Deep Learning

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Do one thing this year that scares the hell out of you


When I think about learning and all it implies, my mind automatically goes to unicorns and rainbows. Phrases like “transformative learning”, “learning community”, “lifelong learning”, “learner-centred”, etc. conjure up an idyll of intrinsically motivated and enriching experiences and endeavors. Don’t get me wrong – this is legitimate and genuine and real. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Yesterday I attended a talk focused on institutional commitments in a learning-centred organization. The speaker ended with a powerful call to action: her own. She committed to identifying and doing “one thing this year that scares the hell out of me”. And then she invited everyone in the audience to do the same. This got me thinking: deep learning happens when the going gets tough. Doing something that scares you is a 100% guarantee that you will learn something new.

In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about the phenomenon of deep learning. In this mode, peoples’ acquisition of a new skill resembles a herd of deer on an icy, slippery slope: tenuous, tentative, struggling, messy. In other words, deep learning is hard and it’s scary, but it may be the most effective route towards mastery.

A few years ago I gave my undergraduate university class a critical analysis assignment, consisting of three parts: (a) Read a challenging scientific research article (selected by me); (b) Submit a critique of the article, no more than three pages in length; (c) Locate two related research articles from an academic database. I loved this assignment because it so effectively assessed essential professional skills of understanding and critiquing research literature in the field, as well as navigating academic databases and locating relevant research. Practicing professionals need to be able to do this.

My students, on the other hand, hated the assignment. They were up in arms! Some said they had to read the article six or more times before they even understood it. Others struggled with how to even begin to critically analyze a scientific article published in a peer-reviewed journal. And still others had successfully avoided exposing themselves to Scholars Portal, and wanted to keep it that way.

Faced with an onslaught of indignation and outrage from approximately 60 people, I went into reflective listening mode: “So, what you’re saying is, this assignment was incredibly challenging. You hated reading a boring article ten times before it even began to make sense. Scientists aren’t too good at making the products of research accessible. Life would have been so much better if the assignment I gave you involved no more than a couple of hours work the night before.” Nods of agreement and reluctant smiles.

But here was my pivotal question to the group:

“If I had given you that easy assignment (welcome as that may have been), tell me this, would you have learned anything?”


“And what about this terrible assignment…did you learn anything useful?”

An unequivocal Yes! … even though it was pretty aversive.

And then the conversation shifted – big time.

We talked as a group about why they had come to university in the first place. We talked about the experience of learning. About how, when things are hard, that is exactly when learning happens. Instead of a mutiny on my hands, the experience was an epiphany for all of us.


I have to keep reminding myself of that lesson. The challenge to commit to one really tough thing this year and follow through is the challenge to commit to the slippery slope of deep learning.

And maybe among the herd of deer on that icy slope, there will be a couple of unicorns.




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