What happens with students if their learning is surface level and lacks deep understanding?

(photo credit: Getty images)

(photo credit: Getty images)


1) They forget it.

2) They can’t use it flexilby.

3) They resist it…

…because surface learning is boring and dehumanizing!



We know that deep learning best occurs when students uncover big ideas, which are illuminated with numerous examples.

 Big ideas + discrete facts and skills = deep learning that can be applied flexibly to different situations

Why do we think it is any different with adult learning?

Look, most teachers we know are smart and work incredibly hard. But how many of us too often feel like this?

14741683-running-woman-on-3d-hamster-wheel The problem: Teaching is intellectually complex work. We too often hang out above the complexity, spinning our wheels without deeply understanding how learning best happens.  We push for and argue to prioritize initiatives, strategies and programs without a clear connection to deeper principles of learning.

The result: Strategies aren’t “scalable” because different situations are unique. Teachers become exhausted and overwhelmed by all the different strategies to implement. People can become “dogmatic” about strategies, forcing teachers to apply them exactly as instructed which is frustrating and dehumanizing to teachers’ ability to adjust to different situations.

The solution:

1) Discover deeper principles about how learning best happens (illuminated with corresponding strategies). How-to tips here.

2) Flexibly apply (and create your own!) different strategies to meet the principles for unique situations.

 To illustrate, here are three initiative trends in education, the principles behind why they work and other ideas that can be employed to hit the principles.


Principles of Learning

“Learning best happens when…”

Alternative ideas

1 Laptop/Tablet per Child
  • it’s via a medium that is hands-on and exciting to the learner
  • students actively pull information rather than passively receive it
  • it’s at the best level of challenge per student
  • it allows learners to collaborate
1) Design learning stations in your classroom that meet all of the learning principles that laptops are intended to meet.

2) Design a community action project that meets all of the learning principles.

Mastery Grading
  • students are not penalized for failure during the learning process
  • students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery
  • data about mastery of learning goals are isolated for more informed decision-making
1) Praise and reward effort in your classroom; have students reflect on how failed attempts make them better learners

2) Give students some choice in when and how summative assessments are administered

3) Have a frequent method for tracking progress on specific goals

Early Childhood Education
  • the first five years of life are critical to brain and social development
1) Offer parenting courses for high school students and community members that teach the importance of a healthy pregnancy and early childhood

2) Provide resources for parents such as books, stimulating toys and healthy foods to improve the home conditions of babies and young children


What initiatives are pushed at your school? Can you determine the underlying principles of learning?

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