Monday, February 9, 2015

Deep Learning

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.

1 comment:

  1. This post has raised several important issues for learners and curriculum designers. I can identify with what Professor Raw has said about his undergraduate experience, as - despite always having been someone who enjoyed reading and creative writing - the ways in which we were taught English literature, and examined in it, in my secondary school days, contributed only to alienating me for many years thereafter, from great English texts which - nowadays - I can finally appreciate. Because we were being taught poetry, Shakespeare, classic novels, etc, in a very dry, uninspired manner, at secondary school, with notes designed to help us pass the three-hour exam at the end of our final year, I could muster very little enthusiasm for any of the English literature on our (very long and detailed) reading lists. Years later, reading the classics as a middle-aged man, for pleasure and the curiosity of learning, I have come to truly appreciate them, precisely because there is now no exam at stake. For the first time, I've loved such authors as Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and CHarles Dickens, among many others, not to mention many French writers. I think that it is counter-productive to force-feed students a diet of great literature with the sole object of training them to regurgitate notes and quotes for a final 'all or nothing' exam. It defeats its purpose by alienating students who might otherwise really love the literature, and causes - as in Raw's case - terrible panic and anxiety. That is why, when I was doing my PhD on Jules Verne's literature some years ago, and on how it had been retranslated into English, I experienced what Raw refers to here as 'deep learning', a wonderful privilege; and precisely because I had been free to choose my own research topic and conduct my research in a largely unfettered (though guided by my supervisor in a hands-off manner) way, with no final written exam to worry about (assessment being on the basis of the thesis itself and the viva). Similarly, my taught MA in translation studies had largely allowed students to choose their own topics of personal interest for research and project/essay purposes, once again allowing us to experience personalized and 'deep' learning. These issues raised here in this blog post by Raw don't, of course, apply only to the study of English but have universal relevance for learning across all disciplines and for the age-old debate about final exams versus ongoing assessment, and are relevant to the case for student autonomy and portfolio work as opposed to 'one size fits all' syllabi assessed by the tyrannical exam. I do think that universities at which I've studied or taught have begun to move away from that tyrannical exam format and have begun to foster greater student-centred deep learning, autonomy and continuous assessment, but much remains to be done. The few years I spent on my PhD were honestly the biggest 'fun' I have ever had, combined with satisfyingly deep learning and I continue to learn and have fun every day of my life since then, on my own terms. Fellow doctoral students in my Humanities postgrad room from those years would express similar sentiments, and have done so. I often look back on my secondary school days and think, wistfully, that if only I could turn back the clock, I would love to study those Shakespeare plays and all those poets and novelists again, with fresh eyes and newfound maturity, and this time, really, truly, learn deeply from them.