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Tag Archives: Deep Learning

 

How do you want to travel?

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about individual accountability for engaging in learning, and the delicacy in creating a climate where each person in the room feels as invested in the value and success of the course as the instructor does. This means focusing on the process (how learners decide to engage – or not) as well as the content (syllabus or curriculum).

Courses and workshops represent particular journeys for all participants – teacher included. In general, learning facilitators establish and negotiate the content, pacing, climate and structure throughout the course. And yet, learners themselves decide what and how they will learn. Learning can happen in the absence of teaching, and teaching can happen in the absence of learning. The magic happens when the two come together.

Most workshops and courses typically start off with a conversation about:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Course overview or outline
  • Participants’ learning goals
  • Learning assessments.

However, it’s equally important for learners to identify how they will contribute. In other words, reflecting on how they will learn and participate, what might hold them back, and what would make it safe to take risks and participate in ways that can feel downright uncomfortable. I think these questions are crucial precursors to the usual content-focused beginning to workshops and courses, because a conversation about process sets the stage for reciprocity and co-engagement in the learning journey.

It comes down to a conversation about how we (both the instructor and the group) collectively intend to make the journey together. From a facilitation perspective, this means starting out by asking questions like:

  1. Are you (learner) coming to this class as a spectator or as a participant?
  2. What are some possible ways into the content that would resonate for you, and how could you amplify these entry points?
  3. What would it take to make you want to step outside your comfort zone?
  4. If you decided to take some risks in the interest of your own ‘deep learning’, how can the group support you?
  5. How will you translate and adapt ideas, knowledge and skills in order to apply them in practice?

It’s not essential that we ask all five questions, and there are a wealth of other questions we could pose. The key is our intentionality in creating time for all participants to reflect on their roles and on the nature of the voyage they will take with you and with one-another.

And the next time I attend a workshop (or a class, meeting, performance, celebration or other opportunity to actively engage), I will be asking myself: “How do I want to travel?”

 

Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

squirrel left

 

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?”

Umm…no.

“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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