Deep Learning and the Curriculum Disconnect

Disclaimer: I write this knowing I may be off or am missing some perspectives. In other words, it’s why I blog. That’s why comments are open.

Tweeting is easy:

Backing up what you tweet is harder. But tossing out a statement like this I realized that was only right to clarify and expand the thought. The genesis of the tweet comes after seeing many tweets referencing deep learning or similar concepts, I immediately saw the disconnect between devotion to the curriculum and the actualization of deep learning.

The term “deep learning” is rooted in problem-solving, connected learning and personal relevance. I’m not sure if it was coined by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn but they are certainly the most prominent names around the term. The New Pedagogies for Deep Learning movement has been around for a few years. The purpose is to change teaching and learning by shifting from a traditional model of mastery to one that creates new knowledge by the learner. Here’s another way to view deep learning.

The goals of deep learning are that students will gain the competencies and dispositions that will prepare them to be creative, connected, and collaborative life-long problem solvers and to be healthy, holistic human beings who not only contribute to but also create the common good in today’s knowledge-based, creative, interdependent world.

How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning

While Fullan utilizes this term, it could be argued that it is a variation on a theme that includes things like, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry and Problem Based Learning. While each would claim and focus on their differences, they all represent a shift to more student empowerment, more choice, more personalization and deeper learning. They are generally a framework for learning with the learner at the center.

If you’re looking for examples, the paper cited above provides a few. Most of you can think of PBL examples which may all be considered deep learning. To varying degrees, they have curricular expectations and components. But I think it requires great skill to ensure those curricular expectations and constraints interfere with the learning. We may at times get fooled into thinking deep learning is occurring when it may be masked as compliance. Given a requirement of assessment, presentation and accountability is most often part of any learning in school, these can easily take away from ownership and engagement. If nothing else, it’s hard to see these contributing to deep learning. While I know some may argue this, keep in mind I’m not suggesting they are wrong but think about your own learning. When people learn outside of school, they don’t think about being evaluated, they don’t necessarily think about presenting their learning or meeting anyone else’s expectation but their own.

Back to my tweet. While many of these pedagogies are intended to be student-driven, the reality is they are often heavily orchestrated and driven by teachers. I’m not saying that’s bad or that it shouldn’t be used but it’s difficult to call it deep learning. I’m not sure deep learning can occur without full engagement and ownership by the learner. Part of that means that if students own it, it may not align with the curriculum or at least curriculum becomes an afterthought that the teacher may need to reference to determine what alignment exists. In other words, it’s difficult for curriculum to drive this. It matters what we emphasize and what we lead with. Contrast this to the objective-driven classroom where teachers are encouraged to write learning outcomes on the board. Again, not to suggest this is wrong or unnecessary but certainly not deep learning as most definitions state. It seems that in some instances, educators want both the curriculum and deep learning to exist in concert. I’m not sure they can and that may not be a bad thing. Just because something is directed and owned by the teacher, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable but it isn’t what I would call deep learning. Getting “lost” in learning means you aren’t concerned with time (most curricula allocate time to disciplines), disciplines, (all curricula works around subjects) or outcomes (summative assessment and evaluation remain a priority for most).

I’ve had my own struggle with the personalized learning movement and student choice. You can read a few posts here and here but essentially the idea is school has an obligation to as Gary Stager says “introduce to children to things they don’t yet know they love” Particularly in the early years and even into adolescence students should be exposed to a wide range of ideas and opportunities led by adults  with rich and diverse backgrounds. In addition, students should also be able to share their experiences and knowledge with their peers.  

And at some point and at every age range students ought to engage in deep learning. I see school learning in 3 buckets. 

  • Introductory Learning directed and chosen by the adult…Taking advantage of the skills and interests of teachers
  • Mandated Learning (basic reading, math which could be embedded into other learning) ….the curriculum
  • Deep Learning and deep learning tasks chosen by students. 

I’m not sure the time that should be dedicated to this but it would likely be a sliding scale with deeper learning time increasing as the student ages. By the time they are 16, it should hopefully be nearing 75% of their day. 
To be clear I don’t believe all learning needs to be deep or even hard. We’ve long romanticized learning and some deep struggle. As I’ve written before “hard” isn’t the mark of important learning. Maybe deep is always necessary either. Learning can be easy, delightful and still important. For many, they can’t concede that learning might be easy. Perhaps it makes them feel less valuable. I watch my grandaughter engage in her own version of deep learning that is not hard but very meaningful. At age 2 I realize her cognitive ability is very much emerging but I watch her become immersed in a task that is for her very much deep learning but I would not characterize it as full of struggle.

Will Richardson has long debated the need to categorize learning with adjectives like “digital” “inquiry” “immersive” et al. It’s all just learning. I’ve also argued that we tend to overcomplicate learning. But in the end, I think I’m writing this to have us be honest with ourselves. “Deep learning” sounds like it’s the best and most meaningful way to learn. It may well be. I do think the framework is useful and recognizes the changing nature of knowledge and takes advantage of networks and technology to amplify and modernize the learning. But our long-standing need and love of curriculum aren’t as neatly aligned as some might think. Curriculum may have its place but trying to marry it to deep learning, might be a round peg, square hole kinda thing. My tweet and this post challenges any notion that curriculum and deep learning can be in balance and if fact might even be in conflict. That’s not to say they both can’t exist in a learning context but I believe they need to be understood differently.