John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

Article Sections

Understanding Deep Learning

Perhaps the most concise and yet complete definition of deep learning is provided by Dewey (1933);

We state emphatically that, upon its intellectual side education consist in the formation of wide-awake, careful, thorough habits of thinking. Of course intellectual learning includes the amassing and retention of information. But information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as its material is comprehended. And understanding, comprehension, means that the various parts of the information acquired are grasped in their relations to one another – a result that is attained only when acquisition is accompanied by constant reflection upon the meaning of what is studied. (pp78-79)

Dewey emphasises the essential components of deep learning:

  • Differentiating information and knowledge;
  • Focusing on understanding;
  • Seeing reflection as the key process.

The rest of this paper explores the implications of this model.

Defining Learning

Before debating the nature of deep learning it is necessary to differentiate between the various usages of learning. Learning is a highly ambiguous and contested concept. Common usage would include the following:

  • 1. A qualitative increase in information.
  • 2. Leaning as memorising.
  • 3. Learning as developing skills and techniques.
  • 4. Learning as creating understanding, seeing relationships and being aware of the processes involved.
  • 5. Learning as creating new realities, developing wisdom and re-creating knowledge.

Usages 1, 2 and 3 may be characterised as shallow learning which can be defined as managing and memorising information. The fourth and fifth categories apply to deep and profound leaning in which knowledge is created and understood through the use of higher order cognitive skills, e.g. analysis, synthesis and application. Profound learning is the extension of deep learning so that it becomes personal to the learner.

Shallow, Deep and Profound Learning

The broad differences between shallow, deep and profound learning are presented in the following model:

  What? How? Why?
Means Memorisation Reflection Intuition
Outcomes Information Knowledge Wisdom
Evidence Replication Understanding Meaning
Motiavtion Extrinsic Intrinsic Moral
Attitudes Compliance Interpretation Challenge
Relationships Dependence Independence Interdependence
  (Single Loop) (Double Loop) (Triple Loop)



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