So, deep learning. What’s all that about then?
I’ve just been dipping into Evidence Based Teaching by Geoff Petty and then cross referencing his advice with Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham. How sad is that? Fairly sad for a Tuesday evening when I’ve got a cold and my wife’s already gone to bed. Sad, but I think necessary. You see, I’ve come a long way in past few months. I’ve begun to have a healthy scepticism for whatever anyone tells me. I’ve also begun to re-evaluate my position that skills are more important than knowledge which, at least for some, might seem a retrograde step.
Geoff, in his wisdom, has decided that deep learning is better than what, for want of a better term, we shall call shallow learning. And who could argue with him? If we learn superficially, we can easily suffer from some pretty amusing misconceptions. One example that Geoff treats us to is “During the birth of a baby, first of all the mother becomes pregnant, later her hips will dislocate.” Quite.
If knowledge pools on the surface of our brains and fails to seep through what can, especially on a Friday afternoon, seem like an impermeable membrane then we won’t really understand how stuff links together. So far so good. Willingham agrees, “students come to understand new ideas by relating them to old ideas. If their knowledge is shallow, the process stops there.”
It is, therefore, fairly self-evident to suggest that deep learning or knowledge, or whatever you want to call it, is desirable. Geoff says that reasoning encourages deep learning and helps us to make connections between the things we know. His point is that the blighters aren’t going to remember what we tell them, instead they have to “make their own sense of what they are learning, and relate it to what they know” so that they can develop their own ‘constructs’. So, he reasons, if we want students to fit stuff they learn together to develop their own constructs then what we need to be doing is constructivist teaching.
Hang on, I hear you cry, doesn’t Prof Hattie say on page 204 of Visible Learning,

Every year I present lectures to teacher education students and find that they are already indoctrinated with the mantra “constructivism good, direct instruction bad”. When I show them the results … they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.

Doesn’t this mean that Hattie doesn’t rate the constructivist approach and that getting students to pass exams requires us to use the dreary teacher lead approaches that Petty condemns as ‘poor’? Geoff says that we need to  get students to engage in group work and discovery learning which whilst not actually rubbished by Hattie, certainly fair poorly against good, old-fashioned direct instruction.
Why should this be? I don’t want it to be true and my experience of trying to engage kids in learning the dry old cobblers that is the mainstay of many a curriculum tells me that making it fun and interactive is going to make them much more likely to pay attention to what the lesson is about rather than drifting off to discuss the relative merits of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Well, as Willingham explains it, part of the problem is that contrary to our expectations, deep knowledge doesn’t transfer particularly well. He says,

So, our minds assume that what we read (or hear) will be directly related to what we’ve just read (or heard). This makes understanding faster and smoother. Unfortunately it also makes it harder to see the deep structure of problems.

Another problem for us teachers is that with our experience and deep knowledge on wide varieties of topics, we are often quite good at transferring what we know from one sphere to another. Not so the kids. The fact that they know less across the board makes it much harder for them to apply what they’ve learnt about abstract concepts in other areas. Willingham’s advice to teachers is as follows:

  • Provide examples and get students to compare them
  • Make deep knowledge the spoken and unspoken emphasis
  • Accept that shallow knowledge is better than nothing
Impressed? Well, not really, no. Although he doesn’t go as far as suggesting any particular pedagogical approach this is exactly what Geoff’s on about when he talks about reasoning. And Geoff’s reasoning lead him (and me) to constructivism. So what’s a body to do?

We all want out students to have deep knowledge of the stuff we teach them and no one (or at least no one sensible) is advocating rote learning of inert facts. My view is that Geoff’s right. We do need to encourage students to work things out for and by themselves where ever possible. Not is a stupid way. Obviously teachers need to teach. There’s no way a room full of thirteen year olds is going work out the principles of calculus without a lot of direction and a lot of instruction. Granted. But then we should let them have a crack at applying this surface knowledge in different ways, give them the freedom to make interesting mistakes which they’ll form, and watch the knowledge settle more deeply into their eager sponge-like minds.
And the accusations that this is inefficient and impractical? Well, we also need to think carefully about what our students are learning from what we inadvertently teach. For what it’s worth, here’s what Seth Godin reckons we’re teaching kids to do:

– Fit in
– Follow instructions
– Take good notes
– Show up everyday
– Cram for tests and don’t miss deadlines
– Have good handwriting
– Punctuate
– Buy the things the other kids are buying
– Don’t ask questions
– Don’t challenge authority
– Do the minimum amount required so you’ll have time to work on another subject
– Go to university
– Have a good CV
– Don’t fail
– Don’t say anything that might embarrass you
– Be passably good at sports
– Participate in a large range of extra curricular activities
– Be a generalist
– Try not to have the other kids talk about you
– Once you learn a topic move on
Now, you might run your eye down that list and think that at least some of these are worth teaching. Godin says the key questions to ask are:
Which of these attributes are the keys to being indispensable?
Are we building the sort of people our society needs?
I guess how you answer these questions will reveal whether or not you’re going to take a constructivist approach to adding depth to what your students are learning. And if anyone’s interested, both Geoff and I advocated SOLO taxonomy as a means to stuff that knowledge down as far as it will go.