Earlier this month the National Research Council released a study, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. The paper poses a new definition for deeper learning, “The process through which a person becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations – in other words, learning for ‘transfer.’”
Does this study, however, tell us anything that we did not already know? Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and former governor of West Virginia, thinks not. “The term ‘deeper learning’ may be new, but its basic concepts are not. Deeper learning is what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned.” However he does concede in his reaction to the report that, “The NRC report confirms that this type of education–once available to only a few elite students–is now necessary for all.”
Clearly, the need for ‘transfer’ can be understood in different ways. How we view the essence of ‘deep thinking’ significantly changes the goals we have in mind.
I have always thought that successful students can be split into three categories. There are those who know, those who understand and those who ‘see’. Some students can spit back every piece of information ever learned and master skills that allow them to expertly copy the actions of the teacher. They may be able to mimic the style of a master author, while never making a grammatical error, solve any mathematical problem, following the steps that had been taught, or be able to correctly identify the name of any plant or orbit of any planet. They really know. However, when challenged by a problem that does not match anything they had previously encountered, they are lost.
The second category is students who understand. They understand the underlying principles behind all they learn, not only the processes by which they come into existence. When challenged with a problem that does not match previous problems, they quickly realize that while the problem is new, the principles of old knowledge can be applied to solve the new problem. In effect, they realize that it is not really all that different from past problems.
The third group ‘sees’. One could say they ‘deeply understand’ the principles of old knowledge to the extent that they are able to not only relate old knowledge, but are able to create new knowledge from old knowledge. What knowledge the first group may apply, the second can extend, the third will expand.
We are well aware that students who simply know will not be able to successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century. Things change too fast; nothing looks the same as it did yesterday. Just knowing won’t cut it. Understanding has become a basic requirement. If we are to move forward, we must not only nurture understanding, but find ways to demand it. The greatest challenge, however, is educating students to ‘see’, to deeply understand. They must be taught to question everything, be both challenged and challenging, seek for answers and explanations individually and collaboratively, and to understand that learning is only valuable in that it allows for thinking.
Finding ways to make these demands part of our curriculum and the definition of academic excellence is crucial for fashioning the student of the future. Educators who truly ‘see’ know that our children deserve no less.