Learning, Part 4: Deep vs. Surface Learning (3 of 3)

This is the final part of a three part series on deep vs. surface learning.  All of this is part of an ongoing series of posts about my favorite topic in the world: learning. I first introduced the two approaches and talked about why you should take the deep learning approach.

Finally, I’d like to talk about how you can develop reflective thinking skills and also the single most important piece of advice I can give you as a teacher.

Start asking “how” and “why” instead of just “what”

Another way to develop a deep learning approach is to start asking better questions.  While I would never say there is a “wrong” or “stupid” question, I will say that some questions are better than others.

Most of my new students, and my students who are very entrenched in the surface learning pattern, often ask “what” questions: “What does this mean?” “What is the answer?” “What should I say?”  These questions are often useful, but they will usually only get you through this problem.  They won’t help much in the future.

My more advanced students, especially the ones with intrinsic motivation, will take their time and really look deeply into new information.  They start asking “how?” questions, and then “why?” questions: “How else can I say this?”, “How do native speakers use this?”, “How is A different from B?”, and then “Why is this wrong?”, “Why can’t I say this?”, or “Why do native speakers say A instead of B?”  These are the difficult questions with difficult answers, that will really catapult you into the next level of learning.  They start seeing connections that they didn’t see before, things start to make more and more sense, they start to really understand how language works.  It’s a very exciting and invigorating process, once things start to click.  Now for the most important part.

Remember why teachers teach

This might seem like a strange one, but it’s important.  Have you ever really thought about why teachers do what they do?  It’s because they know that you, the student, want to get better at something.  What that means is (and this is important) they already know you’re not good at it, or at least, that you are not perfect at it.  What this means is not only is it ok to make mistakes but that’s why we are here!  Think about it: if you never made any mistakes at something… why would you need a teacher?  LOL

If you only take one thing away from this blog I hope it’s this point here.  Almost every new student I have adopts a surface approach because they incorrectly believe that I am expecting them to get everything right, and to memorize everything I teach them perfectly and use it perfectly every time.   They fear failure.  The problem is, no human can learn without failure, and lots of failure.  In all honesty, mistakes don’t bother me a bit.  What bothers me is when students take an approach to learning that actually hurts them more than helps them.

We’re here to help you.  We want to help you!  When a teacher gets mad at a student or frustrated with a student, that doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong, that means your teacher is doing something wrong.

The basic idea is – and I know some people will hate this – is you have to be consistently active.

Remember, it’s perfectly normal to take a surface approach to many things in our life.  Sometimes we’re not very interested in something that we need to do in order to do something else.  For example, many companies require their employees to take the TOEIC.  Not everyone likes the TOEIC, but many employees need a certain score for work purposes.

Sometimes we have to get things done by a deadline.  For example, many teachers have to write reports every week or even every day about their students.  They don’t need to understand the process deeply, just get it finished.

But there are some things that we learn because we want to, and we have our whole life to do it.  A surface approach hurts this process more than helps it.  Get immersed.  Be curious.  Enjoy the process. 🙂



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