Deep Learning

19 Aug

Are your students engaging in deep or shallow learning?

I believe “learning loss” is a made up concept. Think about it: you still remember many things and concepts  you learned as a kid, right? Only those things that had no significance for you have been forgotten. Yet, we still seem to think that what is taught is also learned. That could not possibly be true! Understanding subjectivity and learning ownership is very important for every educator.

Deep Learning and Shallow Learning (which is also called Surface Learning) are fundamentally different. 

The following  short comparison explains the differences:   

The difference between the two types of learning is huge, isn’t it? Each of us utilizes shallow learning sometimes. Usually with subjects or topics that carry little significance to us but that we still need to learn to some extent, or maybe with something that we don’t expect to need after a while.

Shallow learning can be seen as a chosen learning strategy and is a well accepted choice in certain situations. What scares me is that some students use shallow learning as their only strategy to learn or to even approach subjects to be learned. This inevitably leads to underachievement, and of course also losing the memorized bits of information, which we then call “learning loss”. Yet, it is worth noticing that some strategic learners choose to use shallow learning as their main learning strategy, in order to pass their exams and get good grades, while not being interested in really learning the content.

The educational reality revolves around the fact that what is taught is not necessarily learned. And if the assessment is taken immediately after instruction, the facts and concepts are mainly held in our short term memory. When transfer happens, and students are able to use and apply the learned concepts in other situations, it also means they have been deep learned. Getting there requires collaboration between students and teachers: meaningful instruction from teacher’s part, and buy-in from students’ part.

“What’s in it for me?” is the question every learner asks (more or less knowingly) before engaging in any given task. The answer may be an external reward (grade, certificate, badge, sticker, etc) or intrinsic interest (curiosity, need to know more about the subject, general interest), and this is where intrinsic/extrinsic motivation comes into the equation of teaching and learning.

It seems obvious that shallow learning relates to perceiving learning as a product. Supporting student’s individual learning processes also promotes deep learning!

Original research about deep learning:

Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976a). On the qualitative difference in learning I-Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.



Learner Agency – an important part of Deep Learning

13 Aug

Learner agency as a concept in 21st century education relates tightly into students’ perceptions of their own learning experiences.  Agency is the capacity to act, to make decisions about one’s own life and learning.

Deep learning requires ownership and individual engagement with the content. Here is a succinct definition for deep and surface level learning strategies: “the basic processing operations that describe how students react to and interact with the learning material and with people present in the learning environment in order to enhance domain-specific knowledge and skills” (Boekaerts, 2016, p. 81).

This is why learner agency is so important. Students must develop their skills in independent judgment. In order to do that they need ample opportunities to practice choosing. Being or becoming responsible for one’s own actions is one of the possible byproducts of public education.

Recent research recognizes the importance of learning experiences that emphasize autonomous and agentive participation, including the opportunity to have control over oneself and one’s learning environment. There are various ways to perceive agency in the classroom.

It is different to learn something than to be taught something. Being taught doesn’t necessarily mean that learning happens. It only means that the student has been present when the teaching has happened. This is very detached view of learning, and hardly motivates students to try. Memorizing content until the next test is included in students’ perceptions of detached learning.

Sometimes students feel they belong to the school community, which makes them more compliant in learning activities, and a little bit less eager to exercise their agency. In these cases students depend on their teachers and just go through the motions and learning activities, as they are expected to do.

Open dialogue can help students choose to actively engage in their own education and to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers should support growing agency in the classroom, because the ownership contributes to engaging in deep learning. Students who have strong ownership are interested in learning more.

Deep learning experiences can lead students to become ubiquitous learners, who learn anytime, anywhere.  This unbound learning extends beyond school walls and hours, but we as educators must learn to acknowledge and credit this very independent learning.

Students’ perceptions of their agency can span over several categories. These descriptive categories cannot be used to label students.

