Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Deep and surface learning

We've been considering issues about deep and surface learning on H812. Good course, H812, but deceptively quick. It's very part time,  takes two years, one assignment every three months or so – it's a doddle, I thought. But the weeks fly past with a new topic each week; blink and you miss one, and at my age I blink a lot. Deep and surface learning attracted a lot of chat, and at least one misconception.

There's a very good summary of deep and surface learning at the HEA: Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning.   It gets the distinction right between deep learning being critical and surface learning not. The misconception I referred to above was that some people thought that wide learning entailed surface learning, e.g. For a law student who needs to learn by heart a number of not very well connected cases, it would perforce be surface learning. I don't see it that way at all, and I don't think inventors of the distinction thought so either. Even if you're skating the surface, you can learn deeply. It's not about what you're learning so much as the way you do it. To take the law student example above, learning case law is a gritty but necessary undertaking. Broadly speaking, you can either learn a series of unconnected names, dates,  principles and applications, or you can learn each case as a contribution towards a (probably fuzzy) understanding of an area of law that may connect eventually to other areas, where you can see the principles operating in similar ways, although in completely different spheres. The first student may well turn into a competent lawyer. The second is likely to turn out to be better,because they understand better the way the law works.

It's interesting that the HEA page concentrates on the meaning of deep learning rather than surface learning. It has a list of the characteristics of surface learning, but, other than that, doesn't go into much detail about it. I would have thought that the primary concern for teachers was how to turn surface learning into deep learning wherever possible. For that we need to understand what surface learning is – what motivates it and embeds it into a student's practice.

For me the key characteristic seems to be that it is a disengaged form of learning, learning that does not involve the student, that is kept at a distance from the student's being. It enters their mind, in a special compartment, marked “Nothing to do with me”, and sits there until the student has been examined on it or leaves school, whereupon it instantly self destructs. But it never enters their soul.

In my view, far too many people learn to learn in a surface way. I'll sketch the reasons why this is in another post, but for now I'll just take it as a given – to go into the reasons in detail would take far too long. Regardless of what the reasons are, that fact is a big influence in determining how we need to teach. One of the big debates of course will be whose responsibility it is – there will be those who say that if a student is learning in a disengaged way, it's only their own fault – they should take responsibility for themselves. And there is a tendency then to say that they should dig themselves out of their own hole. I don't think that follows. To me it doesn't make any difference whose fault it is; we still have to teach in a way that will re-engage them if it is possible.

There are two elements. One is attitude, one is skill. To learn at a deep level, you need an attitude of engagement, and you need the skills to learn. Your attitude can be influenced by your teacher, and the skills can certainly be learned under your teacher's tutelage. So that's our job as teachers sorted.

1 comment:

Brenda Kaulback said...

I really liked the article about deep and surface learning that you pointed to. There are so many demands on teachers to "cover" material and on students to "get through" a course (especially if they are getting financial aid from the government), that it is a miracle that students have any possibility for deep learning at all.