Is Your Child Learning Deep Understanding?

June 8, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

How Parents Can Fill a Gap in Today’s Rushed Education System

One of the keys to lifelong learning is deep understanding, the ability to connect to prior knowledge, to put knowledge in context, to see the big picture — to understand it deeply.  It is one of fun parts of learning, as developing a deep understanding requires engagement and curiosity.  The reward of deep understanding is a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction.

According to academic John Hattie, deep understanding flows out of “surface knowledge” and is required before meaningful critical thinking can be practiced.  It’s an important step on the road to self-directed, higher-order thinking and learning.

Unfortunately in today’s busy schools there are few chances for a child to practice deep understanding. The inch deep mile wide curriculum and the endless barrage of tests creates a rushed environment  — if students finishes something early, busy work is instantly placed under their noses to ensure that every second of the day is crammed full of ‘learning opportunities.’

But what about downtime? What about when the teacher says: “class let’s go outside and explore” and students are free to actually experience the world rather than just describe it in the context of a set learning task?

Or instead of skimming two subjects in a month, what about covering only one, with more chance to exercise curiosity in building a more complete understanding and then to exercise creativity in using this better understanding to think outside the box.

The classroom of today allows very little opportunity to spend more time and really get interested in a topic that might lead to a deep understanding. The research and discovery can uncover new information to build deep understanding is time consuming. Time for children to ponder life’s mysteries or formulate their own questions to explore and experiences to participate in, is rare.

What is deep understanding?

Learning is a very individual process. Despite being most often taught in groups, everybody learns differently, and there are many theories that outline the ‘best’ way to develop the capacity for deep understanding.

At the very least deep understanding requires heightened curiosity in order to ask the right questions. It also develops thinking skills, for example learning to connect information to other information, to put information in context. Finally, deep understanding requires the ability to see the big picture and to recognize the main themes in a topic area.

There is the sort of learning where material is learned by rote for a test, for example. But deep level learning occurs when a student is allowed to interact, explore and experience information in a variety of ways.

Unfortunately for modern day schooling, the over-use of a prescriptive curriculum allows for very few self-directed learning opportunities for students. Instead, the outcomes of deep understanding — the recognition of various themes or conclusions — are spoon fed by the teacher.  This means that not only are they soon forgotten, but also, an opportunity to develop exploration and creativity skills was missed.

However, creating a child that loves to learn and recognizes and feels the thrill deep inside them every time they understand something new, is an achievable goal.

Many countries around the world now employ a “teach less, learn more” philosophy (led by Singapore) where they have uncluttered their curriculum to allow for more deep understanding. They use an inquiry-led approach to learning where students research topics rather than having the highlights preselected and spoon-fed by the teacher.  This fosters deep understanding that has been described as “just in time as opposed to just in case.”

However, with the hyperactivity around testing and accountability in America at present, it seems unlikely to come here any time soon, meaning deep understanding skills are best developed at home.

How parents can help their children with deep understanding

Here are three ways to promote deep understanding in your child:

Don’t teach anything
The first way to engage your child in deep learning is by actually not ‘teaching’ him at all. Don’t spoon feed him at homework time – he gets enough of that in class. Instead, let him research and pursue his own ideas, and make his own mistakes. You can model good learning behavior, by verbalizing what you are doing when you are researching or thinking, but don’t deprive him of the opportunity to do his own learning.

Ask lots of questions, and let your child do the answering. Always allow for follow-up questions, because that is when the good stuff happens!

Deep understanding requires curiosityExplore the world together
Spend time reading together, or outside playing, interacting and just having space to explore. Deep understanding requires heightened curiosity and there is no better way to stimulate curiosity than with parents in daily life. It’s about having the thinking skills to critically question why things happen, and the ability to research and find possible solutions.

Allow downtime
Giving your child much needed downtime will provide brain space to process the information of the day, and generate those deep-level thinking questions. Be mindful of allowing your child the opportunity to reflect on their different experiences. Encourage this by asking open questions (not an interrogation!) in a way that is natural and elicits a discussion.

Deep understanding is particularly challenging for struggling readers.  It requires “read to learn” skills as self-directed inquiry is a big part of building knowledge on a topic. If your child is having difficulties with reading comprehension you should consider reading comprehension software. Increasing reading efficiency will allow children to extract more from the text and spend more time in the deep-level thinking zone, developing a deep understanding of the topic.

Parents are in a privileged position to encourage children to become lifelong learners. It requires innovation, patience, critical thinking and allowing children to have meaningful learning opportunities with deep understanding being at the heart and at the same time one of the rewards of the learning process.

Remember the old Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

  • Robin Gaston

    As a parent I feel the hardest time to fit in our schedule is down time. Between school, sports, clubs, and homework there isn’t much time left in the day.