Teaching for Deep Learning

  • — Ma boum sans Mathieu, c’est même pas la peine.
  • — Mais non tout le monde y va, ça va être génial !
  • — J’m’en fous de tout le monde, c’est lui que je veux !

La Boum (Pinoteau, 1980)


The most influential factor in the quality of student learning is the way we teach. We can create the environment and conditions that can encourage our students to approach learning in a profound way. The signature pedagogies that predominate in the teaching of law and criminal justice, that is, the case-dialogue method, the lecture, and the seminar, with little or no emphasis in popular culture, do not contribute to the creation of deep learning environments. These pedagogies do not help students discover and construct knowledge by themselves and do not help students engage in the practices that members of the professional or academic communities routinely take part in. The deep learning process requires a connection between new knowledge, embedded in the input stoiy in the form of a problem, question, or situation, and existing knowledge, which makes up our cognitive structure. This connection must activate a series of competences, skills, and processes both at the individual and social levels. Deep learning also requires constant reflection about the learning process and the changes at the individual (cognitive structure) and social levels (professional or academic community). Popular culture plays a very important role in the creation of a deep learning environment, as we all think in tenus of stories. Furthermore, the deep learning process can be understood and processed as a stoiy itself. This process contains several stories, mainly the input stoiy, which is the central aspect of the process, and the existing stories, that are stored in the learners’ mind.


In the previous chapter, I discussed the notions of deep learning and surface learning. Succinctly, deep learning is learning for life, and surface learning is learning to complete a task in the short-term. Most law school and university students approach learning in a surface way (Biggs and Tang, 2007). In other words, students forget what they learn right after they pass their final examinations or write their final papers and cannot use it meaningfully outside the setting of higher education. The research literature shows that we teachers play the most influential role in students’— usually unconscious—decision to take a deep approach to learning. We can create the environment and conditions that can encourage our students to approach learning in a profound way.

I will begin the discussion in this chapter with an analysis of the main reasons why students learn superficially, that is to say, the way we teach at law schools and universities. I will focus on the signature pedagogies: the case-dialogue method (American law schools), the lecture (undergraduate criminal justice programs and law schools outside the United States), and the seminar (gr aduate criminal justice programs). Then, I will examine the notion of deep learning and compare it to the surface learning approach. I will also discuss the notion of popular culture and its connection to the deep learning process. Finally, I will break down and analyze every element of deep learning.


In Easter Egg Adventure (Williams, 2004), directed by John Michael Williams, Ms. Horrible Harriet Hare has been teaching cohorts of Egg Town’s students for decades. Virtually everyone in Egg Town has studied with her. Ms. Hare is very smart and has acute critical thinking skills. She enunciates very clearly and speaks with a very erudite vocabulary Her voice sounds authoritative and reflects a vast knowledge of the disciplines she teaches. She seems to know the content well. Presumably, her colleagues regard her as a disciplinary expert. Her teaching focuses almost exclusively on lecturing students. Her lectures are impeccable. She gives lots of information to students. She explains the materials with precision and with plenty of details. She uses specific disciplinary vocabulary and conects students when they do not use appropriate terminology. She expects students to absorb her explanations and to reproduce them with equal precision in traditional exams and papers. Students are not engaged in her class. They appear bored. Some are even afraid of her. Ms. Hare uses punishment (giving low grades, assigning extra work, even shaming students in front of others) to encourage her students to study and learn. Ms. Hare loves her work and honestly believes that she helps students learn by being strict and demanding. But most important for her, she believes in the power of her lectures. She thinks that the more erudite information she passes to her students, the more the students will learn.

In one of the first scenes, a mysterious takit (a big animal that seems to be a cross between an eagle and a rooster) covered in a red shawl, breaks into a bakery at night to steal money from the cash register. The owner, Boss Baker, wakes up and tries to stop the thief. He can hardly see the thief. He cannot even distinguish whether it is a male or a female takit, as it is very dark. Boss Baker manages to throw a pie at the thief before he escapes with the money. The pie leaves a stain on the thief’s red shawl. The thief goes back home and returns the shawl to his mother, Tiny Tessie, who is sound asleep and does not know that her son, Terrible Timothy Takit, has just robbed the bakery.

The following morning, when Tiny Tessie, wearing her shawl, goes to the bakery to buy some plum cakes, the owner recognizes the stained shawl and accuses her of robbery. He calls the police. Meanwhile, neighbors and passersby gather outside the bakery. When Sargent O'Hare arrives, he interrogates Tiny Tessie. In front of the crowd that gathered to see what has happened, Sargent O’Hare asks her if she has robbed the bakery. Too ashamed for being accused of a crime she has not committed in fr ont of her friends and acquaintances, Tiny Tessie remains quiet. Then, she breaks down and collapses. Her body shakes out of fear and embarrassment. The police and the onlookers take her silence and shaking as an admission of guilt. They think that this, together with the stained shawl she is wearing, is sufficient evidence of the crime. So, the police arrest Tiny Tessie for breaking and entering the bakery.

