If we want students to grow faster, we should stop trying to speed up learning.

During the last 20 years — since “high stakes” testing began to take hold — public school curricula have undergone a massive transformation. Ambitious learning standards like “No Child Left Behind” and the “Common Core” have pushed material that was once taught in high school down into the 3rd and 4th grade, and the amount of content teachers are expected to cover each year has increased steadily. The theory behind this trend appears to be that learning more content and learning it earlier will help students develop faster and better.

But is this true? Is there any evidence at all that learning more content and learning it earlier produces more rapid development? If so, I haven’t seen it.

In fact, the evidence collected by the nonprofit that owns me (Lectica, Inc.) points to the opposite conclusion. Teaching more and teaching it earlier may actually be slowing development and interfering with the growth of critical life skills — like those required for making good decisions in real-life contexts. In fact, as the graph below shows, students in schools that emphasize covering required content do not develop as rapidly as students in schools with a strong focus on fostering “deep” understanding — even though learning for understanding generally takes more time than learning something well enough to “pass the test.”

What is worse, statistical projections based on what Lectica’s researchers have learned so far, suggest that the average student in schools with the greatest emphasis on covering required content appears to stop developing by the end of grade 10, with an average score of 10.1. This is the same score received by the average 6th grader in schools with the greatest emphasis on fostering deep understanding.

The graphs in this post are based on data from 17,755 written response assessments of reflective judgment (LRJA assessments). The LRJA asks test-takers to respond to a complex real-life dilemma, then prompts them to explore questions about:

  • finding, creating, and evaluating information and evidence,
  • perspectives, persuasion, and conflict resolution,
  • when and if it’s possible to be certain, and
  • the nature of facts, truth, and reality.

Participating students were in grades 4–12, and attended one or more of 56 schools in the United States and Canada.

The graphs shown above represent two groups of schools — those with students who received the highest scores on the LRJA and those with students who received the lowest scores. These schools differed from one another in two other ways. First, the highest performing schools were all private schools.* Most students in these schools came from upper middle socio-economic status homes. The lowest performing schools were all public schools primarily serving low socio-economic status inner city students.

The second way in which these schools differed was in the design of their curricula. The highest performing schools featured integrated curricula with a great deal of practice-based learning and a heavy emphasis on fostering understanding and real-world competence. All of the lowest performing schools featured standards-focused curricula with a strong emphasis on learning the facts, formulas, procedures, vocabulary, and rules targeted by state tests.

Based on the results of research with conventional standardized tests, we expected most of the differences between student performances on the LRJA in these two groups of schools to be explained by socio-economic status. But this was not the case. Private schools with more conventional curricula and high performing public schools serving middle and upper middle socio-economic status families did indeed outperform the low socio-economic status schools, but as shown in the graph below, by grade 12, their students were still about 2.5 years behind students in the highest performing schools. It looks like socio-economic status explains only about 1/2 of the difference between the best and worst schools in our database. (For more on this, see, “Does a focus on deep understanding accelerate growth?”)

By the way, the conventional standardized test scores of students in this middle group, despite their greater emphasis on covering content, were no better than the conventional standardized test scores of students in the high performing group. Focusing on deep understanding appears to help students develop faster without interfering with their ability to learn required content.

We find these results both alarming and encouraging. First, they reveal that many U.S. schools are, on average, graduating students performing at level 10.1—which represents a level of skill that is far from adequate for navigating the complexities 20th century life.

Second, these results show that the differences between schools are not due exclusively to socioeconomic factors*. This suggests that we could do better if we shifted the primary focus of instruction from speeding up the acquisition of correct answers to the development of deep understanding and skill.

Third, it provides additional support for 120 years of educational and brain research that has shown—again and again—that the best way to support deep understanding is by providing learning environments that allow people to learn the way the brain is designed to learn.