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Dig a little deeper

Learning is done best when teachers take it below the surface and cultivate some deep roots.

6 min read




As a new school year begins and the speed in which we learn and lead continues to ramp up, it can be challenging to talk productively about deepening the learning that happens in our classrooms, schools and districts. Time to reflect and to dig a little deeper into topics and questions can seem beyond difficult, and our opportunities to stick with one idea for more than a short bit seem to lessen, if not wholly disappear.

And yet, without taking the time to learn deeply, all of our work can be much like the sandcastles we build close to the water’s edge: here today, and gone a little later today. Learning only sticks if the roots are deep; if we don’t have the time to engage in deep thinking, we’ll never have the opportunity to realize deep learning.

As I’ve thought about the end of this summer, and the soon-to-arrive school year, I’ve realized that whether talking adult learning or the learning of our youngest community members, these three organizing principles are paramount to developing deep learning.

Reach for the relevance. We would like to think that everything we do as facilitators of learning is relevant. And to us, it might be. The challenge, of course, is always making sure that what we share, and how we share it, is relevant to those we are helping to grow. Keeping it relevant is as much about knowing what others know as it is about knowing what we know; by understanding our audience we are better capable of understanding what strategies, lenses and social dynamics will work for each individual. Part of reaching for relevance means connecting what we believe is in a learner’s best interest with what that learner knows is the case. As an example, this November we are hosting a gaming and learning conference for educators in our region. This conference will be a great opportunity for educators to understand more about the importance of play, questioning and inquiry, and it will be done through the lens of using current games on the market, as well as building new ones. In this case, we are using the continued growth of the gaming culture for young learners — and older learners too, particularly with the advent of mobile games — as a pathway for educators to build deeper learning connections with their students. If interested in learning more about our gaming conference feel free to reach out; you can also register here.

Engage efficiencies. One problem I have identified in my own way of leading and learning stems from my desire to be involved with as much as I can. It isn’t FOMO, aka Fear of Missing Out, per se; rather it is that I acknowledge how short life is and truly want to engage in as many experiences as I can over my career and my life. This often means that I eschew efficiency for experience, and while I might see broadly, I don’t see deeply as clearly. There is a problem with this way of learning and leading, one which I readily acknowledge. By welcoming surface experiences across the board, I miss out on opportunities for deep and sticky learning. Were I to focus more on identifying the places where I can embed efficiencies in my life, I would likely find that I have more time to go deeper into ideas. And with more time to dive deeper I would likely increase my knowledge and skillset, and maybe, just maybe, not have to give too much up. After all, more efficient processes allow us to do more with the same. So what are some of the ways I hope to build efficiencies into my life? One is through organizing my time and schedule better. Another is by removing many of the gaming apps on my phone. A third is by working closely with our financial planner to better understand ways as a family we can consolidate accounts and reduce unnecessary spending. These are simply three ways that I can start to win back my own time to spend more of it deeply learning. Imagine if we all found these similar efficiencies and also helped cultivate them in our learners?

Cultivate curiosity. Speaking of cultivation, I am a huge fan of Bryan Goodwin’s work on curiosity. One of the ideas I’ve learned through reflecting on his writing is that deep learning can only happen if we are truly curious about the ideas we are exposed to. Yes, we can deepen learning through relevance and by being more efficient in our processes. But, we also have to be curious beings if the learning is really going to be enjoyable for us. Curiosity stems from wonderings, discrepancies, motivations and emotions. Without these, or with these tamped down too much, it really won’t matter what else we do. If we aren’t curious, then we simply don’t care. Which is why the emphasis on a constantly quiet classroom or workshop space, or a “learning environment” where compliance is sought, is so erroneously placed. Curiosity cannot be built through compliance, nor is it strengthened through a lack of stimulus. If we want the roots of learning to continue to grow downward, then we need to give those roots something to reach for. Curiosity is that resource.

By the time you read this, schools in the Northeastern United States will have been in session for a few weeks, and those in the rest of the country will be going on a month. In all cases, leaders and learners are in “full speed” mode. But, if you have five minutes to read this post, then you can spend five more contemplating this question: “What will serve our communities better: surface information or deep learning?”

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:


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