In formal education the tradition has been to perceive students as objects of the teaching-learning interaction, with the expectation for students to absorb the facts presented by teachers or faculty.  This view of education doesn’t fit into contemporary learning theories that emphasize knowledge construction. Educational research shows how important factors students’ ownership and knowledge construction are for academic success, yet many educational practices still rely on teacher-centered instructional models. Why?  This seems to support the perceptions of detachment.

There are many ways to support agency in the classroom.

Building a learner-centered environment where students can choose how they practice and learn is an easy way to support learner agency. Students must have choices while selecting their learning resources.  Researchers say that agency is about understanding what choices and resources are available (Kumpulainen et al., 2011, p. 13). Becoming responsible for one’s own learning can and must be fostered in the classroom context.

Supporting learner agency improves the quality of students’ engagement in their own learning process, and help students become ready for the requirements of living in 21st century.  Examples of engagement quality are “going through the motions” vs. “I make my own motions” and “being a classroom sheep” vs. “trying to understand how to transfer learned”.

The table below displays components of learner agency and students’ perceptions of it, as see in my research.

Sometimes agency may seem negative, for example when a student decides to leave homework undone, because they are okay with a grade that is less than perfect. Obviously, this is only a problem when learning is seen as a product, instead of (life-long) process.

Understanding students’ perspectives and using practices that support learners’ agency helps teachers create better teaching-learning interactions.  These learner-centered interactions will improve the quality of students’ learning experiences and also their academic achievement (e.g. Reyes et al. 2012).

The importance of intentional engagement, subjectivity and shared classroom experiences cannot be overemphasized as means for deeper learning. Students must have an opportunity to exercise their agency.

More about Learner Agency at Nina’s Notes



Boekaerts, M. (2016). Engagement as an inherent aspect of the learning process. Learning and Instruction43, 76-83.

Kumpulainen, K., Krokfors, L., Lipponen, L., Tissari, V., Hilppö, J., & Rajala, A. (2011). Learning bridges – Toward participatory learning environments. Helsinki: CICERO Learning, University of Helsinki.

Reyes, M. R., Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., White, M., & Salovey, P. (2012). Classroom emotional climate, student engagement, and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology104(3), 700 – 712.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).

Learning dispositions and Real Life

31 Dec

Learning and studying dispositions are the filters we use when facing a learning situation. Sometimes these dispositions are helpful, other times they may hinder the learning process. 

We “inherit” these filters from family and friends – and media, too! – and learn to use the filters during all our learning experiences.  We sort things into important and forgettable “bins”, based on the value we perceive the learning content to have. (Show me a teacher who has never heard a student ask: When will we ever use this?!) 

The connection between learning and Real Life (RL) is important for all students, from kindergarten to higher education. Learning dispositions relate to the RL connection and thus regulate our interests, efforts and motivations to learn.  Growth mindset  is one part of the dispositions, as well as students’ self-efficacy beliefs and academic self-concept. Curiosity is yet another important concept for learning dispositions, because learning starts from wondering.

For some students curiosity or persistence can be enough to make them ready, willing and able to learn. Other times students need additional tools, and providing opportunities for risk-taking, concentration or independence might be necessary.  In this case it is crucial to have a non-punitive assessment method to support the positive outcomes of learning. Rubrics and feedback loops to be used before final evaluation are very necessary to emphasize the benefits of deep engagement, and fostering the development of future learning dispositions. Communication, collaboration and co-regulation are important learning activities for building positive learning dispositions, because sharing one’s own RL with others leads to deeper learning and understanding. 

I’m trying to figure out how to support students in creating a disposition that helps them to enjoy learning. The obvious reason for this is the fact that we engage much deeper in the activities we enjoy. And with deep engagement, we learn more. The information is not forgotten the next day or after the test, because it has some RL personal significance. Deep learning is seen to be more meaningful than reproductive learning (Lonka et al, 2004).

