Diving into ‘Deep Learning’

Mr David Proudlove | Head of Senior School

If you are or have ever been concerned about the shrinking habitat of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, or the well-being of the pink dolphins of the Amazon, then chances are you are familiar with the glorious career of Sir David Attenborough; surely the world’s most recognisable and influential naturalist?  In the lower profile, certainly less glamorous field of education, you would be forgiven having never heard of Michael Fullan, but for 400 delegates from all over Australia and New Zealand, gathering in Brisbane a fortnight ago, he’s possibly the nearest thing we have to the iconic Attenborough!

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1940, Fullan rose meteorically through the ranks of educational researchers and was appointed Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1988, a post he held for 15 years.  A hugely prolific author, Fullan is credited with designing and implementing Ontario’s provincial (government) education system so successfully that, to this day, private schools struggle to capture more than 5% of students in that province, compared to the approximately 35% of students who attend private schools across Australia.  When California decided its state education system needed to be completely overhauled in 2013, it was Michael Fullan who was appointed to lead the process.

I had enormous, probably unrealistically high expectations of the 4 hours he was to spend addressing the gathering in Brisbane, but Mr Fullan more than lived up to them.  Incredibly engaging and persuasive in laying out his ‘big picture’ view, he provided something of a call to arms that had a visibly, and audibly motivating influence on his audience that was drawn from the independent, Catholic and government education sectors.

In a nutshell (and allowing that, as one famous comedian said, ‘anything that fits into a nutshell is pretty insignificant!) Fullan believes that deep, meaningful, authentic learning requires enquiring minds to explore at least one, and as many as possible of his Big 6 principles, in every lesson.

Character, Citizenship, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking.

Of course, there may be a rare occasion where a talented educator might draw on all 6, but even if only one may be reached, then sustained, authentic, emotional and lifelong learning will be taking place; learning that is useful and ‘sticks with us for life’.

Woven around the practicalities of what lessons might look, and feel like if done with this mindset were some remarkable observations and contentions based on over 50 years in educational research and practical school improvement:

  1. Humans have been lucky in that evolution favoured us at the expense of all other species on the planet, and allowed our societies and well-being to develop and improve dramatically as our brains grew and ideas flourished. However, for the first time in human history our rate of adaptation and technological advancement will not be sufficient to see us successfully through the accelerating pace and increasing severity of current challenges, from climate change to the reappearance of nationalism and protectionism.
  2. Education’s imperative at this point is to create depth and closeness in learning communities, plugging us into our planet in ways that are being discarded by political leaders in many influential nations.
  3. Inequality in society is increasing in the USA, UK, Australia and many other developed countries; whereas, due to radically different political views in the Scandinavian nations, and Fullan’s native Canada, inequality is decreasing, bucking the wider trend.
  4. Inequality in society is a huge barrier to excellence of all sorts; educational, yes, but also in terms of economic and social outcomes for societies.
  5. Doing well materially has been exposed as not necessarily doing well at life, when measures of well-being are considered. Young people are feeling less fulfilled and content than has ever been recorded, with a global epidemic of poor mental health that far outstrips anything seen since Western industrialisation.
  6. In a study of ‘elite’ private schools in Canada and the USA, the top academic graduates were unable to remember a significant proportion of what they had learned for their final examinations when re-tested a mere 3 months later. In fact, grades fell from a mean of between A and A- in the test group to B-/C+ across all subjects tested.

How can we in education consider this to be a meaningful, sustainable, value-for-money investment in our young people, on whom we will all rely in future?

It should be noted that very similar results have been obtained when re-testing students from the education systems deemed among the most successful in international testing, such as Singapore and South Korea.  Too often young people are choosing subjects they have no genuine interest in, driven by parents, not their own passion.

Fullan summed up his educational philosophy using a famous John Dewey quote,

‘Education is not just a preparation for life; it is life itself!’

I walked away almost dizzy with both the implications of what Michael Fullan had said, and the responsibility that all of us involved in any facet of education have to reflect on how we can continue to improve outcomes in the noble quest for deep learning; for our students, and ourselves.