A few years before writing our book, we participated in a meeting about knowledge and thinking. The conversations at the meeting proceeded as though students could learn at a deep level without any surface knowledge. The participants used the terms “superficial knowledge” and “surface learning” interchangeably and in a somewhat demeaning tone. At the time, we puzzled over this, but could not, and did not, raise any questions about the terms or the assumptions surrounding them. While we both believed there was something wrong, we couldn’t defend our position, so we were quiet. It certainly seemed that something was amiss. The conversations seemed to have some basis in “if you can google it, why learn it…?” and that position we had also rejected.

Instead of asking questions or starting a conversation with other participants, we did a lot of reading and found that it was common to use the terms as synonymous. These sources went a step further and attributed what we would call “skills” to what they were calling “knowledge.” We came to realize we really hadn’t clearly defined a few things for ourselves. The meeting we attended made us really introspective, reflective, and insecure about our own understandings of knowledge and thinking.  What came next was a journey dedicated to learning more about learning itself.

To be perfectly honest, we did not set out to learn about learning. We were studying creativity at the time this surface / superficial / deep thing started to really bug us and the two of us were approaching our creativity study with two very different knowledge banks. Christine had taken art history courses and is a good amateur artist. Dick had taken no art history courses and can barely take a picture that does not include his thumb. Dick plowed into book after book on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists and he started by reading Ross King narratives. For an illustration of surface and superficial knowledge and its influence on deep learning, let’s get into Dick’s head as he reads one of these narratives, Mad Enchantment; Claude Monet’s Painting of the Water Lilies.

So, think of Dick reading to gain a foothold on Monet’s career so that he, Dick, could learn about how Monet learned over time. He wants to gain some surface knowledge before he goes deeper, but he also encounters a lot of superficial knowledge in King’s narratives about Monet. King sets the stage and develops a sense of character with this superficial knowledge. He describes Monet as a person. King is leading Dick’s learning with engaging personal details about his subject. For example, King notes that Monet begins each morning with a glass of white wine (superficial, no doubt); and that he paints sketches of the Rouen Cathedral and then returns home to finish the paintings from memory (surface knowledge most likely since that information holds a key to what Dick is after–information about how Monet works to learn).

King goes on to inform Dick, his reader, that unlike in his youth, late in life, Monet works from what we might consider an outline or scaffold. He also misses his deadline with the Rouen Cathedral paintings and has to postpone an important public showing for a year. That is more surface information and it makes Dick wonder why that happened. What was so difficult about the Rouen Cathedral paintings? For Dick, the information could be surface or superficial, depending on whether the information contributes to Dick’s purpose for reading. In either case, the surface facts about the paintings allow Dick to dig deeper and draw conclusions about how Monet learns. The fact that Monet drinks a glass of white wine in the morning, does not contribute to the purpose.

Now Dick can dig deeper. He can put the Rouen Cathedral paintings into a larger context and begin to draw conclusions about how Monet learned over time. This is deep learning. To go deeper defines the process, deep knowledge or deep learning is a result. In this case, knowledge is becoming intertwined with a skill – a strategy about the association. In this case, Dick’s strategy is to associate the Rouen Cathedrals with Monet’s sequence of paintings over a lifetime and ask “what is changing?”

Dick now has a second strategy or skill. He has now caught up with where Christine started but from a different perspective. He can now have a conversation with her and better understand what she is saying. There is now a better collaboration.

Our belief is that one is able to learn deeply based on the nature of surface knowledge – what are the holes left or patterns created – and the skill of thinking with associative memory. Both of these require practice and when we define the “what’ of learning, we are referring to both knowledge and skills, which in our mind are intertwined.

Knowledge is a function of remembering, which requires both repetition and association. Learning is faster when these two are combined. It is the skill of association that allows for going deeper. Application, innovation and invention, creativity, evaluation – all of these are skills that involve associating one block or platform of knowledge with another. This explains a couple of strategies that have a high impact on learning on John Hattie’s list.

Spaced repetition, rehearsal, and summarization are all significant on his list and rank in the .6 to .8 range with .4 being his hinge point of importance. As you move up the scale, however, the skill of association begins to play a role. Having a learning strategy that incorporates prior knowledge has an impact above .9. Jigsawing, which requires association of like topics and association of different topics, as well as testing, has an impact of 1.2. Knowledge and the skill to recall and use it become intertwined and represent two of the three definitions we have relative to the “what” of learning. The third is habit. We want students to develop habits of mind that will promote lifelong learning and make learning easier.