Learning, Part 2: Deep vs. Surface learning (1 of 3)

Hello again!

It’s Obon now, and for those of you who do not live in Japan or are not familiar with Japan, that means it’s summer vacation.  Only a week long, but for those of us living here in Japan, that’s a long time!

I’m here to continue what I hope is quite a lengthy series of posts on learning.  Earlier, I wrote about what learning is and isn’t, and why learning is such a rewarding process.  If you haven’t already, I hope you take the time out to check that post out.  If you have any trouble understanding it, please feel free to leave a comment, send me a tweet or contact me directly through my website.

I’d like to continue today by discussing one of several approaches to learning: deep vs. surface learning.

I’m sure many of you have never heard of that, but just by the terms themselves you might already have an idea of what they mean.

A surface learner learns with the intention of completing something, usually in order to move on to the next thing or something else.

A deep learner learns with the intention of engaging in the process, usually in order to understand it as fully as possible.

In virtually all cases, if you really want to master something, it is better to be a deep learner than a surface one.  Yet most people are surface learners when it comes to most aspects of our lives.  Why is this?

While there are many factors that contribute, I’m going to bring up my hobby-horse of late: school often conditions us to become surface learners.  We aren’t given the time, motivation or parameters in which to be truly deep learners of any subject.   The conditions which we provided by schools become part of our misconception about learning: the ability to put something in your memory just long enough to get beneficial results on a test means you’ve “learned” something.  We come to think that this process is what most people, at least people in positions of authority, expect from us.  School actually molds us into becoming surface learners.

However, very few people – possibly no one – is completely a surface or deep learner.  It depends on many things, including context and interest.  For instance, if you need to write a report by tomorrow, you’re probably going to be a surface learner in terms of acquiring enough information to get the job done.  However, if you are learning something on your own and there are no deadlines, you’ll probably be a deep learner.

Why should we be deep learners?

This is a very important question, and I have several responses that I’d love to share:

  1. Surface learners don’t actually learn very much.  They memorize things for a while, and then eventually forget them.  Because deep learners have spent the time and energy on the information they’re given, they will much more often retain the information for longer, maybe even indefinitely.
  2. Surface learners don’t really understand what they learn.  There is a big gap between memorizing something and understanding it.  If I asked you to memorize four lines of an English poem, you could probably do it pretty quickly, and maybe even for a long time.  But if I asked you to explain the meaning of those four lines, you probably couldn’t.  Keeping something in your mind is not the same as knowing what it is.
  3. Surface learners cannot connect old knowledge to new knowledge very well.  A surface learner is simply focused on taking care of the next task.  They are looking at a very small picture: “What’s next?”  Looking at the bigger picture may be slow at first, but in the long run, you’ll make more connections between what you learned before and what you are learning now and this makes the more advanced stages easier and helps you improve faster.
  4. Surface learners fail to see patterns.  Because surface learners’ minds are focused elsewhere (on the goal), they are not really paying attention to similar things, or even the same things, that have come up repeatedly.  This can be frustrating for both the student and the teacher (who has to teach the same thing over and over again).  Deep learners will recognize more and more patterns as they improve and this makes learning and communicating a much easier and smoother process.

Next time I will talk about something more important: how to become a deep learning.  Hope to see you all then!

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