One possible answer for supporting deep learning dispositions is to adopt a teaching disposition that emphasizes authenticity and empowers engagement (Kreber, 2007).  Authentic teaching focuses on the RL connection, helping students to see the importance of learning in everyday life, so that they can engage in deep, personal learning. Authenticity and supporting helpful learning dispositions makes it easier for every student to be successful in their studies – and not only in reaching graduation, but also engaging in life-long learning and building their own knowledge.

Authenticity seems to be one of the main threads in progressive education. I think it is important to remember that students are not learning for school, but for life. Their own personal RL, which is different from the one any of their friends and peers are living, is a major component of the learning disposition. That’s why discussing learning dispositions is so important. Students are making the value judgment of their learning anyway, so we as learning professionals should be helping them to find a helpful disposition. 

We are preparing students for the world that is a complex mixture of cultures and diverse beliefs. Knowledge is so much more than a fixed bunch of facts to be memorized. While memorizing disconnected pieces of information may be a nice trick in trivia game, students need to understand the contexts and connections of that information. Where did it come from, and is it trustworthy?  And an especially important question is: how can we use this information?

Misusing information is easy because it is shallow and has no situationality or contextuality – these are qualities of knowledge, where an individual has constructed an understanding of how given information fits into her/his worldview, beliefs and values. These are the same building blocks learning dispositions are made of. 21st century learning cannot be just memorizing factoids.

Learning disposition can help students find RL connections and to engage in deep learning. But this needs to be communicated clearly to the students. It is insane to imagine that every student would be 100% interested in deep learning every detail of their every schoolday. In some cases it might not be the content to be learned that a student perceives being important, but perhaps learning more about oneself and how to support one’s own learning.  In this case content learning happens as a byproduct. Emphasizing the change, resilience and meaning-making as important parts of learning process leads students towards a discovery of positive learning dispositions and deeper, meaningful learning experiences.

— — —

Kreber, C. (2007). What‘s it really all about? The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as an Authentic Practice. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning1(1), 3.

Lonka, K., Olkinuora, E., & Mäkinen, J. (2004). Aspects and prospects of measuring studying and learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review16(4), 301-323.

Shum, S. B., & Crick, R. D. (2012,April). Learning dispositions and transferable competencies: pedagogy,modelling and learning analytics. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 92-101). ACM.

Volet, S., Vauras, M., & Salonen, P.(2009). Self-and social regulation in learning contexts: An integrative perspective. Educational psychologist44(4),215-226.

Dialogues that enhance learning

4 Dec

Engaging in dialogue is essential for learning. Constructing knowledge cannot occur in a vacuum. Too often we think that any classroom discussion equals dialogue. It does not.

Conversation and discussion are very broad concepts to describe educational dialogue.  Debates are very specific interactions for presenting and supporting an argument, a genre of dialogue focusing on challenging assumptions and knowledge. Argumenting discussion can objectify a perspective and is thus important for reasoning and understanding (p. 108).

Classroom dialogue exists to support understanding. It is not about winning an argument. Nor about an inquiry where students will end up in predetermined conclusion. The traditional classroom talk in the form of IRF (initiation-response-feedback/follow-up) or IRE (initiation-response-evaluation) is definitely not about engaging in dialogue, because the range of acceptable answers is very limited. These closed questions reflect behaviorist-objectivist ideology of education where the knowledge is transmitted to students, and their learning is tested with questions and tests. Well-crafted IRF can lead students “through a complex sequence of ideas” (p. 4), but does it really contribute to the productive interactions that help students to engage in deeper learning and craft individual understanding and transferable knowledge based on the information they received during the discussion?

Dialogue is collaborative meaning-making by nature. It is about equal participants engaging in an attempt to understand the viewpoint of other(s) and defining the meaning in the social setting. Such dialogue is about creating new understanding together, and in that sense it denotes very constructive ideas of learning. Dialogue is very tightly tied to the classroom values and teaching/learning dispositions. In a safe learning environment, where students dare to ask questions and challenge their own beliefs, dialogue can be a very powerful tool for learning.

