Friday, January 27, 2012

Getting lost in learning: A confession and a glimmer of hope

It's slightly embarrassing to admit this, but for someone who blogs and talks about deep learning as much as I do, I'm still a bit superficial when it comes to my own formal learning (in my defense, I'll argue that is true of most of us).  I'll use my current qualitative inquiry graduate course as an example.  Last week I was in class when another student commented that she had read ahead in one of the texts for the class.  My immediate thought was--"Don't you have anything better to do?" and I cast a glance at a friend in the class much like what I did as a high school student when one of the "nerds" made a comment in class (apparently, I have matured very little since my days at Skyline High School).  More evidence of my failure to consistently be a deep learner:  I almost always set a timer for myself when I'm working on research or other scholarly projects and quit as soon as it goes off, I can't think of a time when I have ever read ahead in a class, and I once opted to turn in an entire paper for a political science class because I knew it would make no difference in my final grade.  However, I occasionally have moments of brilliance when I become, if only for a moment, the kind of learner I expect students on my campus to be.  It happened last night and after it was all over, I wondered what had happened and why, for those 60 minutes or so, I "went deep."

I was reading Bob Stake's very excellent commentary on qualitative research (Qualitative research:  Studying how things work)--not because I chose to, but because it was assigned for class--and came across a statement Stake makes about the usefulness of intuition when making judgments about quality (the statement and commentary are too long to discuss here, but on pp. 162 - 163 Stake makes a fascinating comparison between professional judgments about quality and God's statement in Genesis about the "goodness" of the Creation).  Before I knew it, I had jotted down a question this raised for me in the margin's of the book, pulled my copy of Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) off my bookshelf, and read about the psychology of impressions for close to an hour.  It's worth noting that this happened at about 7:00 p.m., after a 10 hour workday with no lunch, and at the end of a particularly long week.

So, what happened?  What triggered or facilitated this episode?  Here are some guesses:

1.  Interest in the subject matter.  I am actually fairly interested in qualitative methodologies.  They seem far more human and useful to me than p values, degrees of freedom, and ANOVAs.  So, while my excitement about fighting off hunger to read Chapter 9 of Stake's book at the end of a long day may not have been high, I did have a latent interest in the general subject matter.  So, the potential for coming across an idea or concept that was interesting was better than if I had been reading Research Methods and Statistics (also on my shelf, but not likely to be pulled down anytime soon).

2.  Connections to current concerns or experiences.  I am currently working on a paper, which will be presented in April at AERA's Annnual Meeting, that uses qualitative methodologies to explore how learners integrate theoretic and experiential knowledge by sharing narratives with one another.  So, qualitative issues are on my mind a lot (in large part because I don't want to look stupid at the conference).

3.  Potential for learning/thinking to be made public.  One of the requirements for the class is that we post our thoughts to a class google document where the professor and (in theory) classmates read one another's thoughts.  So, when I came across the passage I mentioned above, I immediately thought about what I might say about it in my posting to the Google Doc.  I also knew that at some point in our next class meeting, I would be asked to comment on the reading.  Rather than regurgitating ideas from the reading, but using different words (which sometimes happens), I wanted to raise the question I had while I was reading (which was whether articulating a rationale for intuitive judgments is dangerous) and then have some kind of relatively cogent response to give.  I also thought it might be interesting to bring in an "outside" book to the discussion.  Hence, my willingness to spend an hour reading something that I didn't have to.

4.  Time and space.  Had I read the same chapter from Stake's book on another evening when I needed or wanted to get home early, or if I had been reading at home with my daughter's Disney movie playing in the next room or the allure of what might currently be on tv, things wouldn't have turned out like they did.  However, last night was a night when I didn't need to rush home and had a quiet office to study in.  Context and environment played a role in my deep learning experience.

5.  A relatively broad base to draw from and connect to.  This will seem overly simplistic and slightly obvious, but it is probably worth stating.  I could connect Stake's ideas to Gladwell's, because I had read Gladwell.  Part of deep learning is making connections to related concepts.  So, in theory, the more one knows, the more connections they can make.  However, "connections" don't always have to be to things we've read previously.  All learners have a set of life experiences to draw from and connect to, whether that is books read, classes taken, memories from childhood, the trip to the grocery store yesterday, or anything else.  If we can bring this set of experiences to mind for learners and then invite them to make connections, deep learning is a lot more likely to occur.  However, it's worth reminding ourselves that novice learners are more likely to struggle with this, so we have to scaffold, nudge, encourage, and model it a lot when learners aren't accustomed to "going deep."

I've tried with this list to illustrate that deep learning is dependent on a number of factors--the learner, the instructor, and the environment.  Those factors aren't always (maybe "very rarely" would be more accurate) under our control.  At the end of the day, deep learning is an organic, spontaneous thing that may or may not happen.  But, as learners and instructors we can increase the likelihood of deep learning occurring by being aware of what can lead to episodes like the one I had, and trying to do our best to throw the right things into the pot.  So, I guess in some ways it is an act of faith, but one worth taking.

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