I remember a long time ago standing in my classroom one evening with a group of 9th grade parents, introducing them to the history course I would be teaching their children that year. I started by asking them what they could remember from their own 9th grade history class and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t much. I jokingly said that if I was going to find a reason to get up each morning then I had to believe there was more to my purpose as an educator than teaching children factual information that they would invariably forget. I told the parents that in my class there would be no tests. We would only study primary sources and we would learn together how to read, interpret and analyse them, to draw conclusions based on evidence, and to communicate those conclusions convincingly to others. I told them their children were going to learn how to think and to write. I have to admit that I was nervous when I said this. I thought they might panic when I said, “no tests.” But they didn’t. What I got in return were hopeful smiles.
I did not talk with those parents about increasingly sophisticated levels of cognitive processes, or about distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative thought, nor did I diagram iterative versus linear learning (Stern, Ferraro and Mohnkern, 2017). I simply said what appeared to be common sense. There is a difference between knowing and understanding. A list of facts is not going to get you very far in the long run. What matters is what you can do with them for “grasping the structure of a subject is understanding it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully” (Bruner, 1977).
The important thing to remember is that deep learning takes place when we are required to make use of factual knowledge, to understand it in relation to a discipline, and then to transfer it to other disciplines. This is what lies at the heart of concept-based learning and teaching. However, concept-based does not mean content-light. In fact, it should mean precisely the opposite. Rich content knowledge combined with effective pedagogical methods leads to sophisticated, transdisciplinary thinking.
When we say we are teaching for deep learning, it means that we want students to be able to apply what they have learned in new ways. It signifies a shift from factual knowledge to conceptual understanding and this shift is both powerful and empowering. Developing conceptual understanding, learning to make meaningful connections across big ideas, enhances students’ self-efficacy and their motivation to learn.
Most of us can recall a moment of epiphany from our childhood, the excitement of a breakthrough in understanding, but we can undoubtedly also remember the bumps along the road. Meyer and Land (2006) refer to threshold concepts whose assimilation results in a shift in perception, but which can be uncomfortable (Meyer & Land, 2006). Grasping a threshold concept may require abandoning past ways of thinking. This is one of the reasons why it is so essential to:
- check for understanding among students
- ask different kinds of questions
- approach complex content from multiple perspectives and
- engage with a variety of media.
Our own skills in transdisciplinary thinking and multiliteracy will model what we seek to develop in our students and help us to support them as they pass through the threshold of one level of understanding to the next. Finally, in our inclusive classrooms it will be evident that we believe deep learning is attainable for all our students.
Things to consider:
- Do I check for understanding before moving on to the next level of learning?
- What common (or uncommon) misperceptions may block a student in moving from one level of cognitive processing to the next?
- Are my students able to use what they know in new ways?
- Do I design my lessons and units in such a way that they are encouraged to do so?
Dr Karen L. Taylor is Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecolint.
Project Zero Teaching for Understanding
Project Zero Unit Template
ULP Universal Understanding Guide