Think about a topic that you know a lot about. A particular topic in science; a piano recital; a movie genre; the history of your favourite sports team. Can you produce facts that not many others would know? Could you consider yourself an expert on your particular topic?
Now think about the time it has taken for you to achieve mastery of either a particular skill or body of knowledge. It is unlikely that you became this expert in just a few days or weeks, or even months. When we deepen our knowledge about a topic, it often takes place over a significant period of time, as we develop and learn more about this topic and the nuances that others may gloss or skim over. This is often referred to as deep learning, and has enormous benefits for our intellectual development.
In a recent article* by Liz Mineo (“A recipe for how high schools can foster more analytical, critical, and creative thinking”), Jal Mehta, a Professor of Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, was interviewed about deep learning and examined the role of teachers in leading students to deeper learning. Professor noted that for many schools:
“Students still experienced a lot of unchallenging instruction; they were doing a lot of worksheets and tasks that were pretty low level, where they were expected to memorise content and apply algorithms rather than analyse, synthesise and create.”
Schools understand that there is often a necessity to perform and master some of these "low-level'' tasks in order to build depth of knowledge and understanding. These low-level tasks can be mastered in a short time (often referred to as powerful learning), while deeper learning goes beyond the understanding of the surface features of a subject or discipline, but the underlying structures or ideas. For example, if we were talking in Science about a biological cell, shallow learning would be able to name the parts of the cell and powerful learning would be the ability to recall all these parts of the cell in a much shorter time-period. Deeper learning would be an ability to understand the functions of the cell and how they interrelate.
Professor Mehta also contends that deeper learning emerges from mastery, identity, and creativity. Through mastery we developing significant knowledge and skill, while identity is seeing yourself as connected to doing the work. The third element, creativity, is not just taking in knowledge but doing something in the field. According to Professor Mehta, when the three elements come together, it often yields deep learning.
For teachers to support deeper learning they need to be able to define a vision of instruction (the learning intentions for the lesson, “What will we aim to learn?”) and align this to the curriculum to be delivered. As a teacher organises the learning to match these, we create consistency in our learning experiences across classes and curriculum. Our ongoing challenge is to combine intellectually demanding learning that is also open, playful, and warm, as our best learning occurs where there is rigour and joy (enjoyment) of the learning.
For students, an openness and willingness for inquiry in subjects and interests can foster deep learning. A subject, topic or learning environment that captures their interest (including extra-curricular interests) leaves a student wanting to know more, and so begins their motivation and their pursuit of learning.
Professor Mehta makes a distinction between powerful learning and deep learning, noting that powerful learning can happen in an hour, but deep learning can only take place over a long period of time. It takes time to develop knowledge, skill, and mastery over a domain.
We must strive to avoid moving quickly across large loads of content, but rather find time to explore issues in more depth or examine things from more different angles. Learning should become more than, “What do I need to do to get an ‘A’ grade?”
I have often reflected on the example of my Year 11 History Teacher, and his ability to make history ‘come alive’, often imagining ourselves directly immersed in the Russian Revolution. Because of this I was able to look beyond seeing History as a boring subject of just facts and dates, and consequently, my love of history and current affairs has continued into adulthood. My Teacher taught me that history was essentially about interpretation and understanding of why major historical events happened. This fundamental question was a constant challenge in our assessments as we were continually asked, “But why?”
And so, we must aim to avoid false assumptions in learning at school of: 'Either they learn the content or it will be fun and interesting’, and ‘Either it will be rigorous or it will be relevant to the students’. Many of our students can master powerful learning in short periods of time, yet deep learning is something that they must be willing to invest time in, beyond timetabled lesson for a subject. If our students appreciate deep learning, they are motivated and will continue to develop multiple interests and mastery of a greater range of topics. And this is learning that adds meaning and purpose to becoming. “Prepared for all Good Works.”
(23 August 2019)