Research1 shows that the ability to nurture deep learning is one of three key factors that separate exceptional teachers from the rest of the pack.
Students Need Surface AND Deep Learning
However, it is wrong to assume that teaching facts and knowledge is bad.
Deep learning is not an alternative to surface learning.
Instead, deep learning builds upon the facts that your students already know. The more they know, the deeper their understanding will be. Their knowledge base provides the foundation upon which deeper understanding depends.
You need to have surface and deep knowledge
If you want to promote deep learning, you must teach your students the foundational knowledge that they need in order to think about a topic more deeply.
Yet, while factual knowledge is essential, deep learning involves more than just recalling facts.
What Is Deep Learning
Deep learning involves placing meaning or significance on new information2.
Deep Learning Integrates Information
One way to place meaning on new information is to connect it to what we already know. This is why teaching strategies such concept mapping are so effective3. Sometimes new information will add to what we know, but additive relationships are just one type of connection. There are many ways to connect information (e.g. hierarchy, cause-effect, comparisons and sequences). New information can even challenge or change what we previously thought to be true. Deep learning involves placing meaning on things by exploring how they fit together.
Deep Learning Explores Why Things Happen
Another way to place meaning on new information is to explore why things are the way that are. A year six class had completed two lessons on earthquakes. In the first lesson, they learnt how earthquakes happen (sudden movement of tectonic plates). In the second lesson, they mapped where major earthquakes had occurred in the last ten years. They now have sufficient knowledge to explain why major earthquakes are likely to occur in some places and unlikely to occur in others. This process of exploring why things happen can take on different names (e.g. explain, evaluate, predict, infer, hypothesise), yet the basic process remains the same – thinking about what you know in order to form justifiable beliefs about the topic.
In general, deep learning involves integrating and thinking about what you know in order to construct meaning.
Deep Learning DOES NOT Equal Inquiry-Based Teaching
Some teachers have a misguided belief that best way to nurture deep learning is to use so-called progressive approaches to teaching – approaches such as inquiry-based teaching and problem-based learning.
The reality is that it’s not that simple.
Teachers using inquiry-based teaching generally have less impact on student learning than those who use explicit teaching4.
Furthermore, students need some foundational knowledge to enable them to then think deeply about the topic at hand. Explicit teaching is a far more effective and efficient way of helping students gain this knowledge than inquiry-based learning. This doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is the only way for students to gain knowledge. It does mean that explicit teaching of facts and knowledge should be commonplace in your classroom.
Finally, as noted in Teaching Students Strategies, you also need to explicitly teach students strategies. This includes the strategies they need to deepen their understanding of the material before them.
Expecting students to ‘discover’ these strategies on their own is not the best way to help your students succeed.
So if inquiry-based teaching isn’t the answer, what should your do to nurture deep learning.
Explicitly Teach Thinking Strategies
Rather, you need to explicitly teach thinking strategies.
This involves explaining and modelling the strategy (show & tell), guiding students as they practice the strategy and developing fluency through independent practice.
- Linking to Prior Knowledge (use progressive mind maps, cumulative concept maps and KLR charts – what do I already know, what have a I learned, how does this relate to what I knew)
- Hierarchical Classification (use mind-maps, t-charts, e-charts, fishbone charts and tree diagrams)
- Cause-Effect (cause-effect chains, trees and webs)
- Comparison (use Venn diagrams, tables, continuums)
- Sequence (use timelines, sequence charts and cycle diagrams)
- Drawing Conclusions (use LUC charts and multi-flow maps)
Note, asking students to apply strategies without providing them with sufficient background knowledge about the topic WILL NOT lead to deep learning. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share an observation made by Daisy Christodoulou – a high-school teacher in England.
When asked to state whether they would like to live in a rain forest and to justify why, students without sufficient background knowledge gave shallow responses such as:
- No, because it would be wet
- Yes, because it would be fun
When asked the same question, students with a larger bank of interconnected knowledge gave answers such as:
- No, because the poor soil and constant shade would mean she may have to include meat in her diet, and she was a vegetarian.
Thinking skills are important, but without these skills (or prompts or graphic organisers), the prerequisite knowledge cannot be used to nurture deep learning.
Embed Deep Learning Into Some Lesson Goals
As explained in our earlier article on explicit teaching, lesson goals help to focus what will happen during each lesson and they define what successful student learning entail.
If you want to nurture deep learning, you should start by setting deep lesson goals.
Note, you should not focus all of your lesson goals on deep learning. When students lack sufficient knowledge and skill, surface learning is more appropriate. However, when you believe that your students have the foundational knowledge and skill, you should focus your lessons on deep learning.