The essential condition for dialogue to happen is equality. My truth cannot be better than your truth. Dialogue requires openness to rule over the dogma (p.172), in order to make exploration possible. Sometimes this is a very hard change to make in the classroom situation where the teacher is perceived to be the authority of knowledge. Communicating clearly to students about issues that don’t have one signle correct answer helps students to engage in  dialogue with the teacher and each other. Wondering is often the first step in learning.

Dialogue involves multiple dimensions of the classroom reality. Working with the tensions that occur in classroom setting is important to make dialogue possible. Having a non-punitive assessment system is important for fostering dialogue in the classroom. Risk-taking behaviors are not likely to happen in a learning environment where students get punished for submitting a “wrong answer”.  Right and wrong, true and false, are dichotomies that belong to more objectivist pedagogy and official knowledge, and thus are destructive for collaborative meaning-making.

Focusing on concepts instead of details is a viable way to start using the dialogue in the classroom.  It is a good way to help students get engaged in their on learning process.


The page numbers refer to the following book, which is an excellent source for learning more about dialogue and how to us it as a tool for learning:

Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

Praise and punishment – two sides of control

17 Nov

It is surprising how often people, who think punishments to be detrimental for learning, still approve praise as an effective tool in education.  How is this possible? Both are based on the concept of superiority and having control over other human beings. Often this power is just artificial authority.

My current position as a mentor for graduate students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees is delightful: I spend my days supporting my students’ understanding and learning process, but I don’t have to be a gatekeeper (and I don’t have to do any grading, yay!). Mentoring requires a specific disposition: the belief that everyone can learn, and that learning cannot be enhanced by praise and punishment. Now, please don’t get me wrong. Performance can be increased (up to a point) by praising and punishing and pushing students to complete their products, but engaging in one’s own learning process and deeper learning requires self-regulation and self-reflection. We can lead students to that path but we cannot force them to walk it. External control cannot help students forward in the path to self-transformation.

I do remember the time when I still believed in praise and punishment.  I am sure my children remember that, too. And for that I want to apologize to them, wishing that I knew more about learning and development when they were young. Fortunately it is never too later for additional development.  Kegan and Drago-Severson have an excellent framework of adult development.

It hurts my ears when I hear someone talk about praise and growth mindset in the same sentence. The two could not possibly fit together. Praising someone means that they have met an invisible standard, for which we want to extend our approvals as superiors. Rewards and gold stars are just a tangible form of praise. Growth mindset carries the same notion of self-transformation as engaging in the personal learning process. As educators it is important to offer timely feedback for students about their learning. However, praise and feedback should not be mixed. Feedback focuses on the achievement and based on transparent criterion of expectations. Praise is based on hidden expectations or personal opinions. It is a value judgement about the behavior or qualities of another human being.

Every educational institution has their own hidden curriculum – the expectations that are not voiced or written. Often these appear in the form of practices and traditions. Hidden objectives are the hardest to meet. A common coping mechanism to meet hidden expectations is the attempt of pleasing the person at control – whether teacher, professor, boss, or anyone else in the position of power. The damage for the organization gets doubled: the person in control only hears the voice of pleasers and cheerleaders, and the structure becomes skewed with the lack of open and honest dialogue. This can easily lead to cliques in classroom (or workplace) and decreased collaboration.

Those who remember Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) will probably recognize the roles of Parent and Child in the praise and punishment situations.  Engaging in dialogue on Adult-Adult level is the most important tool for every educator. Students often fall into the trap of playing the child role, especially if their learning process gets reduced to creating learning products that may have no real-life connections, and if they often face praise and punishments in their learning environment. This can happen to adult students too, especially when their learning motivation is externalized. On the positive side it is fascinating to observe young children to behave with maturity above their years when the human dignity is extended to them and they are offered opportunities to self-regulate.


Fear, force and artificial authority

17 May

Learning and teaching in 21st century should definitely be fueled with something much more than fear, force and artificial authority.  After all we want for students to have strong integrity and self-confidence.  And the curricula and evaluations, in addition to the classroom management practices, have been designed for students to benefit from the time they spend in the school.  Right?

