Finding the Balance of Surface and Deep Learning: John Hattie Responds to Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn has raised a critical point in his recent podcast about my work (Episode 11 of “The Shape of Education to Come,” available on iTunes). In the podcast, he asks, If we are talking about effect sizes based on student achievement, and if student achievement is measured through the flawed tools of standardized tests, then how accurate are these effect sizes? 

Indeed, I raised this critical objection myself in Chapter 11 of Visible Learning. I have continued to be concerned about the grammar of surface learning that has spread like a virus across our schools. The pursuit of the content, the facts, and the desire to know lots. On the one hand, I welcome this as knowing is the precursor to understanding, creativity, and wisdom, but this other part – the deeper thinking, the relating and extending of ideas, the bringing together of two or more seemingly unrelated ideas (Koestler’s definition of creativity, which I like) is also desired – and based on knowing. As we become more skilled, the two levels of learning, surface and deep, tend to merge–but the point is that both, not either/or, are needed. 

My observation is that over 90% of what we ask students to do in assignments and assessments can be completed successfully by knowing lots – and this is not defensible. Worse, many above average students applaud this grammar of surface learning, as they know how to play this game, want teachers to focus more on the content, and want teachers to talk more. But maybe we need to shut up and listen to how students are processing, relating, and exploring ideas; teaching them to adopt and use different strategies of learning, and move more from surface to deep to transfer and back again – more often. 

With over 300 million students, even the 10% focused on deep learning allows me to make claims and generalize my work. Our recent work (Hattie & Donoghue) explore this distinction much more deeply and included in this work is the observation that even most of our teaching methods are dominated by focusing on EITHER content or relating, whereas we need teaching methods to be smarter about WHEN to be surface (learn knowledge) and when to be deep (relate knowledge).   

I also note that not all effects in the Visible Learning research are based on standardized surface level tests – it includes many teacher made, performance, oral, and so many varieties of tests (not that the type of measurement seems to matter as much as the narrowness of width of the outcome being measured). 

I trust this helps address Kohn’s criticism – I think we share common concerns. Now to solve the dilemma of getting the right balance of surface and deep at the right time. 

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Professor John Hattie is an award-winning education researcher and best-selling author with nearly 30 years of experience examining what works best in student learning and achievement. His research, better known as Visible Learning, is a culmination of nearly 30 years synthesizing more than 1,500 meta-analyses comprising more than 90,000 studies involving over 300 million students around the world. He has presented and keynoted in over 350 international conferences and has received numerous recognitions for his contributions to education. His notable publications include Visible LearningVisible Learning for Teachers, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12, and, most recently, 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning.

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  • I listened to the pod cast episode John Hattie referred to and was disappointed by Kohn’s tone over all. He clearly did not understand the surface to deep to transfer model which Hattie uses to layout a scaffold of learning( for some but not all subject matter). Unfortunately, some kind of testing, whether guided by state, district or national norms are going to be the measure for the public to judge how and if students are learning. For most of us working in amazing school districts, we know that high stakes testing is ONE part of all the assessments we currently use. We are improving in so many areas of instruction thanks to the research of Hattie… teacher clarity, collaborative working (teachers and students), vocabulary instruction…and so much more.

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