6. Promoting deep learning

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

We want our pupils to remember and use what we teach them in the long term. We want them to be able to solve complex problems in the wider world. In order to do that, their knowledge needs to be deeply rooted so that they don’t forget it and well connected so that they can spot when they should use it. To deepen understanding, teachers need to give pupils plenty of opportunities to think about new content and help them to connect that knowledge together.

Presenter main

Deepening understanding means thinking of ways to ensure that pupils can remember and use what they learn in the long term. It means helping pupils to develop knowledge that is securely embedded so that they don’t forget it. It also means ensuring that knowledge is well connected. This makes it more likely that pupils will be able to transfer their knowledge from one context to another, which can be hard to do. For example, if pupils connect business letters with formal writing and they know the different elements of formal writing, when they are given a task to write a business letter it should prompt them to recall relevant knowledge such as:

  • to write in a formal style
  • to limit overly descriptive language
  • to avoid the use of abbreviations

The better connected our knowledge is, the more useful it is to us. How then can teachers help pupils to deepen their understanding?

One way to ensure a depth of understanding is to identify the essential concepts, knowledge and skills of a subject, and revisit these big ideas over time. There is a limit to how many ideas teachers can revisit, so they need to make sure that they are selecting the most important ones. What is the core content of a lesson or unit of work?

Another way to deepen understanding is to help pupils develop connections between content. In particular it can be helpful if teachers switch between concrete examples and abstract concepts and make links between the two clear. Concrete examples tend to be specific to a particular task, whereas abstract concepts can apply across a range of different examples. Abstract concepts are like the glue that holds related content together. This is likely to help pupils to retrieve relevant content in the future. For example, when teaching multiplication, you might first use physical objects to create multiple groups and show that say 2 X 3 = 6. This would be a good concrete example. Later you might introduce multiplication of written numbers sticking with two times, again, as an abstract example.

Finally, teachers can provide pupils with a range of different examples when teaching key concepts. Not only does this help pupils to identify the underlying principles that occur in each example, but it also provides them with more opportunities to create connections between content. In English, teachers might teach the concept of tragedy in a variety of texts, such as “Othello”, “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” and see how it is similar and different in each context. Regular purposeful practice of content across a range of different contexts helps pupils to develop a more secure understanding. Varying the context of practice can also help pupils to develop knowledge which they can apply more widely.

Ultimately, deepening understanding is about building mental models that are securely rooted and well connected. The greater the depth of understanding, the more likely pupils are to remember and apply what they learn in the future.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see a model of how to interleave concrete and abstract examples. As you watch, pay particular attention to the following:

  • Draws attention to the underlying structure of problems.

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

For the purpose of this model, imagine I’m teaching a year seven Geography class. I’m going to explain to them what a protective measure is. I’m doing this so that I can model how to interleave concrete and abstract examples.

“We can’t prevent natural hazards from occurring. What we can do is put into place measures to reduce their impact on local populations. We call these protective measures. They’re put in place in advance of a natural hazard in order to reduce the amount of damage the natural hazard causes.

Today, we’re going to look at an example from a country where earthquakes are common. One example of a protective measure against earthquakes is to design our buildings to absorb the earthquake’s energy. One way of doing this is called cross bracing where a structure comprised of steel beams crossing each other is built into the building, supporting the building’s frame [teacher draws example on white board]

The cross bracing absorbs the energy from the earthquake preventing the building from falling down. So the architects have thought about this while they were designing the building. They thought about it in advance of an earthquake happening. They haven’t prevented the earthquake from occurring, but they’ve reduced the amount of damage that the earthquake does.”

In this model, there are several examples where I interleaved concrete and abstract content. The original definition of a protective measure is an abstract concept. A protective measure is something we put in place in advance of a natural hazard to reduce the effect it might have. Using cross bracing when designing buildings, so that they absorb energy from an earthquake is a concrete example of this abstract concept. This concrete example helps people as to understand what I mean by a protective measure. It gives them something to hold onto.

Secondly, I drew attention to the underlying structure that is present in both the abstract concept and the concrete example. I did this by using precisely the same language both times. I talked about putting things in place in advance to reduce the effect. By using the same language, I’m repeating the underlying structure which helps people to notice it. It isn’t enough to simply alternate between abstract and concrete concepts. Teachers also need to identify how they are similar. The underlying structure is present in both examples and it has this underlying structure that we want pupils to remember.

To create this example, I came up with a definition of the abstract concept, identified a concrete example, and looked for ways in which the example illustrated key aspects of the concept that I’d included in my definition.

This is just one way in which teachers can interleave abstract and concrete examples to deepen understanding. To be effective, teachers need to look for ways to do this across a sequence of learning and gradually reduce the need to rely on concrete examples as a support.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have looked at why it is important to deepen pupil understanding. And some of the ways in which teachers may do this. Take a moment now to read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which of the following ideas do you feel the example illustrated the best?

  • Revisiting the big ideas of the subject over time and teaching key concepts through a range of examples
  • Interleaving concrete and abstract examples, slowly withdrawing concrete examples and drawing attention to the underlying structure of problems

Presenter summary

Whatever subject or phase we are teaching, it is important to remember that teaching pupils something once or in just one way will never be enough to provide a secure understanding. Instead, we need to look for ways that we can deepen understanding so that pupils can retain and use what they learn in lots of different ways.