Alas, the history of education is filled with good intentions turned into catastrophies.  When teachers and education policy makers are operating with the objective view of learning in mind, the end result becomes a standardized description of a well performing student (without any individual interests and goals, being a puppet in the system bending to the intractable forces of maximum achievement).  Einstein expressed his views of the principal educational methods being fear, force and artificial authority. (Clark, 1971, p.13)


The scary part is that even today, more than one hudred years later, the same methods of fear, force and artificial authority are still well and alive in the schools around the world. Why?

Maybe it is easier to convince students about the importance of doing well on tests by instilling the fear of not being able to get admitted to a reputable college/univeristy/workplace unless the test scores demonstrate brilliance? Maybe it is easier to control student behaviors by displaying artificial authority of being the keeper of the scores or grades?  But, from decades of research and practice we know that students learn better when they learn in an environment that is safe, supportive and collaborative.  And we don’t need “servile helots”, but critical thinkers who will thrive in the 21st century environment where information and choices are more abundant than ever before.

The psychological research and practice have advanced very much during the past century. American Psychological Association has published the Top 20 Principles to be used at schools.  What blows my mind is how few teachers have heard about these, or their predecessor Learner-centered Psychological Principles.  Yet, I consider the APA to be the highest authority of educational psychology in the U.S. and a positive influence in the world in general.

These Top 20 principles have been divided into 5 areas of psychological functioning:

  1. Cognition and learning: How do students think and learn?
  2. Motivation: What motivates students?
  3. Social context and emotional dimensions: Why are social context, interpersonal relations and emotional well-being important to student learning?
  4. Context and learning: How can the classroom best be managed?
  5. Assessment: How can teachers assess student progress?


All the 20  principles are displayed below in a table.

Top 20


What you do in your classroom – whether online on traditional – is your choice.  The psychological principles are compatible with every subject and every curriculum. Why not give it a try and implement a safe, supportive and collaborative learning environment?


American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://

Clark, R.W. (1971). Einstein: The life and times. New York: World.


Learning-centered education

12 Feb

What is the central focus in your classroom or course? What is in the nexus of your instruction? Is it learning, performing, socializing, producing (or reproducing), obeying, memorizing, or something else? What is the most important thing for your students to remember from your class or course?

It is surprising to realize how often our everyday teaching practices contradict our teaching philosophy!

Thinking about the core purpose of education: helping students to learn. How easily it gets diverted from the original focus on learning, and becomes a rite of passage or about measuring academic performance!

In everyday language we use such a huge a variety of definitions for “learning” – like answering correctly, passing,  “learning a lesson”,  memorizing, and so on – that it is easy to get confused and think that measured performance is equal to learning. I don’t think it is. Sometimes performance as learning means just cramming information into short term memory in order to pass an assessment or evaluation. Then that information can be forgotten, and it never becomes the much needed intellectual capital of knowledge.

When we simply measure performance with assessments and evaluations, we only get to see the end result of students’ learning process. We don’t know how the skill or knowledge was acquired. We just know that this student passed an exam, or created an acceptable product.  But the “learning” behind the score may not not what the educational systems wish it was: this kind of surface or strategic learning is usually not learning for life. It is memorizing for survival in testing-oriented educational context.

To change the learning context we must focus much more on supporting students’ learning process, because acquiring transferable and life-long knowledge and skills is exactly what real learning is, or what it should be. When we are too busy cramming all the minor details of our beloved subject matter into the lesson or syllabus, we easily forget what learning really is about: for students to construct their own understanding of the subject. Not only reproduce something the textbook says, but to use critical thinking in order to fully understand the topic and how it relates to the world where student lives.  Decontextualized learning is shallow or superficial by default. This is why I am very critical about prescriptive curricular and instructional design – students have different ways of thinking, different ways of learning, and different ways of knowing, and education has to accommodate those needs in order to be effective!

