Deep Learning and Realistic Dreams

By Arnold Packer and John Merrow

Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow.

-Langston Hughes

One thing that sets many disconnected young adults apart from their more successful counterparts is the ability to dream realistic dreams.  A “dreaming” mindset is a part of the foundation young people need to be successful. One way to give young people the self-confidence they need to dream (and achieve) is to pose a challenge they think is beyond them and then enable them to overcome it.  This approach is vividly illustrated by a story that ran on PBS News Hour in May, 2013.

Last year, at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, Emma and Liva started 8th grade stressed out from a science assignment:  Design an energy-generating device that would improve people’s lives.  Liva reacted:  “That’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail.”   Emma’s reaction was, “First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.”

By term’s end, however, each had stood in front of a large crowd of students and adults from the community to explain the device they had built and the science behind it, and to ‘sell’ its practicality.  From this experience, Emma and Liva gained poise, confidence and an understanding of the power of “grit.”  They learned how to practice teamwork, summon their tenacity and speak in a public arena – all while learning physics.  They acquired soft skills essential for all youth (and especially those that are ‘disconnected’) to find and follow pathways to careers.

Some critics question whether “deep learning” experiences like Emma’s and Liva’s are worth the effort, wondering if they are a distraction from the school’s chief task of delivering subject matter knowledge. Practicality speaking, as educators adjust to meet the goals of the Common Core, should schools offer such experiences to their more challenged students or just drill them on test taking?  Tom Loveless in his recent article:  The Banality of Deeper Learning casts doubt on the value of some deep learning projects.  Peter Gow, in his recent blog for Education Week, also asserts that these lessons are relatively unimportant.

We believe in the end though, a debate pitting soft skills development against academic training, is not useful. Deep Learning advocates agree that students have to be culturally literate, aware of mathematical techniques, and imbued with the scientific method.  Traditionalists agree that learning needs a shelf life beyond the final exam and should be designed to elicit wonder and a commitment to further study.  Practicing scientists, artists and entrepreneurs concur.  As one noted biologist and author has written, “Young scientists … need to learn what has inspired their mentors. They need to hear about what it means to experience science as a vocation…”[1]. A prominent architect writes, “I learned that the road [to achievement] …should encompass the arts and humanities, interdisciplinary collaboration and sociability, …you have to create excitement about science, math, and engineering …"[2]

Dropouts often cite boredom as their reason they left school.  Keeping young people in school and on a path to gainful employment requires educators that hear these students and respond as they design curricula.  Simply put, it requires schools that inspire all students –and especially those at risk of dropping out. Youngsters should understand what successful persons do to realize their dreams and teachers should be rewarded for reaching beyond subject matter to build the grit and resilience that give all students the tools for success.


Dr. Arnold Packer is a nationally recognized expert in Labor Economics.  He has served as an Assistant Secretary of Labor and the Executive Director of the SCANS Commission.   

Dr. John Merrow is Education Correspondent for PBS News Hour and President of Learning Matters.  He holds a doctorate in Education and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among his honors, he has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy Of Education Arts And Sciences.

 [1] Bill Streever, New York Times Book Review, June 2, 2013

[2] Jim Childress, “Creating Learning Spaces for a New Age of Discovery”, Education Week (via



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