I learn because I have to

“There is another” (Yoda, a long time ago)

There is surface learning (boo), deep learning (hurrah) and there is strategic learning. Strategic learning involves doing whatever is necessary to achieve your learning goals, which sounds a lot like surface learning (boo). However, there is a difference.

Strategic learners will adopt the behaviour of the deep learner (hurrah) if those methods prove effective in achieving whatever it is they want to achieve. As such the motivation for learning is not intrinsic, but merely a symptom of the design of the course (or, in particular the assessment of the course). Let me give you an illustration.

If you are learning about the English history your assessment could take a number of forms. Here are two:

1. Harold Godwinson fought the Battle of Hastings in:

  • a) 1065
  • b ) 1066
  • c) 1076
  • d) pyjamas

2. Examine the case for each of the claimants of the English throne in 1065, and then evaluate the extent to which the arguments parallel those preceding the coronation of William III in 1688.

In one example the strategic learner would merely have to learn a number of facts and figures. In the other the strategic learner would have to demonstrate an understanding of the context around the battle for the English throne in 1065-66, and then apply that knowledge to another example. They would have examine and evaluate rather than rinse and repeat.

However, there is a problem with this idea. What is a surface learner (boo) to do with the second question? Would they continue to memorise things and risk failure or would they too become strategic learners? Would a deep learner (hurrah) when faced with question 1 continue to spend time researching, reflecting, reviewing and evaluating stuff if they received no (external) reward for doing so?

For me, I’m not wholly convinced by the notion of a strategic learner. From what I’ve read, there doesn’t appear to be a justification for it as concept distinct from surface (boo) and deep (hurrah) learning, particularly as one’s preference for one or the other  is contextual (i.e. depending on other stuff) rather than fixed (i.e. owing to a particularly personality type or ‘learning style).

Strategic learning, I bite my thumb at thee.


01 Motivation, that’s what you need.

Can I learn anything if I put my mind to it?

In his book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ Malcolm Gladwell proposes the 10,000-Hour rule, which states that to be a success at something you need to practice it for 10,000 hours. He cites the Beatles, Bill Gates and J. Robert Oppenheimer as examples of this phemenon. So, if I practiced something for 10,000 hours could I write the next Octopus’ Garden?

Possibly? The thing is that  10,000 hours is a lot of time. More time than I would guess that many of us would be prepared to commit to something. This idea – that motivation and opportunity are the pre-requisites for success – potentially undermines the deep/surface learning argument by questioning whether issues such as context, interrelatednes and application matter at all.

If motivation is everything, it doesn’t matter if we lock students in a box so long as they have sufficient motivation to learn while they are in there.  This is the criticism often levelled at ‘top-class’ institutions; that  success reflects selection policies rather than the quality of the student experience. Graham Gibbs uses the term ‘educational gain‘ to distinguish the value added as a consequence of an educational environment (rather than in spite of it). I think it a useful distinction.

Perhaps the first question that we should ask student is ‘why do you want to be here?’. Do they have to be there as a condition of probation or as barrier to trade? Do they want the recognition of having learned something more than the experience of learning it? This is the reason that I’ve always been daunted by the prospect of teaching secondary school students, who may well be there extremely reluctantly. Is it our job to make them interested, which is a rather exhausting prospect?

This type of debate has led to the introduction of a third type of leaner. Move over deep learner. Make way surface learner. Here comes the strategic learner. But that’s a story for another day.


01: All facts are wrong

Google defines the word facts as:

  1. A thing that is indisputably the case.
  2. Information used as evidence or as part of a report or news article.

Facts are an obvious example of surface learning.  Henry the VIII had six wives, our solar system has 9 planets, Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye etc. I was taught these things in school and I remember them now. Except they are all wrong. Or at least not indisputably right.

The TV programme QI delights in debunking these:

  • The International Astronomical Union has downgraded Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, as it is not considered to ‘dominate its environment’.
  • Some of Henry VIII’s marriages were annulled, so the poor ladies in question lost their wifely statuses (there were worst things to lose in Henry’s court).
  • I was taught at school that Harold wasn’t killed by an arrow to the eye. Instead he was hacked to pieces. A quick check on Wikipedia suggest that both might be true. Nice thought.

