By: Jeff Heyck-Williams

​Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC is a network of EL Education schools serving over 700 students in preschool through 8th grade.  Throughout our twelve-year history, we have continued to champion the importance of embracing a broader definition of student success than what has been handed to us by state and national policy.  While we believe that it is essential for all students to be proficient in math, literacy, and the sciences, we believe that that is not enough.  Students also need a rich set of social and cognitive skills that span beyond any given discipline.


Furthermore, we believe that we can best teach students these skills through hands-on interdisciplinary project-based learning.  As EL Education schools, our projects are defined as expeditions lasting 10 to 12 weeks in which students tackle messy, real world problems that don’t have easy paths to solutions nor do they have one clear right answer.  Through intentional design of these projects, teachers address the core content and basic skills defined by literacy and content standards; the social skills of collaboration and communication; the intrapersonal skills defined by character; and the broadly applicable cognitive skills of critical thinking and problem solving.

In the life of our schools, we have seen the powerful way that our students through project-based learning have embraced deeper learning outcomes, and exhibited the habits of effective critical thinking, collaboration, and personal character.   However, our evidence that this is working is only found in anecdotes and in the quality of student work.  We have been unable to demonstrate neither the degree to which students are developing these skills within projects nor their ability to transfer the skills beyond the context of the current project.

Focusing just on the dimensions of critical thinking and problem solving, our teachers expressed frustration at not knowing in concrete terms what those cognitive skills looked like when students exhibited them.  Building on our understanding of the essential role that assessment for learning plays in the learning process and the very practical consideration of how we help teachers and students define and work towards developing these skills, we have embarked on a multi-year project to define and assess critical thinking and problem solving.

Critical thinking and problem solving, as we define it, are the set of non-discipline specific cognitive skills people use to analyze vast amounts of information and creatively solve problems.  We have broken those skills down into these five core components:

  1. Schema Development: The ability to learn vast amounts of information and organize it in ways that are useful for understanding
  2. Metacognition and Evaluation: The ability to think critically about what one is doing and evaluate many potential choices
  3. Effective Reasoning: The ability to create claims and support them with logical evidence
  4. Problem Solving: The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible paths to a solution, and follow through with a solution
  5. Creativity and Innovation: The ability to formulate new ideas that are useful within a particular context

Our project is working to create learning progressions in each of these core components with accompanying rubrics.  The progressions of learning and rubrics will both help define for students and teachers the skills that all students should be developing as well as function as evaluative tools to provide a picture where each student sits in the development of these skills and what are the next steps for further learning.

However, we believe it is not enough for students to be able to develop these skills within the highly scaffolded context of our expeditions.  If they have truly learned the skills, they should have the ability to transfer them.  With this in mind, we are working to create short content-neutral performance tasks that will give teachers and students valuable information about each of the five core components listed above.  Our hypothesis is that through having students tackle short novel tasks, we will be able to draw clear conclusions about their learning of critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Through the course of this work, we hope that our process will be useful to other educators interested in achieving deeper learning outcomes for their students.  We realize that deeper learning will not become a reality in most schools until teachers and leaders have a clear vision for what it looks like on a day-to-day basis and how we can clearly demonstrate student growth in these essential skills.  We hope that our work will help to inform how to make deeper learning a concrete reality.  It is a work in progress, and we invite you to share your thoughts and follow our progress at our website

This work has been funded by generous grants from CityBridge Foundation and Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) Breakthrough Schools: DC, the Center for Innovation in Education (CIE) and NGLC’s Assessment for Learning Project, and New Schools Venture Fund.