What is Deep Understanding?

“It is the peculiarity of knowledge that those who really thirst for it always get it.”  Richard Jefferies

Regardless of whether technology is in the picture or not, I’ve been wondering about deep understanding: what is it, and is it a goal we can actually realize in our schools these days?  Sheryl Naussbaum-Beach did a great keynote at ABEL last week and mentioned how much knowledge will be generated over the coming years and the facts really blow your mind.  There is no way, in a time when knowledge is growing at such an exponential rate, that we’ll be able to keep up with curriculum that is relevant and comprehensive enough to serve our students. Or can we?

I keep coming back to the kind of thinker we’d like to see graduating from our schools after a dozen or so years with us.  That’s a practical vision we CAN have in the face of enormously fast paced change.

Maybe we should asking,  “What kind of thinkers do we want our students to be, rather than what stuff do we want our students to know?”


Especially in the face of ubiquitous access to information, it seems that we’ll need students who can manage large quantities of information, but still be able to reach deep understanding in some areas.

But what is deep understanding?  Can schools really provide the learning environment to nurture and develop it?

  • Deep understanding must involve a well-developed, rich base of knowledge that has relative complexity based upon developmental level.  Can we have deep understanding at a young age?  I think so.  As a teacher of young children I have seen our youngest children develop some relatively complex skills given the limitations of their development.  Although we can’t expect a 6-year old to have the base of knowledge of a 13-year old, we can begin to cultivate and model a quest for a depth of understanding at an early age.  If we have confidence that young students can be doing the ‘real work’ of learning we can help them develop habits of mind that allow for deeper understanding.
  • Deep understanding also involves understanding that is flexible and useful in solving real problems.  We hear this in our objectives at school all the time, but I struggle with how this can happen when we are always planning with the end in mind, if the end involves a static list of information that needs to be memorized or learned in a superficial way for a test.  Can schools provide authentic real problems worth solving if the teacher is not a co-learner and if the projects are always contrived?  Just asking.  Check out my friend @dougpete’s recent blog posting.  I hope Doug doesn’t mind me analyzing his thinking…but it strikes me that this kind of flexible real-world problem solving is evident in someone who has deep understanding that leads to creative work which often transfers to other areas, a synthesis of good thinking if you will.   This is the kind of thinker I hope to be helping to shape in the limited year that I have students in my classroom.
  • Deep understanding is not often treated as an endpoint, but more often encourages continued growth and the desire to know more.  Learning is seldom done, finished or complete, but rather leads us in a new path.  Can we cultivate this kind of thinking in younger students?  I think we can if inquiry-based approaches really do allow students the choice to explore their own well-developed questions.

Can we see evidence of deep understanding or does it occur only in the inner world of the learner?

Our challenge as educators is that we are given the task of showing evidence of this kind of thinking, and the kinds of assessment needed to allow the demonstration of deep understanding are not easy to create (that’s another subject altogether).   Here’s what I look for:

  • Are students make sense of what they are learning by creating meaning and making ideas their own?
  • Are students connecting ideas together and connecting with previous experiences?
  • Are students personally involved and engaged in constructing new knowledge (may include intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual domains)
  • Is there evidence of transformation?  Does the student take action or change their beliefs based upon what they are learning? How do we know if this has occurred?
  • Are students involved in making a plan to acquire the kinds of knowledge they need in order to go deeper in their learning?

I wish I was seeing more student involvement in learning in our schools.  There appear to be very few interesting or unique or student-driven questions being explored, and I wonder about whether new knowledge is being constructed.

In thinking about the ways that I might keep deep understanding at the forefront when I’m planning my teaching I’ve come up with these:

  • promote active learning and creative production of artifacts that demonstrate understanding
  • integrate the aspects of cognition, or ‘ways of knowing’ (word, sound, image, gesture) as suggested by Elliot Eisner in support of integrating arts and education
  • explore complex issues
  • give students opportunity to discuss, debate, and problem-solve collaboratively
  • emphasize the assessment of changes in student understanding (growth based assessment) rather than a focus on acquiring content
  • structure the learning environment to allow for the deeper exploration of ideas (e.g. through personal choice,  scheduled large blocks of time, complex  authentic performance tasks, authentic audience, self-evaluation)
  • provide an opportunity for public scrutiny and feedback of products, ideas, and performance

Technology fits quite naturally as one of the tools a teacher might use to support the quest for deeper learning, but as you can see the technology is not at the forefront.  I don’t think it’s helpful to name specific ‘tools’ as so many come to mind to those who’ve been around the cyber-block a few times.    No wonder we embrace technology…it has the potential to help students towards thinking deeply!

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15 comments

  1. Good morning Brenda,

    I really like the way you have framed your thoughts in the form of a question, “What kind of thinkers do we want our students to be?”

    I remember 25 years ago working with the “5 Step Method” Focus, Plan, Carry out the Plan, Process and Present. I remember trying to frame the content as authentic learning in the form of real life problems. It was good stuff.

    Just recently there has been work locally towards renewing the “Inquiry Process”. I’m not sure we are there yet, but I think this is the way to go. Not so much knowledge based but how we can guide students to the deep understanding as you have described above.

    Something to chew on for the rest of the weekend.

    Kent

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kent!
      I agree that ‘inquiry process’ is the way to go, especially with the world’s knowledge base changing as fast as it is.

