I recently came across a definition of “deep learning,” as the type of learning that not only promotes greater understanding, but might not be defined as “work” at all. It is something that individuals like to do, and take such pleasure in that they are motivated to research into different areas.
This definition took me back over thirty years, to the time when I was finishing my undergraduate studies at Exeter University in the UK. I remember that it was an incredibly stressful time – so much so that I used to be awake most nights with panic attacks, in the belief that I had not done “enough” to pass the exams. My stress got so bad that I ended up going to the Accident and Emergency Department (Emergency Room) of the local hospital in the belief that I was going to lose consciousness. I used not to sleep in my dormitory room, but moved to an armchair where I would sleep upright in the most uncomfortable position possible.
As I took my exams, I used to put embrocation on my neck in the belief that the deep heat of the cream would make me feel better. The fact that this substance – normally used to help athletes with pulled muscles – smelled foul was irrelevant; it was the only way I thought I could get through the ordeal of taking seven exams in six days.
Matters were not helped by the fact that my nearest neighbor in the dormitory was the kind of person who appeared supremely confident in his ability to pass exams. All his revision had been done; he had marked up his books; and for the last two or three or days before the exams took place he went out for a walk, or socialized (I can’t remember which).
In truth, this was nothing more than a façade; he was as stressed out as I am, but he concealed it under a cloak of superiority. He believed himself to be better than anyone else at studying English Literature, and hence wanted to be the best reviser.
In no way could I be said to have achieved a state of “deep learning” – on the contrary, my understanding of literary texts was reduced to a series of facts “about” the novels, plays, and poems on the curriculum that could be shaped into a coherent essays, with a few gobbets of quotations to illustrate the points I wanted to make. Learning them parrot-fashion was the only way I believed the exam could be successfully passed.
It was only when I got free of the ordeal of the three-hour exam, and began to read texts for pleasure as well as for my profession that I discovered three essential truths about learning:-
a) There is no such thing as being ‘good’ at literature. My neighbor was simply the kind of arrogant person who enjoyed the sense of superiority. This was simply a character-trait rather than anything to do with intelligence.
b) “Deep Learning” can only be achieved when individuals want to learn. That means they should be given the chance to work at their own pace, without the stress of exams being placed in their way. There needs to be alternative modes of assessment based not on skill at remembering things, but rather testing the ways in which people respond to texts
c) Most university undergraduate English curricula at that time were not really designed to develop learners’ intelligence, but rather provided an intellectual package tour through so-called “great” texts. If learners actually retained their love of literature through that three-year process, this was more down to luck rather than the pedagogical proficiencies of the teaching staff. Hopefully things have changed over the next three decades.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that the experience of my undergraduate courses has shown me what not to do during my teaching career, so as to encourage learners to respond, consume, or have fun with literary texts.