Recently, I was contacted by a school who wanted some help working on ‘deeper learning’. I asked them what they meant to which they replied, “Oh, we were hoping you’d tell us!” According to the school’s last Ofsted report, the school is not outstanding because, “Teaching is not consistently of the highest quality because deeper learning is not promoted across the curriculum”. In order to improve, the report offers the following advice: “Improve the quality of teaching, learning and assessment across the curriculum by leaders and managers ensuring that effective strategies are in place to enhance deeper learning across the curriculum”.

Now, I’m sure the inspectors who wrote the report had an idea in their minds about what this meant but, unfortunately, the school leaders charged with implementing their advice weren’t at all sure what it was. According to Wikipedia, deeper learning is

…a set of student outcomes that includes mastery of essential academic content; thinking critically and solving complex problems; working collaboratively and communicating effectively; having an academic mindset, and being empowered through self-directed learning.

I’ve written critically about this sort of ‘deeper learning before. I’m reasonably sure that’s not what Ofsted want schools to be doing. My advice was that the school should decide for itself what deeper learning means, to claim a definition and then work on making that a reality.

So, what could it be? A good starting point would be to agree what is meant by ‘learning’. Here’s my definition: Learning is the long-term retention of knowledge and the ability to transfer it to new contexts. Retention is concerned the durability of knowledge; transfer is concerned with its flexibility. 

If you’re not keen on that, Ofsted’s draft School Inspection Handbook has this to say:

Learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. However, transfer to long-term memory depends on the rich processes described above. In order to develop understanding, pupils connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. Pupils also need to develop fluency and unconsciously apply their knowledge as skills. This must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts. Inspectors will be alert to unnecessary or excessive attempts to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts. (p. 44) [emphasis in original]

Perhaps then, ‘deeper learning’ is that which is not “simply memorising facts”?  It’s easy to belittle the idea that “glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts” could ever represent deeper learning, but we have to start somewhere. Of course, simply knowing the name of something is quite different from apprehending the ‘thing itself ’. Knowing that Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity tells you absolutely nothing whatever about what the theory means. That second kind of knowing – understanding, if you prefer – requires more and better connected factual knowledge. The more you know about a thing, the better your understanding. And the more you understand it, the better you’ll know it.

This is the distinction between inflexible and flexible knowledge. Knowledge is flexible when it is not tied to superficial features and can be applied to a wide range of contexts. For instance, knowing that Henry II was a medieval king is inflexible. It tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever about who Henry was or what it meant to be a medieval monarch. Knowing what medieval kingship entails is flexible and can be deployed to think more widely about a period of history. What we ultimately want is for children to have a flexible understanding that can be applied to a wide variety of new situations, but this is unlikely to occur spontaneously.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham puts it like this:

Inflexible knowledge is meaningful, but narrow; it’s narrow in that it is tied to the concept’s surface structure, and the deep structure of the concept is not easily accessed. ‘Deep structure’ refers to a principle that transcends specific examples; ‘surface structure’ refers to the particulars of an example meant to illustrate deep structure.

The obvious solution would be to encourage children to think about what we want them to know in more abstract terms, so they will be better able to generalise what they learn to new contexts. Regrettably, this doesn’t work. In practice, children need to fix their knowledge, however inflexible, in order to incrementally arrive at greater understanding. 

Inflexible ideas can be learned by rote. I can memorise a fact such as “commas are used to separate clauses in a sentence”, but just knowing this won’t necessarily help me to write a better punctuated sentence. On its own it’s too abstract to be useful. For this reason, children learn proxies like “put a comma where you take a breath”. This sounds plausible and contains knowledge that can be applied, but what if you’ve just been for a run? What if you have asthma? The limits of inflexible knowledge rapidly become clear. The antidote is more knowledge. I have to show you how to use a comma in a wide variety of contexts and then get you to practise writing correctly punctuated sentences.

Similarly, I can learn the names of all the European capital cities or memorise the times tables, but that doesn’t suggest I will be able to apply this information in any situation other than being directly asked, “What is the capital of Latvia?” or “What is 9 × 7?” This has resulted in inflexible knowledge being dismissed as only good for pub quizzes.

Inflexibility is a necessary foundation upon which more flexible structures can be built. When we apply inflexible knowledge, we make new schematic connections. We don’t just remember facts, we remember all the ways we’ve thought about and used those facts before. The more we apply knowledge, the ‘chunkier’ and increasingly flexible it becomes. Instead of looking at a problem and trying to hold all the steps in mind, we are able to think with the whole schema. Eventually, these schemas can be applied to examples which are less obviously similar because we are able to ignore the superficial differences and concentrate on the similarities. The journey from inflexibility to flexibility produces a positive feedback loop – changes are amplified and enhanced and the new, more expert, way of thinking becomes permanent. 

If that’s what  ‘deeper learning’ means, then I’m all for it.