      I think we are such a long way off…at ABEL they mentioned changing from a paradigm of competition to collaboration, which might help use to give students more freedoms, but education moves slowly!

  2. Hey,

    Lots of great thoughts here to mull over. I like the point of how do we plan with the end in mind, if the end is always changing. Do we need to plan for a different end? I like that.

    I also like process driven planning and giving students opportunities to delve deeply in relevant areas. I see the Inquiry/Critical Thinking resurgence as an opportunity to explore that more.

    We still have the E(qao)lephant in the education rooms, as to how to do we do this great process planning when all around we have competing interests wanting different ‘ends’ with their testing regimes.

    Great stuff to ponder.

  3. I read a little book last summer called “Teaching for Tomorrow – Teaching Content and Problem-Solving Skills” by Ted McCain, because I wasn’t very informed about how ‘growth-based assessments’ could work in secondary schools. As a primary teacher, I’ve always taken kids where they are, and reported on their moves forward.

    McCain uses gradual release, a problem-solving model and an emphasis on the debrief part of assessment ie. what have you learned from this? I think it has potential as a strategy to keep focused on process, not product…

    http://www.committedsardine.com/books_review.cfm?CFID=853354&CFTOKEN=1eb670e6b6902add-25509CAD-19B9-B4CD-18B268D3805063F0

  4. Hi Brenda,
    A nice thoughtful post!
    You say, “Deep understanding is not often treated as an endpoint, but more often encourages continued growth and the desire to know more. Learning is seldom done, finished or complete, but rather leads us in a new path. Can we cultivate this kind of thinking in younger students?”

    Of course, I think that it exists naturally in children before we rob them of that locus of control you and I often speak together about so much. And, like Neil Postman said, Children enter kindergarten as question marks and leave as periods.” (May be paraphrasing here!)

    I also think that we can cultivate and deepen it by changing the culture of the classroom. Yes, there are specific strategies we can delineate, but truly it is about the classroom culture that fosters thinking as ‘a highly valued activity’. John Seely Brown suggested that, “Learning is a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.”

    The specific strategies arise from, and are embedded in, this culture rather than being ‘contrived and patched-in strategies’.

    I think maybe I will post some of the strategies I believe to be important – journal writing, scaffolding, and collaboration – embedded, of course, in a rich, authentic, inquiry-based classroom.

    Thx for the provocation – once again. :-)

    1. Peter and Brenda,

      Thank you for the Neil Postman reference my friend.

      I have in front of me my original dog-eared copy of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” by Postman and Weingartner (Copyright 1969) and you and Brenda have just twigged me into re-reading the following chapters beginning this evening!

      Chapter 3: The Inquiry Method
      Chapter 5: What’s Worth Knowing

      Thank you for keeping the conversation going.

      Kent

      1. Hey…I’m going to re-read those chapters as well. I haven’t pulled that book out for quite some time.
        Did you know that our ECOO Spotlight, @marklipton was a student of Postman’s?
        How cool is that???!!!

      2. Yes Kent,
        I have, as we discussed last time we met, have been very well-behaved in recent years – after a number of years of being somewhat disruptive (to put it mildly). But every time I go there now in my writings, I feel that it is arrogant and self-righteous. So I rewrite more delicately.

        But, honestly, there are a lot of dumb things being said these days – as if they are ‘truths of the new millennium’.

        I do believe that maybe a few of us should burst out of our ‘polite zone’ and just say it as we ‘feel’ it.

        I am writing something called ‘Myths’. There are about ten of them I have listed. Maybe we’ll make it a spotlight at ECOO this year.

        It fits with Postman’s thoughts on subversion. I am sorry he is not around any more. I was not as fortunate as Mark Lipton in my relationship with him, but, his kindness and discussion with me after my presentation at a conference in Israel certainly left an impression.

  5. Hi Brenda,

    I especially like your look-fors:
    * Are students make sense of what they are learning by creating meaning and making ideas their own?
    * Are students connecting ideas together and connecting with previous experiences?
    * Are students personally involved and engaged in constructing new knowledge (may include intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual domains)
    * Is there evidence of transformation? Does the student take action or change their beliefs based upon what they are learning? How do we know if this has occurred?
    * Are students involved in making a plan to acquire the kinds of knowledge they need in order to go deeper in their learning?

    As you, and others, state, we as educators are stuck somewhere between inquiry and evaluation, and try to mash our round constructive pegs into square content-driven holes. By defining the evidences of deep-thinking, we go a long way towards legitimizing assessments of inquiry and project-based learning. I am sure no one would argue against creating opportunities for deep-thinking, but we need to define more clearly what it is, how it can be demonstrated, and most importantly, how it links to the highest order thinking skills, (“Create, Evaluate” Blooms, 2001)

    1. Hi Barbara,

      When you say…
      “I am sure no one would argue against creating opportunities for deep-thinking, but we need to define more clearly what it is, how it can be demonstrated, and most importantly, how it links to the highest order thinking skills, (“Create, Evaluate” Blooms, 2001)”

      I think you’ve outlined the difficult part…it’s so much easier to assess lower-level thinking for our evaluation purposes. When it comes to really deep learning, the evidence might not emerge quite so evidently or in a timely fashion.
      Wish we could come up with the answer to that one…eh? :)

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