Do we want ‘deeper learning’ classrooms?

It’s very easy to present a false dichotomy to make our own beliefs and choices seem more desirable than the alternatives. Consider this infographic from the Hewlett Foundation which has been doing the rounds:

What’s being implied is that the ‘deeper learning’ classroom somehow better prepares children for being scientists in the ‘science lab’ than ‘traditional’ classrooms. Maybe we’re also supposed to assume that the ‘deeper learning’ classroom is a better preparation for all workplaces?

The superficial attempts made by the infographic’s designers to make the ‘traditional’ classroom’ look less appealing. The walls are grey, there are fewer windows and there’s a shelf of boring old books! Now look at the ‘deeper learning’ classroom: not only are the walls brighter and the windows more numerous, the children wear brighter coloured clothing and there’s even a girl in a wheel chair! Is this a fair comparison? Are we supposed to assume that wheelchairs wouldn’t be welcome in the ‘traditional’ classroom?

In the ‘traditional’ classroom the teacher, clearly identified by his suit – obviously only men teach in traditional classrooms! – is explaining some mathematical concept concerning angles. The students face front and concentrate on what the teacher is saying. Paying attention is a prerequisite for learning, so can is likely to be a classroom in which students are developing abstract mathematical knowledge. In a traditional setting, children learn as they have for generations: by receiving instruction. We might not like this tradition but we ought to acknowledge that it’s endured for a reason.

But what of ‘deeper learning’? What does it actually mean? We have to take our cues from the captions in the image: for instance, the student on the computer has “mastered and can use content knowledge in real world situations. Should we infer that this transformation took place as a result of sitting at the computer? If not, then how did it happen? Then the girl with the space shuttle shows off her ability “to make presentations to express [herself] and receive feedback constructively.” Does anyone really believe that children don’t present their ideas or receive feedback in traditional classrooms? It’s not clear from the image that any of the other students are interested in giving her feedback – constructive or otherwise – because they’re bust ‘collaborating’. This involves “cooperat[ing] with others to solve problems together and learn from my peers.” Everyone can cooperate, solve problems and learn from peers – these are all basic evolutionary adaptations. These things are, if anything, the most superficial types of learning – what would demonstrate real depth of understanding would be if they were able to solve problems and collaborate on the mathematics been taught in the traditional classroom. To suggest that looking at a bell curve develops critical thinking or that sitting around a table with some models induces a ‘positive mindset’ is all a bit disingenuous. Is the claim that no one in the traditional classroom will develop these attributes?

We are clearly being presented with a false dichotomy. Our choice is being reduced to either a boring traditional classroom in which children sit in rows and listen to their teacher or a fun, vibrant space in which children do whatever they fancy but still somehow ‘master content’. But what if the traditional classroom is also fun and vibrant? What if the ‘deep learning’ classroom has peeling walls, graffitied desks and disaffected students?

What you believe determines what you see. To me, the ‘traditional’ classroom appears a comparative oasis of calm and purpose next to the ‘deeper learning’ classroom in which children play with spaceships, chat about stuff and the figure to the far right of the image – maybe a teacher – slouches disconsolately as the chaos unfolds.

A lot of disputes in education are of the duck/rabbit variety: we’re all looking at the same thing but some of us see a duck while others see a rabbit. The thing we’re all liable to forget is that there isn’t a duck or a rabbit, there’s only a squiggle. As human beings we’re desperate to see meaning and feel belonging. Our behaviour is fiercely tribal and reality is a lot more complex than we like to admit.

Maybe some of the aspects of the ‘deeper learning’ classroom are desirable. And by the same token, so might some aspects of the traditional class room be worth retaining. The mistake would be to believe that by giving our classrooms the superficial appearance of workplaces we somehow make learning more authentic, or indeed that such authenticity is in any way desirable. Novices benefit from explicit instruction whereas as experts learn more through discovery. As the most recent PISA data suggests, if we want children to genuinely aspire to work in laboratories it would probably be a mistake to imagine that classrooms should – in general – be more like labs.

For a more detailed critique of ’21st century learning’, see this post.

12 Responses to Do we want ‘deeper learning’ classrooms?

  1. […] post Do we want ‘deeper learning’ classrooms? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning […]

  2. David Jones says:

    What certainly is true is that we don’t have any inkling, in 2017, what is the best way to approach learning. From class to class, school to school, county to county, colleagues doing what they think is the best. Variation here, inconsistency there.

    This said, the sector doesn’t have the luxury of this dialogue anyway. 30 to a class, budgets cut to the bone and all the while the poor teacher expected to achieve ever greater outcomes against the shadow of blame and fear that stalks everyone . The luxury of classroom design… something for the trainee teacher to consider before the reality of learning today hits them. In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

    • Michael Pye says:

      I thought that we do have an inkling. It might be imperfect and hard to interpret but an inkling is a low hurdle that we can easily step over. Your quote In folly ripe, in reason rotten implies that all promises are worthless, but teachers do have some control over their own classrooms however imperfect. Bit confused by what you are saying here would you mind elaborating.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    Just came across a quote from Thomas Sowell:

    “For the annointed, traditions are likely to be seen as the dead hand of the past, relics of a less enlightened age, and not as the distilled experience of millions who faced similar human vicissitudes before.”

  4. manyanaed says:

    Isn’t the same teacher in both classrooms?

  5. JL says:

    The deeper learning classroom has a very unrealistic view of student motivation and ability to maintain focus on the task. Few and far between are the classes I’ve taught where the students would be on task without me directly monitoring them. It really doesn’t matter how well you structure the activity, or lay out the roles they are to have in groups, or set consequences for not meeting deadlines, etc. At least in the picture there are some students “allowed” to work individually–not everything is forced group work. So at least a few of the top students are not being held back. But I can’t see how this scenario helps the weaker students in any way…

    Love the Thomas Sowell–great quote!

  6. chestnut says:

    I really get confused with deep learning – can it really happen in one lesson? I think it happens over time and the obsession with what the classroom looks like misses the point about what the sequence of learning looks like over weeks and indeed a year or two or more.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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