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What's happening in the world of digital learning?

  • Ashleigh Hull

Deep Learning

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Understanding concepts. Relating ideas. Thinking critically, questioning conclusions and assumptions.

This is what deep learning is all about. The goal is more than memorisation of facts; it's understanding those facts, linking the underpinning ideas to other ideas and seeing how it all fits together. Surface learning, the other side of this coin, is typically about being able to pass an exam. Deep learning is about becoming a self-directed, lifelong learner - one who can take what they've learned in one situation and apply it to another.

Surely in our elearning, deep learning is what we should be aiming for. We want to see personal development - behaviour change - business performance improvement. And you can't get that with surface learning. There, you instead have someone passing a test on their compliance training and three days later they're doing the job in exactly the same way they always have. It hasn't gone deep. They haven't thought about it, wrestled with it, questioned it; they've just memorised it for as long as it took to pass the test.

We owe it to our learners, our clients, and ourselves to do better than this.

I want to talk here about just one way we can facilitate deep learning - through the way we use questions.

"A Socratic approach to teaching involves stimulating dialogue around a topic by encouraging the learner to ask thought-provoking questions. The teacher creates contradictions by posing counter examples rather than his or her own views. The teacher and student both engage actively in the dialogue, but the teacher has an important guiding role as participants work towards an outcome or solution."

Source: Judith Bar Tikva 'Socratic teaching is not teaching, but direct transmission is: Notes from 13 to 15-year olds' conceptions of teaching' (2010)

A teacher (whether in a classroom, or in an elearning course) may ask many questions of the learner. But these are almost always questions to which learner and teacher already know the answer. It's about surface learning, a parroting back of information that has been memorised.

What if instead, teachers asked more open questions? What if learners were encouraged to engage with questions to which there is no obvious, or even correct, answer? What if teachers made space for learners to hear and articulate different points of view?

So much of the training we produce is about making the correct decisions. Whether this is in terms of legal compliance, accounting standards, making sales, health and safety - whatever the application or environment, what your organisation wants at the end of the day is a person who will make the correct or the desired choice.

Training often works (or doesn't work, as the case may be) by presenting the facts that people will need to make these choices. But when actually in that situation, people are left trying to remember the relevant fact, or simply responding on instinct and not necessarily in the way you would want.

Imagine if deep learning had come into play.

Imagine if your people were asked open, thoughtful questions about situations they may face or processes they should follow. Imagine if they were pulled up short by a probing question that revealed their own assumptions. Imagine if they were encouraged to debate, either internally or with others, about the subject; about the ideas or ethics underlying it, and why they are being asked to act in this way.

Imagine if your people engaged in your subject matter like this. You wouldn't come out of training with people who could recite correct answers but whose behaviour remained unchanged. Instead, you would have people who had thought through what you wanted them to know, who have engaged with it, challenged it, turned it over in their minds. You would have people who could apply the relevant concepts to different situations. You would have people who had learned. And when crunch time came, these people would act differently. Their impulses would be affected. Their assumptions may have changed. Their behaviour would actually line up with what is needed by your organisation.

"Until teachers stop relying on questions that can be answered with details plucked from short-term memory, there isn't much chance that students will opt for the deep learning approaches."

It's up to us.

Obviously this doesn't make sense for everything. Some of the things we teach are basic yes/no. They're just facts, you don't need to understand them or take them into any other context, you just need to know them. But so much more, I think, of what we teach could be presented in this thoughtful, questioning way - more than we would initially assume. Surely this is a better way to teach.

And surely it's a better way to test. We measure achievement with test scores because it's easy, it's quantifiable. But it's testing surface learning. How can we expand the measure of achievement beyond test scores? How do we measure the unquantifiable? How do we ensure something has been learned without a test score to tell us?

Why don't we get learners to ask us questions instead? If you understand something, you should be able to apply the concept, challenge the assumptions and go beyond what you've been told.

Or, how about project-based assessment in elearning? Khan Academy (which I have extolled the virtues of before) does this in its computer programming section. It will show you how to do something and then give you a project to complete. This approach encourages you to use what they've just taught you, but also to play around with it; it makes you want to see if you can do this or that and go off to find out how. When you're finished, there's a peer review which includes criteria such as have they used this function, have they done that so many times, are there any errors.

I think we could use some of these ideas to assess in elearning. Complete a project - be creative - explore as much as you want - and if you have learned what we wanted you to learn, it'll be clear that you have met these criteria by the end of it.

We need to be teaching like this. And we need to be learning like this. Deep learning promotes independent thinking, gets people to go further or in a different direction than the syllabus would have laid out. Humanity develops and grows when people do this; creativity and progress are stifled when we do not or cannot think beyond the structure of what we have been taught. We need to ask questions, challenge ideas and assumptions, make suggestions.

We need to learn how to think.

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