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The Learning Trajectory: Key insights from Dr Jared Cooney Horvath’s webinar

If you haven’t watched the video of this webinar on the learning trajectory, it is highly recommended viewing. Not only an engaging speaker, Jared has an amazing ability to clearly and succinctly explain not only the learning process but also what this means for teachers, and why so often we seem to be talking past each other in education. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Form follows function. What does this mean in education? Teachers should start by asking ‘what do I want to achieve in this lesson?’ That is, what is the lesson’s function. It is only after they have satisfactorily answered this question that teachers should think about the form, that is, the practices, tasks and approaches that will enable them to achieve their objective(s).

Learning objectives (the function) need an active verb and to be observably measurable. This is because passive verbs, such as understand, reflect, consider, cannot be directly observed by the teacher. In learning, behaviours – e.g. describe, explain, summarise – must serve as proxies for our desired outcomes. That is, asking a student to describe something in their own words becomes a proxy for knowing whether or not they understand it. Importantly, the nature of the verb will change as you move through the learning trajectory from surface – to deep (levels 1-3) – to transfer.

Disagreements about learning and education typically stem from people focusing on different stages of the learning trajectory. This statement was something of a revelation for me. I’ve frequently lamented what I consider to be the false dichotomies present in education: between knowledge and skills; between direct instruction and inquiry learning; between memorisation and higher order thinking skills. It is not that people are right or wrong in their views, but rather they are only focussing on part of the learning trajectory.

Such a singular focus on one part of the learning trajectory is problematic because it is necessary to move through the whole of the learning trajectory, and it is impossible to get to deep learning 2 or 3 without first proceeding through surface and deep level 1 (although when teaching it is not a linear journey and it is possible to move backwards and forwards between the levels). While at school, students will spend most of their time at the surface level and deep level 1, and at times will moving into deep levels 2 and 3. While it is important to provide opportunities for students to get to these deeper levels, it is not only OK but it also is necessary that students, as novices, spend the majority of their time at surface and deep level 1. It is only once we become experts in a particular topic or area that we can spend the majority of our time in deep learning 2 and 3 and transfer.

Surface level learning focuses on facts, as facts always precede skills. There are no stand-alone skills. Rather skills are intimately dependent on the knowledge we have in a particular area. Therefore, without facts, we cannot engage in deeper learning. The purpose of surface level learning is to move facts/information from episodic memories (tied to a particular moment and context) to sematic memories (context-free). This requires exposure and repetition. If we encounter a fact three times (on different days and in different contexts), we have an 80% chance of it forming into a sematic memory. Once information becomes a sematic memory, we are able to progress to deep level 1.

Deep learning can be equated with thinking. It is predicated on concepts and how we organise and play with the information we have. It focuses on questions such as: How do you understand what you know? What are you going to do with the information that you have?

At deep level 1, the focus is on activating and associating knowledge in order to construct concepts. This involves activities that require summarising, restating, classifying, examining, interpreting, discussing and associating.

At deep level 2, the focus is on elaborating and expanding concepts. The idea of the learning pit originated in relation to deep level 2 and the ‘breaking’ or challenging of concepts and the subsequent requirement to build new concepts. This often involves tasks requiring contrasting, criticising, questioning, debating, modifying and deconstructing.

At deep level 3, the focus is applying and personalising. At this stage, we put new conceptualisations to the test, which at times might force us to return down the learning trajectory to shift concepts and reorient our perspectives. Deep level 3 involves activities such as defending, explaining, justifying, hypothesising, and testing.

You can see the slides from Jared’s presentation, which contain some visual illustrations of the ideas discussed in this Insight article, here.

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