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!