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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Deep Learning Teachers, Strategic Learning Teachers, and Surface Learning Teachers: Which One Are You?

In his work on top performing professors, Ken Bain wrote about three types of college students: surface learners, strategic learners, and deep learners. Surface learners are those students just trying to survive. Strategic learners play the system, learning and scoring well enough to get the A. On the other hand, deep learners are also successful but immerse themselves in the learning itself, understanding conceptual ideas, thinking critically and creatively, and becoming adaptative experts.

The reason deep learning matters is that these students are the ones who go on to innovate, improve, and problem-solve in their chosen fields.

I started thinking about these types of learners in relation to k-12 teachers. Might these types help frame various types of teachers? Of course, like the three types of learners, teachers might be predominately one type but likely possess a combination or part of the other types. During my years in education, I can identify teachers who would mostly fall into one of these three categories: surface learning teachers, strategic learning teachers, and deep learning teachers.

Surface Learning Teachers

These teachers are the ones just trying to make it through the school day. They are in survival mode, lacking the competency, skills, and training needed for the profession. They might also be teachers who have the skills but are burned out or disenchanted, thus, they give minimal effort.

The problem with surface learning teachers is that students in their class will learn the minimum.

The students may also come to dislike learning and school in general. Behavior problems could plague this type of teacher’s classroom. Parents will certainly not be happy with their child’s education.

Strategic Learning Teachers

These teachers get results. Learning occurs. Test scores are generally strong. Principals might be happy with these types of teachers. Students might even enjoy their classes for the most part. 

These are the teachers that have figured out the system. They know where to put the effort to achieve student outcomes. They don’t waste time or energy. They may leave the school day right after the students, only staying late if it’s necessary to complete lesson plans or required paperwork. Overall, there’s nothing wrong with this type of teacher—except their classroom might be missing passion, creativity, critical thinking, and consequently, deep learning.

Deep Learning Teachers

These teachers are totally engaged in their jobs, completely passionate about teaching and changing lives. Sure, they might have an off day but overall, they approach teaching with high amounts of creativity, energy, and positivity. These teachers serve as an inspiration for the rest of the faculty. (In a just world), these teachers are the Teachers of the Year, the ones tapped to conduct professional development trainings, and those that volunteer to mentor student teachers.

They go above and beyond the call. These teachers are also life-long learners themselves, constantly reading, attending workshops, taking courses, and participating in professional learning communities.

These teachers also know how to achieve strong student outcomes, but their students also benefit from learning skills that extend beyond the classroom and the test: social skills, problem-solving, collaboration, innovation, and critical thinking in various real-world situations.

In the next blog, I will explore specific methods and strategies that deep learning teachers might use in the classroom.