Lesson goals typically follow a formula:
Using this formula, a lesson goal focused on surface learning would be:
- The students will be to draw and describethree ways volcanoes are formed from different tectonic plate movements.
A related deep lesson goal would be:
- The students will be able to compare and contrast how tectonic plate movements cause earthquakes and the formation of volcanoes.
While you can play around with the order of words and sections to make the goal flow well, the key difference between the two goals lies in the verbs used.
Surface learning goals use verbs such as, define, recall, describeand list.
Deep learning goals use verbs such as, sequence, compare, explain, infer, predict and justify.
Pam Hall, a former teacher who works extensively with the SOLO framework, has created a very useful online app (free) to help you practice writing surface and deep lesson goals.
Activate Prior Knowledge
It is vital that students are clear about what they are meant to learn from each lesson, and it is also important that they understand how this fits in with what they have already learned.
Therefore, you need to activate their prior knowledge before launching into new material.
This can be as easy as discussing what students recall about the topic; however, research shows that activating prior knowledge is more powerful when it includes a visual cue rather than just talk.
A visual cue could be a simple list of topics and sub-topics, written on the board, with today’s topic highlighted in some way.
More complex visual clues include progressive mind maps and handouts with gaps for the children to fill in. You can learn more about progressive mind maps here.
Apply Thinking Strategies to the Content of Your Lessons
Once students know how to use different thinking strategies and they know enough facts about the topic you want them to explore, you can start applying thinking strategies to the content of your lessons.
The content and type of thinking strategy should reflect your lesson goal.
At times, you may model applying the thinking strategy yourself, while talking your students through the process that you are using. Going back to our earlier example with volcanoes, you could model using a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the causes of earthquakes with what causes volcanoes to form.
At other times, you may help your students as they practice applying the strategies themselves. This may be in the next lesson. So if we were still teaching kids about volcanoes we could have them use a Venn chart to compare and contrast pyroclastic flows with lava.
When you are confident in their abilities, you can let them apply the strategies independently. At this stage, you may ask them to compare and contrast the effects of earthquakes with the effects of volcanoes.
Assess Student’s Thinking
Assessment is a crucial part of all learning and deep learning is no different.
It is important that you assess:
- The depth of your students’ thinking
- The accuracy of their conclusions
Assessing the Depth of Thinking
While the above task is designed to integrate information using a compare and contrast strategy, your students may produce work that is either above or below this depth of knowledge.
An easy way to assess the depth of their work involves using a rubric such as this one. If you are new at creating rubrics that assess the depth of students’ understanding, you can make use of a handy, online rubric generator created by Pam Hook.
You can use this insight to help each of your students to go one-step deeper with their thinking.
Assessing the Accuracy of Conclusions
As students start to think about what they know, they form conclusions about the phenomenon they are studying. This is a good thing, as it helps them make the move from knowledge to understanding.
However, it is important that you and your students realise that their conclusions will not always be correct. A conclusion is nothing more than an educated guess or prediction.
You need to be aware of the conclusions that your students are making, so that you can correct any misconceptions that may have. It often helps to know some common misconceptions about the topic you are teaching. For example, common misconceptions about volcanoes include:
- All volcanoes are mountains
- Mountains are formed rapidly
- Volcanoes are randomly located around the world
- All volcanoes erupt violently
- Lava is the only dangerous thing that comes out of a volcano
- If a volcano hasn’t erupted for over a hundred years, it must be extinct
Give Students Feedback
Feedback helps deep learning in the same way it helps any learning.
You use the insights gained from your assessments to:
- tell your students what they need to do in order achieve at an even higher level
- correct any misconceptions your students have formed
If you want to know more about why or how to give feedback, read the earlier article Feedback: The First Secret John Hattie Revealed.
8 Tips for Nurturing Deep Learning
- Explicitly teach students the knowledge that they need to think about topics more deeply.
- Once students have sufficient knowledge, set lesson goals focused on deep learning
- Model and let students practice deep learning strategies before asking them to do so independently
- Teach students how to use graphic organisers to show relationships and to nurture deeper thinking
- Have students apply thinking strategies to content they have learned.
- Assess students’ thinking
- Give students feedback about misconceptions they hold (faulty thinking) and about the depth of thought that their work reflects
- Incidentally use deep learning strategies yourself throughout the day, and use think-alouds to model what you are doing to your students
Of course, nurturing deep learning is just one aspect of evidence based teaching.
Return to the Crash Course In Evidence Based Teaching homepage to discover more.
- Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council of Educational Research. [↩]
- Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for Quality Learning at University (3rd edn). Buckingham: Open University Press [↩]
- Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. [↩]
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. [↩]