#ocTEL Week 2: Approaches to Learning

May 18, 2014

Week 2 of #ocTEL has found me flagging somewhat, due to work commitments. However, it has been a great week of reading.

The key question of learning approaches really interests me, as it is something I am very interested in. Different to the ever-controversial learning “styles”, learning approaches are defined in three categories, as listed on the #ocTEL Week 2 page:

Page detailiing 3 approaches to learning

Approaches to Learning


My initial reaction to the question of which approach is best was “Well, deep learning of course, because it is the most “complete””. This is unsurprising as a Philosophy and English graduate:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

(Alexander Pope)

However, thinking a little further, I considered – could these approaches actually be a continuum? One starts learning facts, and as they accumulate those facts, they get a bit smarter about what they are learning, they get strategic: targeting the knowledge they need. At some point, if the subject is interesting enough, they will seek to learn and think more deeply about it.  This theory made sense to me, and fit with many experiences (me, people I know, people I have created learning content for, but never met, etc.).

What I find interesting about “Surface” learning is that it corresponds somewhat to learning by rote, which many now consider an awful travesty. However, in my own experience, it was worth learning some things by rote. For example (and this is just one), my multiplication tables(!). I use these just about every day. While there are many ways times tables could be made more interesting, I think they survived better without application, as their abstract nature made it easy to apply to many things: hours, time, money, etc. Although, I must confess, my father taught me times tables using a very rhythmic metre, such that they felt more like poems in recital – so this probably helped immensely.

Then, I read #ocTEL activity week 2 : approaches to learning (http://chcoll.wordpress.com)  and my thinking got pushed a little further. The well constructed argument is that strategic learning is perhaps what we should all be aiming for in community situations, as deep learning could mean a whole group learning to follow the interests of deep learners (or indeed switching off when the deeper levels do not interest them). You should read this post, as rather than re-write all the arguments here, I’m just going to refer to them.

The “strategic” learner is pretty much my audience, and has been for my whole career. Working in eLearning development, our learners are often those seeking “Just in time” skills-gap content. They want to get in and out quite quickly, and they want a sense that they have learned enough to do what is required (as a result, one develops towards stated learning objectives, talks about or refers to specific tasks as much as possible, and loads in assessments that will run the gamut from True or False questions to detailed scenario based simulations).  For my own learning, I would notice many situations where I am “strategic”, a simple example might be looking up code for html – not necessarily understanding the complete ins and outs of it, but knowing it will do what I need to get done. An interesting development in the industry is the announcement of the Serious eLearning Manifesto, something I am very interested in, but don’t necessarily agree with fully (I feel it concentrates too much on the strategic – while good for professionals, may not meet the needs of others who need factual or deeper learning, which I feel technology can be developed to provide or at least assist with).

Many would argue eLearning has no place for those seeking “deep” learning, but I would disagree.  I see eLearning (or technology enhanced learning) as a set of tools that can be deployed according to pedagogical principles – the question is not whether, but how. That is not to say it is easy to do. The danger (as outlined in Week 1 of #ocTEL) is that you provide the technology and expect learning to occur. This is why I am doing #ocTEL – to better understand how others, from different disciplines or backgrounds are using technology to provide that deeper learning. All this said, I still agree with the post I linked to a paragraph back: strategic may indeed be the real goal, with “deep” being a bonus.

In my current role, my audience is somewhere between surface, strategic and deep – depending on the specific context and content. Some will just want to know facts (that can be applied elsewhere, or used to inform understanding of something else). The same person can also be strategic in a different context – learning what needs to be known to perform a specific task. In another context, that same person may feel the content we have developed, while informative, hasn’t taken them far enough – so they will go and read articles referenced in the content, and seek out forums and/or wikis to further discuss ideas.

In conclusion, I think we are all working within some kind of dynamic strategy. When I say “we”, I mean “learning designers/facilitators” and “learners”.

As learners (and we are all learners really), we sometimes seek facts to support other information – or just to know. We can also be strategic, outside of the classroom/course setting, learning specific things we need (taking facts, and applying them to tasks). But as we learn facts and assemble them strategically, we start to see connections, similarities or the rationale, which leads to a deeper learning.

As learning designers, we’re trying to assist the deepest required learning for people. This could be provision of facts (if that’s what they want to come and get, we can certainly hang it out, ready to be taken), or something more strategic (which as I think I’ve said is perhaps what we should aim for: an understanding that allows for action), as well as providing a gateway for deeper learning.


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