When Ms. Horrible Harriet Hare goes downtown and hears the people in Egg Town gossip about Tiny Tessie, she becomes furious, as she does not believe that Tiny Tessie has robbed the bakery. Ms. Hare argues vehemently with the people in Egg Town, all of whom are her former students, and—unsuccessfully—tiles to persuade them that there is not sufficient evidence to prove that Tiny Tessie has robbed the bakery. Ms. Hare is frustrated because her former students cannot think critically. They have been easily convinced by the first explanation they hear about the case, even when this explanation does not hold water. They seem to have jumped into conclusions without fully examining every aspect of the situation. They have neglected to consider possible alternative explanations, and they cannot tell facts from mere speculation. In other words, Ms. Horrible Harriet Hare realizes that her former students, including the chief of police, have not learned deeply what she has intended to teach them. They have all been surface learners. They have forgotten what Ms. Hare has taught them. They are unable to transfer the critical thinking skills that she has lectured about and apply them to a real-life-situation outside school.

In The Lord of the Flies (Hook, 1990), several school-age boys, together with the injured pilot, are stranded on a paradisiacal and uninhabited island after a plane crash. Since the pilot—the only adult—is severely wounded, the children have no choice but to explore the island by themselves. Motivated by their desire to survive, the boys learn to swim, hunt, fish, gather food, build shelters, cook, pluck birds, tie knots, and make a fire. The older and more mature boys, Ralph and Jack, tell the other boys stories that amaze and intrigue them. But no one lectures. The boys do not have to repeat what others say. No one grade the boys, either. They learn by themselves in a free and motivating environment. They set their own goals and solve the problems that they encounter in their quest for survival. After a fight, a group of boys—the hunters—move to the other side of the island and build a new shelter. This time, it is bigger and more comfortable. They improve the skills they have recently learned. For example, they learn new techniques to hunt pigs and to catch fish. They even reflect, revisit, and question some of the stories that adults have told them before the airplane accident. Equally important, they can transfer the skills that they have learned from one situation to another. For example, Jack intends to build a fort by using—and improving—the techniques they all learned while building the shelters.

Throughout their time on the island, the boys never forget the skills, knowledge, and competences that they have learned. They boys are all deep learners. They can transfer skills they learn for one project to another. They can solve problems all the time by employing skills previously learned. And they change some of the skills and knowledge they have in order to solve new problems. They also reflect about their learning process. They are highly motivated, and they learn fast.

As briefly anticipated in the previous chapter, there are two main approaches to learning: deep learning and surface learning. Deep learning is a committed attitude to learning where learners learn for life. Deep learners never forget what they learn. They can transfer knowledge and skills to new situations and can apply what they learn to new contexts. They can solve problems they have never encountered. They understand the implications, applications, and consequences of what they learn. They can judge and critically evaluate what they learn (Bain, 2004).

Surface learning is a superficial approach to learning where students use knowledge that they acquire for a specific task, such as writing exams or papers, and once that task is done, they soon forget what they leam. Surface learners are not committed to their learning process. They are passive learners who simply absorb information that teachers or books transmit to them. Surface learners cannot use what they leam to solve unfamiliar problems, or to transfer their knowledge to other contexts. They cannot see beyond the information that they receive from their teachers or books. They cannot read between lines or beyond lines. They are unable to hypothesize about what they leam and to see its consequences, implications, and applications.

Like the boys stranded on the island, students can leam deeply, write deeply, read deeply, and engage in any academic, professional, or even everyday-life task in a deep way. Similarly, like Ms. Hare’s students, learners can approach any task in a surface way.

A learner can also approach one aspect of a discipline in a surface way and another aspect of the discipline in a deep way. A learner can also take a deep approach to an aspect of the discipline at one time, and at another time he or she can take a surface approach to that same aspect of the discipline. For example, whereas Jack’s hunters leam most skills deeply, their knowledge about the law on the island was superficial. Although Jack was a good mentor for helping the children discover knowledge in most areas and develop a wide array of important skills for their survival, when it came to the law on the island, his mentoring style changed radically. Like Ms. Hare with low grades and punishment, Jack also uses fear to encourage them to leam rales. He believes that fear will make the children leam for life about law. Not surprisingly, the hunters end up breaking the rules, which results hi fatal consequences.

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