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DEEP LEARNING IN SCHOOLS: A NEW PARADIGM IN PRACTICE

Tue Aug 11 2020 Michael McQueen

The need for change in education has been an urgent topic of interest in recent years. As it is perhaps the most future-focussed industry that exists, equipping the innovators, workers and leaders of tomorrow, its vulnerability to current disruption is a necessary area of concern.

Driven by minds like Kieran Egan, deep learning has been posed as the new paradigm that will effectively equip today’s students with the tools they will need for their futures. Not to be confused with the Deep Learning function of Artificial Intelligence, deep learning refers to a thorough understanding of a topic as opposed to a superficial understanding of many topics.

Deep learning reaps some key benefits in its learners. With it comes the development of learning skills and an understanding of complexity. Deep learners approach the world with an understanding of its nuances and a developed sense of discernment. They are able to move forward confidently in their thinking, skills and creativity, because their knowledge and learning has been strengthened by its depth.

Furthermore, as explained by Kieran Egan, ‘Learning something in depth carries over to a better understanding of all our other “breadth” knowledge.’[1] The skills necessary in understanding something deeply, such as synthesis, evaluation and enquiry, are not specific to a certain topic, but are able to be transferred to a variety of disciplines and fields of knowledge.

Something that older generations are quick to criticise in their younger counterparts is their lack of grit and perseverance. Millennials especially are notorious in the eyes of older generations for entitlement, oversensitivity and a lack of commitment. These are all traits that deep learning prevents. By wholeheartedly committing yourself to a single discipline, task or topic, you guarantee yourself the skills of perseverance, commitment and grit.

In my hometown, the Association of Independent Schools NSW (AISNSW) has created a framework of deep learning that is implementing these aims and abilities in schools.

The AISNSW has used existing frameworks surrounding deep learning created by Joanne McEachen, Joanne Quinn, and Michael Fullan to approach their teaching through 6 key competencies. These are[2]:

  • Creativity – training students to think entrepreneurially, asking the right questions to generate innovative solutions;
  • Critical thinking – the ability to evaluate information, see patterns and apply knowledge to the real world;
  • Communication – training students to communicate through various forms and to various audiences;
  • Character – deepen character with qualities of perseverance and resilience, and to make learning central to life beyond school;
  • Citizenship – thinking as a citizen of the world who understands its complexity and diversity and is focussed on understanding and solving its problems;
  • Collaboration – working interdependently with teams, learning to understand and manage group dynamics and form collaborative ideas.

Each of these 6 competencies is core to effective modern work. More and more we are seeing collaboration become the paradigm for work, and communication become a necessary tool for making this collaboration between diverse groups possible. Critical thinking and creativity are increasingly becoming key demands of employers and customers and are necessities within an innovative and complex world. The modern market is increasingly centred around citizenship and character, with the integrity and social impacts of businesses being prioritised by customers.

For the workers of tomorrow’s world, these 6 competencies will be essential, as will the ability to learn and think deeply within an increasingly complex and nuanced context.

AISNSW has had outstanding responses on the ground level from students and teachers at their schools.

At Tyndale Christian School, where the program has been implemented, the results have been described as ‘revolutionary’[3]. The school’s Deputy Principal, Dr Bronwyn Wong, reported a greater awareness and investment of students in their own learning. Students are approaching learning with the tenacity and perseverance that they will need in the future and understanding the unique strengths that they have to offer in collaborative contexts. Creativity, critical thinking and collaboration are no longer simply aims but are self-reflexively integrated into the learning process.[4]

Hills Grammar also took part in the program and with the real-world context in mind set up a ‘solar-challenge’ where teams of students designed a solar water heater. The process of collaboration was integral to this teamwork. Students reflected on their own strengths and abilities beforehand and collaboration was a key aim of the process, rather than remaining an afterthought or an empty label. Teachers acted as coaches in the process but the work was autonomously done by students in teams.[5]

Kieran Egan suggests that deep learning offers the potential to create and reimagine its subject. The problem with learning many things superficially is that the potential for innovation or creativity is lost.[6] When assessing the real-world responses and results of this deep learning program in schools, it is clear that this is not just a theory. By fostering deep learning about real-world topics within a collaborative context, creative results were impossible to avoid.

For those of us in the corporate world, deep learning and its core competencies are not limited to education. Encouraging single-tasking in teams and building deep learning into workers and leaders would guarantee businesses of innovation, expertise and tenacity. Creative solutions to real-world problems would be made possible through the collaborative efforts of individuals of character. 

In the words of Tyndale Christian School's Deputy Principal, Dr Bronwyn Wong, the results of deep learning and its core competencies were “…a more positive focus by students and staff because we have a shared goal, a common language and we can see that the connections between the various elements of deep learning provide a humane way to learn.”[7]

Translating these skills and results into our current corporate context, as well as the one that tomorrow’s workers, innovators and leaders will create, promises not only a world of creativity and collaboration, but a world of greater humanity.

For those of us beyond school, it seems our students have much to teach us.

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Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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 [1]Egan, K. 2010, Learning In Depth, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 6.

[2]AISNSW 2020, ‘Designing for Deep Learning,’ AISNSW, 11 August.

[3]Tyndale Christian School 2020, ‘Our School’s Transformation Journey,’ AISNSW, 11 August.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Hills Grammar 2020, ‘Shining a Light on Collaboration,’ AISNSW, 11 August.

[6]Egan, K. 2010, Learning In Depth, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 6.

[7]Tyndale Christian School 2020, ‘Our School’s Transformation Journey,’ AISNSW, 11 August.