as a set of flexible instructional planning tools. Some teachers might see these four dimensions as a way to plan a sequence of activities, while others might engage students in activities that combine and integrate many aspects of all four dimensions at the same time. The important point is that, depending on the teacher’s goals and style, all four dimensions are incorporated into a coherent teaching and learning pattern over time, and that students are provided with many opportunities to engage in learning activities that build a deeper understanding of the world around them, deepen their literacy, inquiry, reasoning, analytical and creativity skills, and promote long term curiosity and life long learning.


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.




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