The easiest ways that I know to engage in learning-centered education is to provide choices for students. Thinking about learning as acquisition and elaboration of information (Illeris, 2003), it is handy to let students choose how they obtain the information. Sometimes letting students have a choice of where they get the information is beneficial (yes, I think wikipedia is a good starting point, but obviously students will have to dig deeper than that, and provide appropriate references for their sources). Also providing choices for learning strategies supports both students’ self-regulation and their learning process. Does it really matter how your student learned the concept or topic, if they learned it well? In order to help students’ independent learning skills to grow even more,  it is a great idea to provide choices for assignments and assessments, and use rubrics and formative feedback to guide students to the level of competence where they need to be. Naturally, each student will arrive to that point on their own, individual pace.

I know that standardized tests don’t really fit into this picture, but their purpose is not to support students’ learning. Those tests exist to provide numerical data for stakeholders in the form of summative evaluations, not to promote learning-centered education. As teachers we may not have enough voice to change the current educational policies, but engaging in learning-centered education helps students to be ready for both the tests and life.

How about making learning the central focus of your instructional practice?



Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406. doi:10.1080/0260137032000094814


Visible and invisible learning and teaching

13 Jan

Learning process is anything but linear and visible.

Best learning experiences are often messy and hard, but oh-so-rewarding. For education professionals it is sometimes nice to think about how the learning process is rolling forward like a simple cycle (like Kolb’s), and emphasize the perception and processing, but the reality is far more complex. There are pits, loops and rabbit holes along the way.

The discussion of learning process must include these invisible or intermediate processes of learning, and acknowledge the personal preferences that make learning stick. One size does not fit all.

Learning process

Our personal preferences for the intermediate processes of learning are the ways we prefer to perceive, choose, store, reflect and retrieve the data and information needed for learning. These preferences result from our previous experiences in life and learning, and they can either help or hinder our academic learning process (Green et al. 2012). Acknowledging the individual preferences and emphasizing the importance of metacognitive skills in learning helps to focus more on these invisible parts of learning process.

Teaching the metacognitive skills could be called invisible teaching, because it requires significant amount of interactions between the teacher and the student – interactions that may or may not relate directly to the learning objectives.

Learning happens everywhere. This must be acknowledged in curriculum design and instructional design processes, because without transfer to personal lives of students the formal learning is quite worthless. (This is obviously not a new idea, non scholae sed vitae has been around for a long time.) Unfortunately, teaching is sometimes seen as a simple act of delivering information.  In such learning environments evaluations of learning (or performance) are based only on the tests, exams, essays, worksheets and other ways of demonstrating the  mastery of the subject/topic.  Grades are handed out to students in the end of term or semester, but what do these grades actually mean?

Invisible learning could be called unvalued leaning, because it is not included in the evaluations conducted in formal education.  To be effective, contemporary education must strive “to capture intermediate learning processes in student work,” not just outcomes (Bass & Enyon, 2009, p. 15). One way to broaden the evaluation of learning is to use performance assessments with rubrics, so that students know what they are supposed to demonstrate, and use all their knowledge in the tasks, not just a small, segmented amount of knowledge that belongs to that specific class.

The challenge for contemporary education is to include the invisible learning into formal learning. Learning should always be life-long, life-deep and life-wide.  Students have lots of knowledge gained outside of the school systems, and in information societies we cannot – and should not – try to restrict students’ access to information. Visiting websites like wikipedia should be encouraged, with the constant reminder of not taking any information at a face value.  Not even what is printed in the textbook. 🙂

Bridging this informal or invisible/unvalued learning to formal education helps students to see their classroom learning more meaningful because it carries personal significance. Emphasizing invisible learning empowers students to engage in self-regulated learning and be more active in building their own, personal knowledge-base.

What is the easiest way for invisible learning to become valued in your class?