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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones has worked to identify and convey the key ideas in each topic to his pupils. However, he wants pupils to develop more than a basic, inflexible knowledge of the facts: he wants them to develop sophisticated mental models of the subject which allow them to apply what they have learnt to new and complex problems. How can he support his pupils to develop the kind of mental model which makes this deep thinking possible?

Key idea

Teachers can develop increasingly complex pupil mental models by promoting practise of thinking which supports pupils to access and apply their subject knowledge flexibly; carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

Evidence summary

Deep thinking requires background knowledge

Mr Jones wants his pupils to be able to tackle new problems, to think critically and to be creative. Pupils must have good mental models to do so. Mr Jones cannot simply ask his pupils to think critically about a source, a problem or an image. This is because pupils need background knowledge, an understanding of how to think critically in the subject and the habits of doing so (Bailin et al., 1999). For example, to think critically about the design of an experiment, pupils need to know what effective experiment design looks like, what equipment is available, the goal of the experiment and so on. In the same vein, they rely on existing mental models to solve problems and come up with ideas which are creative but also feasible.

Deep thinking relies on flexible knowledge

The first step in developing mental models to permit deep thinking is moving from inflexible to flexible knowledge. When pupils learn about a new idea, their knowledge is inflexible: tied to the context in which it was learned. This cannot be avoided, it is how new information enters long-term memory: “a natural step on the way to the deeper knowledge that we want our students to have” (Willingham, 2002). For example, if Mr Jones introduces addition through an example about a child collecting feathers, pupils will associate it initially with feathers.

Having gained inflexible knowledge, pupils’ knowledge can become more flexible if they access it through different cues: increasingly varied and difficult questions with decreasing amounts of scaffolding and hints.

Effective forms of variation include:

  • Contextual variation: Encountering the same knowledge in different contexts.
  • Conceptual variation: Presenting examples and non-examples to refine understanding.
  • Situational variation: Providing a broad range of application problems in pursuit of a more generalised understanding of a concept (Pan & Rickard, 2018).

By doing this, Mr Jones balances the desire to make the task more difficult – increasing the level of thinking required – and the wish to ensure pupils’ continued success, for its own sake and to maintain their motivation.

Transfer is more likely if pupils are proficient at accessing their knowledge

Mr Jones also wants pupils to be able to transfer what they learn to new topics, and even to other subjects within and beyond school. Transfer means being able to apply existing knowledge to new questions and situations (Barnett & Ceci, 2002). For example, he may want pupils to recognise that they can use a previously learned technique to answer a new question – using the idea of perimeter in a more complex maths problem, or maybe an everyday problem they need to solve. He may want them to see similarities between topics or ideas and themes across lessons, topics, or subjects. However, transfer is difficult and does not come naturally – pupils are likely to struggle to transfer what has been learnt in one discipline to a new or unfamiliar context.

Transfer can be supported by retrieval practice – the act of recalling prior knowledge. After completing a unit, pupils can be asked to retrieve core knowledge and concepts frequently to ensure they retain them (Pashler et al., 2007). This makes it more likely that pupils will be able to transfer knowledge to new contexts (Pan & Rickard, 2018). When planning, teachers should think about which aspects of subject knowledge are most significant for pupils – ideas and concepts that are pre-requisite to developing knowledge in other topics – and build in retrieval practice to ensure that that these are readily accessible.

Pupils must practise deep thinking

Regular purposeful practice of what has previously been taught can help pupils to develop and consolidate their mental models (Pashler et al., 2007). If Mr Jones wants pupils to transfer ideas to new or unfamiliar contexts, or to think deeply, he must show them how to do so and offer opportunities to practise. Mr Jones should seek to show pupils the links between topics he hopes they will make. He might say: “we can use what you have learned in English about paragraph structure and grammar when writing in History. You have also been studying Victorian novels which you can use to illustrate what some Victorians might have thought about the Industrial Revolution, as long as you make clear it’s fiction. What other learning can we use to make our historical writing better?” Likewise, if he wants them to think critically about a topic, he has to offer practice in this kind of thinking, he cannot rely on the accumulation of factual knowledge to lead to critical thinking automatically.

Nuances and caveats 

Transfer and critical thinking are both hard: neither of them come naturally – if teachers want pupils to think critically and to transfer knowledge to new contexts, they must teach this explicitly and allow pupils to practise doing so.

Pupils cannot exercise critical thinking without a strong knowledge of the thing about which they are being invited to think critically: teachers are unlikely to experience success if they teach critical thinking skills in isolation or expect pupils to transfer knowledge from one context to another without practice and models.

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can promote deep thinking by:

  • Seeing deep thinking as an extension of pupils’ mental models of the subject.
  • Helping pupils access knowledge more flexibly.
  • Showing pupils how to apply knowledge to new problems and contexts and supporting them to practise this.

Further reading 

Willingham, D. (2002). Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator.


Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J. & Daniels, L. (1999). Conceptualizing critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 285-302.

Barnett, S.& Ceci, S. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612-637.

Pan, S. & Rickard, T. (2018). Transfer of Test-Enhanced Learning: Meta-Analytic Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Willingham, D. (2002). Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can promote deep thinking by:

  • Seeing deep thinking as an extension of pupils’ mental models of the subject.
  • Helping pupils access knowledge more flexibly.
  • Showing pupils how to apply knowledge to new problems and contexts and supporting them to practise this.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?