How Technology Can Help Deepen Students’ Learning
By Kelly Bielefeld
One of our primary responsibilities as modern educators is to develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills so they’ll be able to adapt to the future labor market, which will include jobs that haven’t even been conceived of yet. In order to do that, we need to ensure that students regularly operate at the deepest levels of learning: analyzing, breaking things down, making connections, evaluating different situations, etc.
Deep learning constitutes the three top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. At these levels, students have fully “owned” the knowledge or skills they have been learning and so can solve new and complex problems.
Surface-level learning, which involves acquiring or receiving knowledge and demonstrating comprehension, constitute the two lowest levels of the taxonomy. For example, if we taught students the elements of the periodic table, gave them a multiple-choice test afterward, and then moved on to another topic, that would be surface-level learning.
The research of Professor John Hattie revealed that learners need surface-level learning, which serves as the foundation for deep-level learning. Hattie called the progress from surface-level learning to deep learning “the transfer of learning.”
The application level of Bloom’s taxonomy phase corresponds to Hattie’s transfer of learning stage. This is where teachers provide practice opportunities that enable students to work with their new knowledge, begin to own the new skills, and identify and correct any misunderstandings about they learned.
Teachers’ limited time and heavy workload can make the extra effort required to move students through the transfer of learning and into deep learning seem unfeasible. Fortunately, technology tools can provide support for each stage.
Technology-Supported Surface-Level Learning
Surface-level learning is usually teacher directed, and at times, it can be tedious for students, especially if they have little prior knowledge. Technology for whole group settings, e.g., interactive flat panel displays and presentation software, can engage students by using videos and vivid images to get them curious and excited about a subject.
Screencast tutorials related to the lesson can also be used for students who were out sick or who need remedial instruction. If the screencast is kept short and has a little humor, it can be extremely engaging.
Technology-Supported Transfer of Learning
The types of technology tools you use at this stage will likely depend on your subject and the practice opportunities you devise. Generally, self-grading tests and other formative assessment tools not only engage students, but also effectively isolate the skills that need to be mastered and also give timely feedback so students can self correct. You can provide remedial support, as well as enrichment for students ahead of their classmates, through free, standards-based and easy-to-use resources such as Learnzillion and Khan Academy.
Technology-Support Deep Learning
At the deep learning level, technology tools are used to show evidence of learning, analysis abilities, etc. One way of introducing deep learning is having students do what teachers do: match tools or activities (e.g. a video, lab experiment, project) to the content they’re going to deliver. Creating a suitable match requires considerable depth and complexity of thought.
For example, if students need to do a presentation on the periodic table or a specific element, they could opt to use Google Slides or create videos with Animoto, iMovie, or WeVideo. Such tools are usually free (at least at the basic level) for teachers.
Of course, students should also receive surface-level knowledge on how to use the selected technology tools. Fortunately, students today tend to be highly intuitive when it comes to technology, so most will master the tools very quickly.
The progression from surface learning to deep learning is not always strictly linear. An example of this is found in a component of my district’s K-8 core curriculum: computer coding and computer science. At the surface level, students learn coding as if they are learning a new language, using tools like the Mimio MyBot educational robotics system or programs from code.org or others. However, this activity provides ancillary benefits of deep learning because the students connect knowledge from math class (e.g., angles) and science (e.g., force and friction) to programming as they work with the robots.
Another thing to bear in mind is the enormous number of standards teachers have to cover; taking each one to the level of deep learning would be impossible. The thing to remember is not all standards are created equal. Student should delve into some standards, and other standards can be left at the surface level. For example, Chemistry I students should take knowledge of the periodic table to deeper levels (e.g., by designing their own lab experiment), but other concepts may be kept at surface level learning.
You can also gain time for deep learning in the classroom by creating cross-curricular projects. Covering multiple standards at once means you will have time for students do that deep, hands-on learning. Of course, different districts have different philosophies on how far “off the path” teachers can go when it comes to the curriculum, so determine how much leeway you have.
Think about how much of your average day is spent on each of the three types of learning. Or if you are in charge of the curriculum (like me), ask yourself how much of it supports each of the three. Introducing deep-level learning into lessons will require deep, complex thinking on your part as well. But as you transfer this new knowledge into practice, technology can help you do so efficiently while boosting students to a new level of engagement.
About the Author
Kelly Bielefeld is the Assistant Superintendent of Unified School District #264 in Clearwater, Kansas.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum