College & Workforce Readiness

Expert: Deeper Learning Hinges on Content Expertise

By Liana Loewus — November 17, 2013 2 min read
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Live from the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston.

In general, I’m able to rattle off a quick explanation about hot education topics—reform, accountability, student-centered learning come to mind. But one I admit I’ve simply been unable to understand—and therefore cogently explain—has been “deeper learning.”

In an afternoon session here yesterday about just that topic, Christine Massey, the director of research and education at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a helpful definition: “We take deeper learning as the process of learning for transfer.”

The “we” she refers to is a National Research Council committee that has been working to pin down deeper-learning and 21st-century skills. “Presumably [deeper learning] was deeper than memorization, fact-based learning, and procedural knowledge. But we didn’t want to stick with a negative definition—we wanted something that was more positive.” After much research, they settled on the idea of transferrable knowledge.

Knowledge is transferrable, she explained, if you can “decide when it can be taken productively to another context. You know how, where, and when it might be applied when you’re going to have to use it in a way that’s different from when you first learned it.” It differs from “just-in-time learning,” or what you can get from Google, she said.

In the previous day’s keynote, Will Richardson had argued students should be using networked technology for learning and that teachers should allow students to direct their own learning with tools like Google. Massey addressed that discrepancy. “I don’t want to pick on Will Richardson, I think he gave an inspiring talk ... but our committee came to a different conclusion,” she said.

While Richardson and other 21st-century-learning experts tend to tout teaching skills like creativity, communication, and collaboration above content and knowledge, Massey argued that all are critical. Deep learning is akin to expertise—and is all about content. “If I think about myself, I can do my best thinking—original, creative, insightful thinking—in areas where I know a lot,” said Massey. “If you put me in a novel situation, my thinking is going to be surface, it’s going to be trivial ... . When I’m talking about something I don’t know very much about, my communication skills are going to be very poor. I’m only an effective collaborator in an area where I know what I’m talking about.”

The schism between content and skills does seem like a false dichotomy—see, for example, the “or” in the chart below from Richardson’s presentation. But the fact remains that teachers have only a few solid instructional hours a day. Is it possible to make kids both experts and great thinker/communicator/innovators? Teachers, what do you think is most important to focus on?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.