To understand the significance of these ‘facts’ you need to understand the context in which they located. Facts change, as interpretations change. However, even if a fact remains constant it does not necessarily mean that it has meaning to an individual student.

As part of my Biology GSCE I was made to label parts of a flower. I was given a picture of a flower – not unlike this one – and asked to reproduce it. I did. It was extraordinarily dull. It was extraordinarily pointless. It reduced Biology – a subject that I was once fascinated in – to a terrible grind. I labelled diagrams. I memorised diagrams. I reproduced diagrams in exam conditions. I passed my exam. I lost my interest in Biology.

When every single label had disappeared from my mind, I rediscovered how interesting Biology is (stop sniggering at the back etc.) and begain to learn about it again. I took a university course on animal behaviour, I read biographies about great biologists, I visited natural history museums in every city I could. I wanted to learn.

For me, surface learning is a useful way to describe learning which relies upon facts as the cornerstone of an education. Learning, that places more emphasis on covering a syllabus rather than studying it. As (bad) luck would have it, a fact-based – or ‘knowledge-based – curriculum is high on the UK agenda thanks, in part, to the enthusiasm of Education Secretary Michael Gove. I wonder what Marton and Säljö would make of it?

01: Deep and surface learning

It’s January. It’s cold. It’s dark. The Christmas decorations are packed away. Blue Monday – the most depressing day of the year – is on the horizon. What better time to start a blog.

To ease myself into this project I’m going to start with the basics: deep and surface learning. These terms were introduced by Ference Marton and Roger Säljö in their 1976 paper in the British Journal of Educational Psychology ‘On Qualitative Differences in Learning’. Unfortunately the original paper is hidden behind a paywall. Thankfully, you don’t have to look too hard to fund summaries of their research and findings.

Surface learning is knowledge without meaning or context.  It simply exists free-floating in your head, learned through repetition and reproduced on demand. For example, I know that Bobby Stokes scored the only goal of the 1976 FA Cup Final (in the 83rd minute fact fans). This knowledge has not improved my life – outside of pub quizzes there is nothing I can do with it – it is just there. Well done Bobby Stokes. Well done me.

Deep learning is the opposite. It is knowledge that relates to other knowledge. It connects principle with experience, evidence and argument, and meaning with action. For example, I know that there is a force called gravity which is caused by physical bodies attracting each other (stop sniggering at the back) and results in things having weight. Put more prosaically, when I drop something, it falls. It falls because forces are being exerted on it, not because that is what things do. This knowledge is useful to me (sort of). It makes sense to me (sort of). It helps me understand the world around me. I think that makes it deep learning.

Is my knowledge of the seven times table an example of surface of deep learning? I learned it by rote and without context, which pushes it towards the surface camp. However, it has also proved useful to me when I apply it in a range of different contexts (erm…calculating change…playing scrabble?), which would perhaps suggest the latter. Are surface and deep learning mutually exclusive? Can one become the other? Or is surface learning merely a synonym for bad learning?

Perhaps the answer lies in my motivation to learn, which is another distinction that Marton and Säljö make between the types of learning. Surface learning is extrinsically motivated (e.g. I want to pass my driving test so that I can legally drive on the road). Deep learning is intrisically motivated, so that the rewards are personal (e.g. I want to learn to drive). Perhaps the most important factor in learning is simply the desire to learn.

Decisions, decisions…

12 months, 12 concepts. Which to choose?

I needed to establish some ground rules:

  1. I’m not writing a text book. Therefore I don’t need to start at the beginning, cover a syllabus or wrap everything up in a bow at the end. My approach will be gloriously scattershot.
  2. I owe no allegiance. Education spans philosophy, sociology, psychology, and no doubt a number of other disciplines that end in ‘y’. As far as possible, I’m not going to care which tradition an idea sprang from (although I’m going to stay away from brain chemistry stuff for now).
  3. Better to write something, than nothing. I’m aiming to write something at least once a week. I might not use the right words, or put them in order right the but at least it will be something.

I have some ideas for concepts to start with, but I’ll probabably run out before  the year gets warm. So, I’ve decided to email a number of former colleagues to ask for further suggestions. Hopefully, I’ll have enough to keep me busy.