Tuesday / April 23

Learning the Language of Growth and Complexity

On June 11th, in Salt Lake City, Utah Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne and author of Visible Learning stated that 90% of all learning strategies students utilized, questions teachers asked, lessons observed, and tests proctored only met surface level learning expectations. Accordingly, Professor Hattie cited in his 2009 study that 90% of the Visible Learning research is based off of surface level outcomes. This is certainly disheartening news for the preparation of our youth heading in to colleges and the workforce where they will need to not only know facts or skills (surface learning) but how to relate and apply those ideas in real-world applications. How do we move away from this 90% model of surface learning?

What is surface learning?

In the early 1980’s Biggs and Collins developed an elegant taxonomy that oriented the complexity of learning into several categories focusing on a student’s understanding of a concept or concepts, relationship between concepts, and the ability to transfer concepts across various contexts. These terms have evolved and are utilized colloquially as surface (knowing an idea or several ideas or skills, but being unable to compare and contrast those ideas or skills), deep (relating ideas or skills) and transfer (applying ideas or skills) level learning.

Why is surface learning of such high value?

Often the recurring problems teachers and school leaders are attempting to solve are related to ensuring students reach a certain level of proficiency. Since proficiency is the ultimate goal of many schools and classrooms, teachers spend their time ensuring students meet and work to meet proficiency requirements. Ultimately, this means that teachers make choices in the classroom about what and who they focus on to ensure proficiency is met. Those students who are proficient early on are often not asked to grow in their learning and struggling students are only offered instructional guidance at basic levels of learning so that proficiency can be achieved. Thus, they spend their time on the language of surface learning.

Some educators have given up on the game of proficiency and instead focus on ensuring students develop products. They spend their time on transfer learning, providing only limited surface level knowledge for students. These educators and their systems have a different language of schooling, one that is rooted more squarely on creativity, entrepreneurship, and 21st Century job preparation. They are less concerned about test scores as they are a marker of a task that is not of value. The problem with this approach is that when students lack surface knowledge, they are unable to fully understand and apply important academic principles and practices. These schools engage in the language of impoverished deep learning.

However, as with many things, the answer lies not in this false dichotomy. We should not have to utilize one language or another—they are incomplete, and when incomplete unaligned to learning. Students need an equal proportion of surface, deep, and transfer learning to be prepared for the 21st Century. The question is: how is such a needle thread?

How do you emphasize surface, deep, and transfer learning in schools?

Clayton Christensen in his article What is an Organization’s Culture (Harvard Business School, 2006) wrote that if you want to change a culture, or the way in which a collection of people have solved problems over time, you must change the recurring tasks of the organization, not the process or culture–because processes, priorities, and culture are a response to recurring tasks. That is, if you want to esteem surface, deeper, and transfer learning, you don’t merely talk about it as a priority; you change the task of the organization from focusing on proficiency to focusing on progress. In essence, we must ask the question: How do we know every learning is gaining one year’s growth in their learning over time? and, How do we ensure that they are growing across levels of complexity? 

When the end game is ensuring all students grow in their learning, we begin to see a need for more complexity of learning for children. Teachers begin to see the need for altering the way in which they teach. Only then do we see the language of surface or impoverished deep learning as insufficient and incorrect. This then allows us to develop a language of growth and complexity.

How can I begin to establish a grammar of growth and complexity in my school?

To start, a few steps may be helpful in your journey of focusing on student growth and complexity, including

Paint the narrative

Begin discussing in every meeting, event, conversation that the focus of our work is on growth and complexity of learning and that this is different than our focus from the past (which was proficiency or product development). Begin inviting others into the conversation of what important words mean such as growth and complexity (How growth is quantified?, and qualified? and what ways we can measure growth? What is the difference between difficulty and complexity?) .

Capture Evidence

Begin looking for evidence of student performance and discuss with staff what this performance should look like at the end of a school year.

Take Action from Evidence

Discuss with staff how they would make an impact on learners in light of evidence from growth data. How do I impact a student that begins at deep or transfer?

Invite Students into the language of Growth and Complexity

Begin discussing with students how they can be a part of the work of understanding their own growth and discussing the complexity of their work and the tasks that are presented to them.

These are but a few steps to begin this transition from a grammar of surface or impoverished learning to that of growth and complexity.

Written by

Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades. Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA. Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction. He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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