Bass, R. and Eynon, B. (Eds.). (2009). The difference that inquiry makes: A collaborative case study of technology and learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project. Academic Commons. Retrieved from

Green, J., Liem, G. A. D., Martin, A. J., Colmar, S., Marsh, H. W., & McInerney, D. (2012). Academic motivation, self-concept, engagement, and performance in high school: Key processes from a longitudinal perspective.Journal of adolescence35(5), 1111-1122

Invisible learning as a new paradigm or metatheory.



Growth mindset for grit vs. empowerment

5 Sep

I enjoyed reading Alfie Kohn’s critique about Dweck’s mindset because it made me think about how we empower students to engage in their own learning process.  The article addresses points that are extremely important while using the mindset in the classroom, especially the pedagogical choices about focusing on traits like grit or supporting the individual learning process of each student. Mindset itself is important, but the way we discuss the growth mindset with students is even more important.

Personally I find it controversial to focus too much on learning styles or personality traits like grit (other labels are extroversion, openness, impulsivity, etc, google MyersBrigg or Big 5 for additional information).  This is because the contemporary learning theories highlight the subjectivity of learning, and the expected teaching dispositions are very clear about the need for all teachers to display the belief  that every student can learn (regardless the personality traits students have). Furthermore, I prefer to focus on supporting my students’ individual learning processes, because this helps them to become independent learners. Every student, child or adult, has their unique set of skills and needs, and perception of their own strengths and areas of growth. Discussing the growth mindset in the classroom may help some students to adopt better learning dispositions and engage more deeply in their own learning process.

It seems that mindset is a refined and renewed version of attribution theory and deals with students’ self-efficacy beliefs and locus of control.  We all have had those students and parents with the firm belief how “nobody in our family has ever been good in math” or “everyone in the family struggles with reading”. When children hear these messages stated over and over again in casual discussions, they often start to believe that they couldn’t possibly learn math, or be fluent readers, because those attributions don’t belong into their family. These beliefs easily create self-fulfilling prophecies that can seriously harm students’ learning.  Growth mindset can be an excellent tool to diminish these negative causal attributions and help students create a realistic (academic) self-concept. But, I don’t believe this can be achieved with something as simple and effortless as praise.

Praise is normative by its nature. Praise implies that the student met an invisible norm, known or set by the subject matter experts (teachers, educators, parents, etc). Thus praise is always about evaluation, because it is an external judgement about what the student did or what the student is (doing referring to the growth mindset and being referring to the fixed mindset). In education we need to increase the use of assessments and self-assessments with clear criteria about expected outcomes of assignments, so that students know what they are supposed to achieve and don’t have to rely on hit-and-miss strategies. Evaluations are very much overused, which is problematic because they emphasize the control over students and their performance, instead of providing learning support or feedback about the learning process.

The very first decision for every teacher to make before introducing the mindset to her/his students, is whether the mindset is used in the classroom to promote grit or to empower students to learn more.

Using mindset to promote grit in the classroom is fairly straightforward: create standards and labels for appropriate behaviour (maybe checklists), and we are good to go and evaluate students’ behaviours, actions and displays of true grit for demonstrating their growth mindset.  It is easy to quantify how many work sheets students have filled, or how many minutes they have engaged in the activities – and then praise the persistence in task (whether the task is meaningful for students is irrelevant in this environment).

I can understand why effort-praising, grit-building growth-mindset practices are appealing: they appear to be a quick fix for the most important problem in education – student disengagement. I am sure we could build a robot to offer praise every time when a student displays gritty behavior! But doesn’t this kind of praise seriously underestimate our students as vibrantly intelligent, creative and curious human beings? While persistence is important in successfully completing tasks or projects, it certainly cannot be the most important ingredient in educating students to become productive citizens of 21st century!

Grit vs empowerment

In the classroom reality the difference between the environments is obviously much less black and white, and features from both sides (grit and empowerment) are used in most learning environments I have seen. Balance is what matters. Taking behaviour at face value, and believing that it truly communicates what students are thinking is a big mistake. Students are not as experienced in communication and interaction as we teachers are, they are still trying to figure it out. (Here is a nice iceberg image about behaviour to remind us about the reality!)

