John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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Modes of learning (West-Burnham & Coates (2005) (p35)

The essential characteristics of each mode of learning may be summarised as follows: Shallow learning: focused on the memorisation and replication of information; uncritical acceptance of facts; rote learning; seeing information as unrelated and isolated themes; learners are passive; emphasis on coverage of content; assessment is summative; content is quickly forgotten. Shallow learning is controlled by the teacher with the learner compliant and dependent.

Deep learning: focused on the creation of knowledge through the demonstration of understanding; the analysis and synthesis of facts to create conceptual models and frameworks; integrating prior learning and cross-referencing to other themes and subjects; leaning is active and based in relationships; emphasis on depth; assessment is formative and negotiated; content is remembered and codified. Deep learning is controlled by learner, who understands the learning process with the teacher as facilitator, mentor and co-constructor of knowledge.

Profound learning: the situation where knowledge becomes wisdom, i.e. intuitive and fundamental to the identity of the person; the capacity to create new meaning in changing situations and contexts; developing a holistic awareness of the relationship between themes, subjects, principles and practice; assessment is through personal authenticity and integrity. The teacher becomes the guide, inspiration, friend and counsellor.

Profound learning has many manifestations, from learning to talk in childhood to the artistry of the concert pianist; from the skills and compassion of the nurse to the great scientific discovery; from the skill of the joiner to the creativity of the painter.

Shallow learning is playing the notes; deep learning creates the melody; profound learning enables the great performance. Shallow learning gives access to vocabulary and the rules of grammar; deep learning allows conversations; profound learning enables engagement with poetry, ideas and thinking. Profound learning is the characteristic of the F1 driver, the mentor, the highly successful learner and athlete. Profound learning moves us from religious observance to spirituality.

There is not necessarily a causal relationship from shallow to deep and on to profound. There are many examples of people who go directly to deep and profound – some never pass shallow. Equally deep and profound are not homogeneous for all aspects of learning – thus the same person may be shallow with regard to ICT, deep in their understanding of learning and teaching and profound in their interpersonal relationships.

Deep and profound learning are not age related – witness Mozart. Nor are they linked to models of academic ability or intelligence. It is possible to be shallow, deep or profound in each of Gardner´s intelligences. The chess grand master may lack interpersonal intelligence; the person with high linguistic intelligence may lack spatial and kinaesthetic abilities. Pivotal to deep learning and the foundation of profound learning is understanding:

An individual understand a concept, skill, theory, or domain of knowledge to the extent that he or she can apply it. This formulation entails an acid test for understanding: posing to students a topic or theme or demonstration that they have never before encountered, and determining what sense they can make of those phenomena. An individual who possesses relevant understanding will be able to draw on appropriate concepts. (Gardner 1999 p119)


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