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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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How to Become a “Deep Learning” Teacher

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of deep learning and how k-12 teachers might work to become the type of teacher that facilitates this type of deep learning.

First, a brief recap: these ideas of deep learning come from Ken Bain, who wrote about three types of 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 adaptive experts.

If we want to become “deep learning teachers,” I think it helps to consider questions that Bain raises around the subject. He recommends thinking about a time when you learned something deeply. What did you do? What was the process? What were the conditions?

Using these questions as a guide, I think of my own recent experience of completing a doctoral dissertation. How did I deeply learn the concepts, ideas, and information that comprised my research and knowledge on the topic? I certainly read widely. I read everything I could possibly find on the topic. I also wrote about the topic—and wrote a lot!  In addition, I discussed the topic with colleagues and professors, which deepened my knowledge and challenged my current thinking. I further immersed myself in the topic through praxis-by doing. My topic involved Zen Buddhism, so I joined a local Zen group and began meditating daily. Collectively, these actions created the conditions for deep learning.

How does this experience apply to k-12 classrooms, for instance, an elementary classroom?

I think there��s a number of principles embedded in this example.

  • First, learning occurred through pluralism, which Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligence Theory) defined as learning through various pathways. Within my learning experience also are notions of Universal Design for Learning, which advocates addressing learner variability by, among other approaches, presenting information in multiple varied formats. For instance, a teacher might play a video, read from a book, and have students listen to an audio of the text. In my situation, I read articles and books,listened to audios, watched YouTube, etc., which served as a pluralized approach to learning. Consider as a teacher how you might embed multiple ways to presenting and experiencing information to your students using technology, collaborative work, visuals, etc.
  • Second, I think my deep learning could not have occurred without the benefit of others, this idea of social learning theory and that knowledge is constructed through social interaction. Discussing my ideas and insights with others pushed my thinking and helped frame it in new ways. In the elementary classroom, a teacher can facilitate social learning through group projects, collaborative work, and discussions and debates. Allow students to bounce ideas and questions off each other, not just with the teacher.
  • Of course, in my deep learning experience, there’s the element of interest and motivation.  I wanted to learn about the topic. Teachers might look for ways to further connect learning objectives to students’ interests by issuing interest surveys, talking with them about their hobbies, etc. Another motivator is knowing that the learning will serve a greater, practical purpose. In my case, I had to present the dissertation to graduate. For elementary students, knowing they must present learning to classmates or adults serving as a guest panel, for instance, can ignite motivation to learn more deeply.

Nevertheless, these are ideas that must be explored and enacted to determine what works for a teacher’s particular classroom. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching but rather teaching as inquiry, where teachers should study their practice and works in their context.

A good starting point is to reflect back on a time you have learning something deeply and what were the surrounding conditions? What caused this learning to transcend surface learning. Relive this experience and see how it might apply to your teaching. Then, go to work on creating conditions that encourage deeper learning.