Focusing on empowerment in mindset discussions is harder and more time consuming for educators, because empowerment requires a dialogue between students and the teacher. It is about engaging in authentic interaction where both parties are heard. In this environment assessment becomes an opportunity for feedback and growth. I am currently working on my dissertation about learner agency in formal education, and these very same themes of empowerment are important for educating students who are “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events”  (Bandura, 1999, p. 156).  To thrive in the with the constant information overflow in the world today, this active choosing (instead of reacting) is exactly what our students need to learn.

We as teachers need to make informed choices about our pedagogical and instructional practices. Is it more valuable for students to remember that finishing all tasks gets them rewarded (with praise or grades), or to know that they can have an effect on their own learning process? This is a value level choice about the classroom practices we communicate to students with expectations and grading policies. So, when introducing the mindset in your classroom, please do think about the long-term goals. What do you really wish for students to gain from the mindset discussion?

Update on 9/29/2015:

Carol Dweck revisited mindset stating that she may have “emphasized sheer effort too much”. Wonderful!
Maybe this mislead educators to think that promoting grit is beneficial, and so it became this widely accepted misconception about contemporary learning!

Bndura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of personality. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 154-196.

Informal learning improves the learning process

30 Jun

We, who work in formal education systems – teachers, faculty, administrators, and so on –  tend to have an overly serious view of learning. Sometimes we seem to think that formal learning experiences are the only real learning experiences, and that learning only happens when there is a teacher to document it.

I looked into my old posts and realized that I blogged about that last year, too. This is a really scary thought:

If learn

Formal learning – the learning that happens in educational systems – is learning that is measured with standards and learning objectives to be met.  For formal learning it is really important what students learn, and that students in some form reproduce the material provided for them. For informal learning to happen it is more important that students know how to learn – so that they can learn from any kind of interactions, where ever they happen to be.

We all have had natural born learners in our classrooms. These are students who seem to be learning easily, who have a good knowledge base for their age, and who may have opposite views and often they are not shy to express their opinions, either.  I think these are students who find it easy to combine information gained from different sources. They find common themes and happily put together things they learn from school, movies, comics, games, virtually anywhere, and then use it in different contexts.  This is what informal learning is about: producing knowledge, understanding and meaning!

Informal learning is an ongoing process, and in the contemporary world we must reform the educational thinking to meet the requirements of this century, and to prepare our students for living in the knowledge society, where they will have to choose between different sources and types of information.  This is also a change from teacher-centered to student-centered education.

The biggest difference is that in the past the teacher or the professor was the source of information – the true expert who had the official truth about the topic – while today the information is freely available for everyone who has access to the internet. But, there is also lots of misinformation out there, and figuring out what information is real and useful is often the biggest problem for students, who don’t have the same knowledge structure we educators do.

What has changed since the early days of public education is the way we view knowledge.  What used to be objective, unchanging,  and transferable is now subjective, context dependent and individually constructed.  The way we perceive knowledge changes everything in formal education. What we really need to improve education worldwide is more open source information. Wikipedia is a great first step in searching information, and students shouldn’t be discouraged to use it. Nor should we discredit the sources our students use, but ask them to show the merit of the author or proof of the claim.

Combining informal learning with the formal learning that happens in the classrooms improves the quality of education because blind obedience stifles imagination. Learning as a process can be seen as interactions between the student, content and environment. In formal settings teachers and faculty should provide guidance and introduce the main concepts and principles of the content, but leave opportunities for students to fill in some of the details.

Designing the instruction  in the way that allows informal learning to blend with formal learning helps students to learn how to learn, which increases meaningfulness and sparks curiosity – and these two important parts of engagement well met will also help students to take a deep leaning approach, which leads to life-long learning. This is what our students need to thrive in their future!

The true blended learning approach is not about technology and getting educators all excited about software and hardware, it is about blending formal and informal learning and upgrading the mindware.