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Global Education

Seven Ways to Create Deep Learning Experiences

When it comes to fitting everything in, Principal Erin Anderson feels your pain. She says, “Sometimes as educators we get so stuck in the standards that we have to teach and the assessments that we have to do that we lose the big picture.”

Sound familiar? Standards-based teaching can feel like a long to-do list. Cover the standard and check off a box. The big picture is cultivating learning experiences that last far beyond the date of a single lesson or assessment.

That said, Anderson recognizes that standards are foundational tools to help students to be successful. She continues,

“We’re not just creating kids that can master a second grade standard, but kids that are going to be contributing to our society and the different skills that we need beyond those foundational skills. How do we communicate? How do we work together? How do we see the bigger picture?”

In other words, how can we attach those foundational skills to a framework that allows for deep, lasting learning?

The key is to find a formula that works for seeing the bigger picture and creating deep, engaging learning experiences. As a principal at Harrisburg Elementary in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, a Participate Learning Global Leaders school, Anderson has found a way to follow her passion for global learning with a solid framework and coaching support for her staff. This framework uses project-based learning grounded in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while firmly focusing on issues within the local school community.

This approach to teaching and learning allows teachers to create relevant student learning experiences that are based in real-world problems while at the same time strengthening their global competencies, which are critical to social-emotional development and career-readiness. Anderson says of her school’s global approach,

“I do feel like it helps our teachers see the bigger picture of why we’re at school but I also think it helps our kids, it’s a lot of practical application of why we’re learning what we’re learning and then also it really helps the culture of our school.”

Let’s look at seven ways to create the kind of deep learning experiences that help students and teachers alike practice the global competencies and find purpose in learning.

1. Keep learning experiences local

The first step to creating a quality problem-based learning experience is to start with what’s happening in the community. Choosing a place-based problem makes it authentic, relatable, and visible to your students. Tweet this ->

You can find these issues everywhere: in the cafeteria (food waste), among families and in the neighborhood (hunger), and in the larger community (an overflowing animal shelter with pets waiting to be adopted). Regardless of the topic, let students have a say in choosing the issue they want to address.

As teachers and students work together to select their focus, the SDGs can be an excellent resource and guide to help identify issues that exist in the community. You can use this global lesson plan template to create a general outline of learning objectives and how you’ll align them to global competencies and the SDGs. As students explore, they develop skills and competencies that lead to deep learning. Students will build skills like curiosity as they seek to understand root causes of problems in their community. Not only that, their intercultural knowledge grows as they learn about the diversity within their community.

2. Connect the problem to standards

Connecting a project or problem-based learning experience to standards is essential. When students use math standards to calculate the dimensions of a pollinator garden or apply persuasive writing standards to a poster encouraging community members to adopt, not shop, they are applying content knowledge to a context that matters to them. Like life, solving problems does not exist within one subject area at a time, so cross-disciplinary connections are a natural by-product of this approach.

These academic connections also pave the way for developing global competencies like understanding global issues when connected with the SDGs and critical thinking while finding creative solutions to complex problems.

3. Allow for wiggle room when creating deep learning experiences

Designing a solid problem-based learning project requires both structure and flexibility. Just as with cross-disciplinary connections, learning in this way mirrors real-life situations in how people communicate, collaborate, and pivot when working together to find solutions to everyday problems.

In this model, the teacher is the facilitator and also a learner because this is a problem that doesn’t yet have a solution. As the lead learner, the teacher helps students identify standards and learning objectives, potential resources, and a clear problem. At the same time, the teacher models how to manage complex, ambiguous situations—a critical skill that students can apply to myriad contexts. This flexibility is a key global competency for both students and teachers. It’s the ability to try something new when what you’ve tried isn’t working.

4. Be real and choose authentic problems to learn from

Kids have a nose for sniffing out when something is inauthentic. Inviting students to address a real problem and not a hypothetical one created just for classroom purposes ignites engagement. At the same time, it provides opportunities for meaningful action beyond the scope of the school day. Tweet this ->

Likewise, it’s not inspiring to work on a problem that already has a solution. Addressing a current issue that the community is grappling with is a completely different story.

Authenticity is critical to the success of a problem-based learning endeavor. When engaged in real-life learning, students and teachers develop empathy by determining who is affected by the problem at hand. In their investigation of an issue that is both local and global in nature, they learn to value differences by recognizing that the same problem might look different in different communities, and that solving that problem requires a distinct approach and mindset.

5. Get students invested early-on

A project can be authentic but may not inspire students. If students don’t feel a personal connection to the work they’re asked to do, they’re less likely to buy in. When teachers use the SDGs, they can engage students from the get-go by gauging their interest, and having students rank the issues that are most visible in their community and matter the most to them. This approach also connects the local issues students are facing with the wider global issues that other communities are facing.

When students find meaning in the work they are doing, they aren’t following steps to create a product at the end. They focus on the process of learning as much as they can to find the best and most creative solution. Critical thinking is an essential part of deep learning. It’s also a key competency students use while engaging in meaningful process-based work.

6. Involve your community in the problem-solving

Problem-based learning is also a great way to get the community involved in what’s happening at school. Invite guest speakers and community members to offer expertise, meet with small groups, and help students work through solutions. This benefits both students and the community because it encourages agency and purpose across stakeholders and provides a way for families and the community to get involved in the day-to-day operations of schools.

The global competencies of global mindedness and responsibility and communication are the focus here because students learn that they are part of a bigger community and are partially responsible for how it operates. Collaboration with your community will authentically connect students to people who are already working on these solutions, and they can develop their communication skills in real time by identifying feasible solutions.

7. Seek feedback and iterate along the way

Assessment and feedback are a natural part of problem-based learning, but with a twist that reflects the kind of deep learning experiences that allow students to apply what they’ve learned.

In a problem-based learning environment, students reflect along the way and seek and provide actionable feedback. This is how we all solve problems, and a student’s ability to explain the proposed solution, whether or not it was successful, is an important part of the process.

Feedback should happen often and can come from many sources. Self-assessments, peer feedback, teacher coaching, older students, and even community members are all effective sources of feedback. The practice of encouraging feedback creates a culture where students learn to make mistakes, iterate, think flexibly, and work collaboratively in a safe place. This process is central to developing self-awareness and is an invitation to ask: “What do I need to do now/differently to help solve this problem?”


Problem-based learning allows students to grapple with challenging, authentic problems that have an impact on their community. By intentionally designing learning experiences that include these seven elements, students and teachers will deepen their understanding of important issues that directly impact their lives. This understanding, in turn, empowers them to use their voices to share actionable solutions. The effects of this kind of learning last well beyond the length of the project as they develop global competencies they will use throughout their lives.

For Harrisburg Elementary, Global Leaders, which promotes problem-based learning with a focus on the SDGs and global competencies, has been a game changer. Principal Anderson has witnessed deeper learning as a result of “looking at the Sustainable Development Goals and the impact on us here and across the world, and…creative ways to solve problems.” She continues,

“It really helps give a focus to our learning and then also a purpose so that we are intentional about…why are we doing this, why are we teaching this skill, how is this going to apply to you beyond second grade or beyond elementary school as a citizen of our world?”

Are you ready to take the leap and create deep and effective learning experiences for your students? Find out more about how we work with schools to develop personalized plans to infuse global learning into their curriculum here. Connect with Participate Learning on Twitter to see more examples of learning in action from our partner schools.

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