The Quest for Deep Learning

Fall 2016

By John Austin

Ken Bain’s new book, What the Best College Students Do, profiles college graduates who have gone on to lives of purpose and meaning. Some of these people, like Stephen Colbert, are well known, others less so, but all of them, captured beautifully by Bain in a series of capsule biographies, have transformed their fields and “distinguished themselves with great discoveries or new ways of thinking.”

Throughout his study — a follow-up to his brilliant 2004 analysis of inspiring teaching, What the Best College Teachers Do — Bain distinguishes between “deep” and “strategic” learning. According to Bain, the strategic learner is driven by extrinsic rewards — grades, honors, accolades, admission to a brand name college. Strategic learners work hard but mainly for the rewards; they often have a superficial understanding of their disciplines and are rarely able to transfer that understanding to new and unfamiliar contexts. They are sometimes bored or disaffected, and they are subject to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. They are more apt to cheat and to take shortcuts. They often experience school as a joyless grind through a series of requirements over which they have little interest or control.

Deep learners, in contrast, are driven by their own curiosity and sense of wonder. They conceive of their education as a great adventure, a journey, a quest. They are reflective, self-directed, and autonomous. They are resilient and embrace failure; they delight in messy problems. They forge powerful relationships with others: teachers become colleagues, fellow students collaborators. They see themselves as part of a broader learning community, and they find perspective, support, and inspiration from that community. In the long term, they are more successful — and happier.

This distinction between the strategic and the deep-learning mindsets is more than mere romantic fiction. Rather, it is grounded firmly in a growing body of educational research in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive and affective science, and psychology, particularly the study of human motivation and what has come to be known as “mindsets.” Indeed, one of Bain’s core findings is that mindsets — a belief that one can improve through practice, a sense of belonging to an intellectual community, a reflective self-awareness of how one learns — are the foundation on which all learning rests. Mindsets are what remain once we have forgotten most of what we learn in school, and they shape our approach to all future endeavor.

For anyone interested in the research in the learning and cognitive sciences, Bain offers clear summaries of the most relevant studies on creativity, critical thinking, curiosity, metacognition, and motivation, elegantly connecting that research to the lives of his subjects. I am often intimidated by this research; the language can be off-putting and its practical implications for teaching sometimes unclear. But I found Bain’s explanations of this science wonderfully readable.

Yet for all of its science, Bain’s principal aim is to put the romance back into learning. His is the language of enchantment, not measurement. Words that have been all but stricken from the larger conversation about 21st century education — awe, wonder, curiosity, playfulness, passion, exploration, adventure, joy, and happiness — recur throughout his study. This shift in perspective is refreshing and welcome, given the emphasis in policy circles on short-term measures of student learning and the questionable science that often accompanies them.

One of Bain’s core findings is that mindsets — a belief that one can improve through practice, a sense of belonging to an intellectual community, a reflective self-awareness of how one learns — are the foundation on which all learning rests. 
That school is sometimes organized to discourage deep learning does not escape Bain’s notice. Many of his subjects performed poorly in school and university; they are deep learners despite their college experience, not always because of it. (Colbert had a wonderful college experience, but it was his religious upbringing, his large family, and his mother who were his formative influences.) Bain notes that many students believe that schools exist merely “to get you the right certificate or degree, not to help you develop as a creative, critically intelligent, compassionate, and concerned human being.” Sadly and all too often, that belief persists through the student’s time at university. His book is a defense of both the liberal arts and the freedom to explore that such an education affords. It’s written in large part for those students who see their education instrumentally, as a means to an end. His final chapter, “Making the Hard Choices,” provides the best advice I have yet read for those heading off to college, offering guidance on how to chose a course, read, study, and write — a short primer on how to “take a deep approach to learning.”

For Bain it is often one “phenomenal class, often far afield from their major area of study,” or one transformational teacher who makes the difference in the lives of his “best students.” These are the mavericks and innovators who fundamentally reinvent how their disciplines are taught — teachers such as David Protess, formerly of Northwestern University and now of the Chicago Innocence Project, and David Kaufman, a professor of Russian Literature at the University of Virginia, both of whom Bain profiles. Protess, for example, tasked his journalism students with investigating whether “people convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to die at the hands of the state had been wrongfully convicted.” The result? Many innocent lives were saved. Kaufman’s students didn’t merely study Russian literature; they taught it, leading seminars on Tolstoy for inmates at a juvenile detention facility. These innovative classes combine serious academic study with fieldwork, community engagement, and service, asking students to serve as teachers, mentors, researchers, and advocates. Such courses are simply life changing to the students adventurous enough to take them. I found myself wishing that every student would have one such experience at some point in his or her educational career.

These kinds of teachers, professors who push the boundaries of what can be accomplished within the structure of a conventional course, figure as well in James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Teachers of history, for example, will be interested in Lang’s profile of Mark Carnes, the author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (2014) and founder and guiding spirit behind Reacting to the Past, a consortium of college teachers who use role-plays to simulate moments of historical rupture.

Yet Lang knows that most of us do not have the time to fundamentally reinvent ourselves as teachers. As he rightly remarks, “Sudden and dramatic transformation of one’s teaching is hard work.” For that reason his book focuses on actual practices and small changes that one can make without fundamentally redesigning a course: how we begin and conclude class, how we provide feedback and organize content, how we write exams and design assessments.

Lang begins his book with the 2014 Kansas City Royals. The “small teaching” of his title is the pedagogical equivalent of the bunt or the sacrifice fly, “small-ball” strategies that the Royals used repeatedly and successfully in their 2014 run to the World Series. Like Doug Lemov, whose influential Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College (2010) offers an inventory of effective classroom practices, Lang focuses on high impact micro-strategies, each grounded in the new sciences of learning: activities, interventions, and modifications to course design that are easy to implement and have been shown to demonstrably improve student learning. As Lang points out, we don’t always need to swing for the fence: “Small steps can make a big difference.”

"Students need inspiration as much, if not more than, they need knowledge and skills." 
In his chapter on “Growing,” for example, Lang reviews Carol Dweck’s well-known research on fixed and flexible mindsets, distills from it broad principles and models — reward, design, communicate, and provide feedback for growth — and concludes with a series of “quick tips” on how to implement these distillations into the classroom:
  • Provide early success opportunities in assessment design.
  • Reward improvement through the weighting of assignments or a portion of the grade set aside for that purpose.
  • Give feedback in growth language.
  • Ask students to write letters to future students about how to succeed and include these on the syllabus.
  • Provide examples of initial failures or setbacks in your own intellectual journey — among other tips.

Each of his nine chapters — elegantly sectioned around three broad themes: knowledge (memory), understanding (active learning), and inspiration (motivation and mindsets) — concludes with similarly useful suggestions.

I was not surprised to discover that Lang and Bain were once colleagues. They share many of the same concerns, and together their books beautifully complement one another. They give scientific credibility and practical guidance to those of us who wish to restore to schools the excitement and joy that is an essential, if now neglected, precondition for learning, and they leave no doubt that deep learning rather than measured achievement is — and should be — the fundamental purpose of schooling.

As Lang writes toward the end of his book, “Students need inspiration as much, if not more than, they need knowledge and skills.” As we begin a new school year, we would all do well to remember that.

John Austin

John Austin is headmaster at King’s Academy (Jordan).