The best way we know of to accelerate learning is to slow down! It may be counterintuitive, but learning slowly—in ways that foster deep understanding—is the best way to speed up growth! You’ve achieved deep understanding when you’re able to connect new knowledge with your existing knowledge, then put it to work in a variety of real-world contexts.
In an earlier post, I presented evidence that building deep understanding accelerates learning (relative to learning correct answers, rules, definitions, procedures, or vocabulary). In this post, I’m going to explain why.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that my colleagues and I work with a learning model called the” Virtuous Cycle of Learning and +7 skills” (VCoL+7). This model emphasizes the importance of giving learners ample opportunity to build deep understanding through cycles of goal setting, information gathering, application, and reflection. We argue that evidence of deep understanding can be seen in the coherence of people’s arguments—you can’t explain or defend an idea coherently if you don’t understand it—and other evidence of their ability to apply knowledge. When we learn deeply—the VCoL way—we build robust knowledge networks that provide a solid foundation for future learning.
Because poorly understood ideas provide a weak foundation for future learning, my colleagues and I hypothesized that, over time, learners with lower levels of understanding would grow more slowly than learners with higher levels of understanding. We measured understanding by scoring learners’ written arguments for their coherence—how clear and logical they were—on a scale from 1-10. We measured their developmental growth with the Lectical Assessment System, a well-validated developmental scoring system. For details about the study, see the full report.
For the figure below, I’ve borrowed the third graph from the “stop trying to speed up learning” post, which showed growth curves for students in three different kinds of schools. The first (faded teal) group represents students in private schools that emphasized VCoL, the second (faded lime) group represents students in private schools with conventional curricula emphasizing correctness, and the third group (faded red) represents students in public inner city schools with conventional curricula emphasizing correctness. I’ve faded the learning curves for students in these schools into the background.
To this figure, I have added three brightly colored growth curves. These predicted growth curves based on the results of our study on the impact of coherence (which represents level of understanding) on developmental growth. At this point, it’s important to reveal that all of the students included in our study of coherence were students in inner city public schools with a high percentage of students from low income families (the faded red group). Each curve stands for the predicted growth of a hypothetical student from these schools. In the 4th grade, our hypothetical students received time 1 coherence scores of 5.5, 6.5, and 7.5. These values were selected because they were close to the actual time 1 coherence scores for the three groups of students in the background graphic. (Actual average 4th grade scores are shown on the right.) The vertical scale represents developmental level and the horizontal scale represents school grade.
As you can see, the distance between grade 8 scores predicted by the hierarchical regression is a bit less than half of the difference between the actual average scores in the background image. What this means is that in grade 8, almost half of the difference between students in the three types of schools can be explained by depth of understanding (as captured by our measure of coherence).
Both type of instruction and wealth predict learners’ growth trajectories. The results from our study of the impact of coherence on development suggest that if we use forms of instruction that support deep understanding, we can accelerate learning—even for disadvantaged students. These results are consistent with patterns observed in adult learning, in which programs that employ VCoL have been found to accelerate learning relative to programs that emphasize correctness or motivation.
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