DEEP LEARNING AND SURFACE LEARNING

My law school years did not prepare me to remember what I learned at school or to apply what I learned in new contexts and new cases. My education had consisted of listening to professors talking about law, answering their questions, and reading about law. Although I had a couple of clinical courses, those courses had not helped me either with the intricacies of legal practice.

I felt that my years as an amateur filmmaker and my passion for popular culture shows prepared me better for legal practice than law school. I developed a host of cognitive skills that proved very usefill throughout my career, but which were not part of my law school education. I had learned to follow my instincts, to make intuitive decisions, to think of the subtext of any human interaction, to make connections to other texts and situations, to solve problems, to deconstruct hidden aspects of a stoiy, to challenge authority, and to judge the quality of work. I had also developed other skills that helped me win many cases that were not part of my formal education, either. I had learned how to talk to the press and win their support. I had learned how to narrate stories and how to use audiovisual materials to tell these stories.

As from my early days of legal practice, I wanted to know why I had forgotten about something I had studied several times at law school. How was it possible that I had no idea about something that I had learned not that long ago? Would I teach my students in the same way? Would they forget everything after taking my courses? If so, why? Is there something structurally wrong in higher education that prevents students from learning in a way that they will remember? Or was I alone in having done something wrong that caused me to forget? How could I teach so that my students would learn for life? What could I do so that students could transfer and apply what they learn to other situations and contexts?

At the core of these questions lie two fundamental concepts, which I ignored at that time: deep learning and surface learning. Deep learning is a committed approach to learning where learners learn for life and can apply what they learn to new situations and contexts. Surface learning is a superficial approach to learning where students use knowledge that they acquire for writing exams or papers and soon forget it. Deep learners discover and construct theft own knowledge by negotiating meanings with peers and by making connections between existing and new knowledge. Surface learners receive knowledge passively from their teachers or books.

One of the most shocking research findings about deep and surface learning reported in the literature in virtually every country and region in the Western world is that most higher education students approach learning in a surface way (Biggs and Tang, 2007). In other words, students forget what they learn and cannot use it meaningfully outside their classrooms.

In any other activity, industry, or sector, this would make headlines all over the world. For example, if car manufacturers produced cars that ran for a few miles only, if planes flew only a few minutes after take-off, or if computers stopped working after a few mouse clicks, it could not be business as usual in those industries. People would be fired, companies would be closed down, consumers would file multimillion dollar lawsuits, and society would demand immediate changes. Fortunately, higher education is different. We have time to work on our mistakes and fix them. We have time to go back to the drawing board and teach our courses differently. But unfortunately, it takes us too long to realize that things are not working well and even longer to find a meaningful solution. In the meantime, entire cohorts of students are sent out to the world outside academia having learned only superficially.

Deep learning is the answer to the performance problems in law school and criminal justice programs. It is what helps students become active protagonists of their own learning process. It is the key to their success in their future professional endeavors. It enables learners to connect, apply, and transfer knowledge to a wide array of settings and to act effectively in different contexts. Popular culture plays a key role in the deep learning process. When law and criminal justice are taught through popular culture within a deep learning environment, that is to say, when students learn to reflect about law and criminal justice through popular culture stories and when students learn to be effective interpreters and producers of popular culture texts, popular culture helps foster most of the intellectual skills and the professional competences needed to succeed in the legal and criminal justice fields, including those usually marginalized in higher education.

 
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