Recently, I was accused of using an educational ‘buzz word’ when I mentioned that providing children with rich, contextualised and real-life learning opportunities promoted “deep learning”.
I am certainly not one for bandwagon-jumping in education (in fact, quite the opposite: I tend to run in the opposite direction if I see the latest trendy bandwagon steamrollering towards my classroom.) However, I do believe that there is a distinction between levels of learning, from a very surface level ability to reproduce a taught skill to a deeper, transferrable understanding of what has been taught.
In his inspiring and thought-provoking book What’s the point of school? Guy Claxton points out that:
…the idea that a teacher can see a child do something and then tick a box to say they “possess” the relevant skill or ability is simply nonsense. You cannot observe that someone did something –solved a problem of one kind, in one context, for one purpose, on one day- and conclude that they will (or even should) be able to “use it” on any relevant occasion in the future. You can’t conclude “does” from “can”… (2009:85)
I’ve been thinking about these levels of learning or understanding recently, in relation to one particular pupil in my class, and trying to work out ways of moving their learning on from the very surface level, to a deeper understanding where it can be transferred to different contexts and situations.
Take learning number bonds of ten, which is what this particular pupil has been focusing on this week. After the TA repeatedly modelled choosing two digit cards to represent a bond of ten and using Numicon to check, the child could do the same, mostly correctly. The child was very pleased and enjoyed experiencing the success of being able to complete the task. The TA commented that the child had “got it”. The next day, the TA repeated the activity with the child in a spare five minutes, and once again the child could take two digit cards to make ten, and use Numicon to check that they were right. If we were using APP to assess children summatively in my school, one more instance of the child doing this would mean a tick or a highlight and the belief that the child was secure with number bonds of ten.
The next day, I gave the child a tower of ten unifix and asked them to find as many ways as they could of making ten. The child looked at the cubes, looked at me and then back at the cubes. They did not know where to begin using them to find bonds of ten. I reminded the child of the work they had done over the previous two days finding pairs of numbers that made ten. Nothing. I modelled breaking the tower into one cube and nine cubes and recording the number sentence 1+9=10 and showed the child how, if I had one cube and nine cubes and put them together in a tower I had ten cubes all together. I then broke the tower into two and eight and asked the child to record the number sentence. There was a flicker of enlightenment and the number sentence was duly written. When I returned to the child a little later, they had independently written all the number bonds of ten, in order.
In many schools that would represent a tick or a highlight on an APP grid, and yet I know that the child does not yet have a real understanding of the link between the two activities or can transfer either skill to a problem requiring bonds of 10 to be used.
As Claxton says,
We can’t just assume that something learned in one context, for one purpose, will automatically come to mind wherever and whenever it might subsequently be useful. (2009:84)
Piaget’s theories support this view:
We have done things to and with the child. In time, the child changes and learns. Therefore our actions “caused” the child’s development. No, says Piaget: the child’s understanding arises out of her self-directed actions upon the physical world. The question we must turn to now is how self-directed activity leads the child to construct his or her own understanding of natural phenomena. (1998:53)
It is, I believe, this personal construction that leads to deep, transferable knowledge. As teachers, if we can provide children with real opportunities to apply taught skills, we are on the way to facilitating that personal construction.
Claxton, G. (2009) What’s the point of school? Rediscovering the heart of education, Oxford: Oneworld Publications
Wood, D. (1998) How children think and learn, 2nd Edition, London: Blackwell Publishing