How Deep Should Learning Go?

Depth of Understanding                                                                 Photo credit: richcd from


Common Core has caused quite a storm over the past few years; especially with the mathematics approaches. Whether you support or admonish Common Core, it has brought up the topic of understanding. We all want our children to understand their learning; don’t we? Is all of this extra understanding really necessary or is it just a waste of time? How long does it take to understand? How do we know if our children are truly understanding?

Asking Why / Telling Why

If a child asks “Why?”, should we always explain as much as we can, or should we cut off his queries at some point as unnecessary? What’s the difference between knowledge and understanding?


If I’m taking a cooking class do I really need to know the difference between basil and oregano or is looking at the jar and knowing how to read and measure the correct amount enough? Does knowing the difference between the two herbs affect my ability to cook the dish of the day? Would knowing the difference support my learning perhaps down the road? What if I’d like to know? How much understanding do I really need; or want?


I’m interested in driving a big rig. The only problem is that I’ve never driven before. Well, of course, I’ve driven lots of times at the amusement park with those cars on the tracks and oh, in lots of video games (even while Mario throws turtle shells and bananas at me). Isn’t driving kind of easy? I mean, you only have to be a teenager, tall enough to reach the pedals, and smart enough to watch for flying objects. I’m sure if I watch someone do it and if they’d sit beside me, I’d be fine on my own in a day or two. Do I really understand what it takes?


I’m so excited! I’m having a baby! How hard can it be? Feed it, change its diapers, and put it to sleep. Buy it clothes and toys and love it. It sounds easy and there are directions on the formula, sticky tabs on the diapers and I’ll get a crib. Heck, I was even a baby once and I’ve seen babies everywhere. People have kids all the time. I be it will be a piece of cake! Do I have knowledge or understanding, or both, or neither? 


What do all of these scenarios have in common? They all under-estimate real learning. From the superficial to the seemingly familiar, to the instruction manual, to the common, these under-estimations leave out the misconceptions, the mistakes, the nuances, the trial and error, the varied approaches, and the eventual wisdom that comes with real, deep learning. Real learning doesn’t follow a 1,2,3 set of instructions. Being told isn’t learning. Living is learning.

All of these learning situations take time, attention, interest, and patience. They take real commitment and will invariably involve a lot of wrong choices. All of these scenarios could also go amazingly wrong. There will be mistakes.

Why do we teach our children they must hit deadlines, be finished by benchmark testing time or else (as early as kindergarten), and not allow for individuals who have additional questions or require time to discover those nuances that come with the wisdom of true learning?



Smelling and tasting the basil and oregano will yield dramatically different perceptions of each, yet many times we just slap on the “to do” label and expect learners to move on after completing some superficial practice. Sampling dishes with these ingredients will enhance a cook’s ability to differentiate between the two. Experimenting with different amounts will enhance a cook’s ability to use ingredients to add flavor with his own personal touch. Learning involves experimentation and experimenting takes time. 


Driving a less complicated vehicle on a closed course testing gas, brakes, and gradually merging into trickier situations will prepare a driver for the more complicated feat that lay ahead (and it will probably save lives). Building on background knowledge that is incomplete, practicing while anticipating and accepting mistakes, and genuinely examining the nuances of situations will prepare a driver and a learner.


Raising a child takes time, reflection, and eventually may result in wisdom. There is no real instruction manual and it involves a depth that is equal to no other (except perhaps the task of self-discovery). Raising a child involves asking a million questions, trying out different approaches, constant reflection and advice, and knowing your child. It’s deep. 



Teaching a child involves all of these skills and understandings. Real teaching ignores the due dates and benchmarks and focuses on misconceptions, nuances, and genuine understanding. Genuine teaching isn’t about instruction. It’s about supporting a child while he goes through the stages of discovery and understanding. Learning is about gaining a deep understanding that only happens through time, questioning, reflection, and experience. How deep of an understanding isn’t up to you. It’s up to your child- the learner. As deep as he wants and needs to be successful and fulfilled is the answer.



8 thoughts on “How Deep Should Learning Go?

  1. “Why do we teach our children they must hit deadlines, be finished by benchmark testing time or else (as early as kindergarten), and not allow for individuals who have additional questions or require time to discover those nuances that come with the wisdom of true learning?” – Such a GREAT question. The only answer I can ever come up with is because that is the easiest thing to do.
    Such a good article.


  2. My 17-year-old daughter was homeschooled until this year, when my son went off to college and she was afraid she would be lonely without him, so she signed up for our ~2,000 student high school for her senior year. She’s a strong student and the content isn’t hard for her, but what she has been bowled over by is the pace. She says it’s “something different every 47 minutes, piles of homework, deadline after deadline – I never have time to really learn anything.” Here’s to slow and deep education!


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