Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

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Effective Activities for Deep Learning Teachers: Part 5b

As I indicated in part 5a of this series:

In a world of rapid technological and social change, facts are easy to come by, high paying work is focused around brains, not brawn, and good citizenship requires sophisticated media skills. In this 21st century world, it is imperative that we shift to a deep learning instructional focus that develops analytic and creative thinking, among other things.

I have distilled the essential features of deep learning instruction into four dimensions:

  • Setting the Stage: engaging students, developing interest, building curiosity, setting goals
  • Basic Learning: Equipping students with key background knowledge and core skills
  • Deep Learning: Refining, enlarging and extending understanding, processes and skills, and applying learning to new and novel situations
  • Closure: Opportunities for students to complete a product or products, demonstrate and explain what they have learned, and share their work with others.

In this part 5b, I suggest a number of specific types of activities that help instruct in all four dimensions. I believe that teachers should become familiar with as many of these as possible and use them judiciously, as needed, and appropriately. In a future commentary, I will describe a series of strategies – multiple activities combined to form a strategy – that promotes deep learning.

                                                                                        Specific Activities

 TPT’s (Total Participation Techniques)

TPT’s are based on an approach developed by Himmele and Himmele[i]. Their excellent book provides multiple examples of “classroom ready” activities that are designed to engage students in learning and promote critical thinking.

Ambiguous Assignments and Questions

This term, first used by Bob Samples in an article for Ed Leadership[ii], describes assignments that are “open-ended, providing students with the opportunity to develop many diverse answers that are acceptable to complete the assignment. Ambiguous, open-ended questions that begin a discussion also serve the same purpose.

Ambiguous assignments and questions promote creative thinking, diverse thought, curiosity, and interest and engagement in learning. They engage the learner, are often catalysts for basic learning, often promote deep learning, and end up with closure activities.


Activators are designed “to engage students’ thinking before instruction”. In other words, they are most useful during the “setting the stage” dimension. They focus students on a goal, problem, challenge or essential question, surface student misconceptions, help students to feel some ownership in what they are learning, and enable teachers to gather prior knowledge data from students and adapt lessons and units based on their prior knowledge[iii].  They also can be used to energize learning in other dimensions.


Summarizers are designed “to support integration and retention of new learning.” In other words, they are useful as “closure” activities, although they can be integrated into many lessons where a teacher wants to give students a chance to summarize what they have learned. They help students draw conclusions and summarize for themselves what was important, what they have learned, how it is important, and/or how it fits with what they already know[iv].

Visual Learning Tools

 Visual learning tools, also called graphic organizers, “assist learners…[in how to visually]…organize and find patterns among the overwhelming amount of information available today, as well as to make sense out of it and evaluate it”. Another definition states that visual learning tools “help students collect information, make interpretations, solve problems, devise plans, and become aware of how they think.” Multiple types of visual tools have been developed – mind maps, webs, decision trees, analysis charts, before and after reading charts, story maps, and many more.

Visual learning tools[v] are useful in all dimensions – as a way to ascertain what students know in advance of learning, as a way to help students develop basic information patterns, as a way to promote deep learning, and as a way to show what students have learned.

Interactive Notebooks

Interactive notebooks are a powerful, ongoing way to help students learn in all four instructional dimensions. They are a substitute for a traditional notebook. During “setting the stage”, interactive notebooks enable learners to describe what they know before learning takes place; when basic learning is the goal, students become note takers and researchers, describing concepts and vocabulary and organizing basic learning into patterns; in the deep learning dimension, a teacher develops activities that students do to think analytically and creatively, and in the closure dimension, interactive notebooks enable students to summarize what they have learned in varied and creative ways. With interactive notebooks, students are taught how to record, collect, and organize information in traditional formats from a teacher, text, or additional resources, and are also given deep thinking assignments that help them to see connections, dig more deeply into learning, do analyses, synthesize data in interesting ways, and become independent, creative thinkers and writers.

Practically, many teachers have students organize their interactive notebooks by using either the left or right side of the page for recording and collecting basic information, and the opposite side of the page for high quality thinking and creativity activities. Some teachers have students keep one section of a notebook for notes and another for deep learning activities[vi].

Writing Process/Writer’s Workshop

 Writing Process and Writer’s Workshop are primarily useful for basic and deep learning. They are two ways to significantly increase skills in communicating through all types of writing, and at the same time use writing to deepen learning.

Writing process encourages students to improve their writing gradually, over time, like professional writers do, rather than writing all at once and just once. The writing process consists of five stages -- pre-writing activities, initial writing, revising, editing, and “publishing” (sharing writing with others). The writing process encourages students to ask good questions and formulate problems in the pre-write stage, process information in the initial writing phase, and deepen their learning in the revising, editing and publishing phases.

In writer’s workshop, specific class time is dedicated solely to writing and students are treated as budding authors. “As in professional writing workshops, emphasis is placed on sharing work with the class, on peer conferencing and editing, and on the collection of a wide variety of work in a writing folder, and eventually in a portfolio. Teachers write with their students and share their own work as well. The workshop setting encourages students to think of themselves as writers, to improve their writing skills, to deepen their writing, and to take their writing seriously.”[vii]

Think-Pair-Share and Wait Time

One of the dangers of traditional discussions and question-answer sessions in many classrooms is that certain students who think quickly dominate. Think-Pair-Share and Wait Time strategies enable many more students to speak their thoughts out loud, clarify their answers to questions, participate in discussions with thoughtful comments, think at higher levels, and become much more involved and engaged in the learning process. Both Think-Pair-Share and Wait Time slow the discussion and question session down and give all students time to think through their answers, search for appropriate information, and in general deepen their learning and become better learners[viii].

Concept Development

Concept development, sometimes called concept formation, is an inductive teaching strategy that helps students form a clear understanding of a concept (or idea) through studying and sorting examples of the concept. Teachers provide students with a number of specific examples that students are able to organize, sort, and label. Teachers also provide students with non-examples so as to help clarify what falls under the concept and what does not. An even more student-centered way to learn concepts is for students themselves to find examples and non-examples to share, thus clarifying the meaning of a concept[ix].

Compare and Contrast

Compare and Contrast strategies point out the similarities and differences between several items. For example, when studying a number of different countries on a continent, students might develop a compare and contrast chart that suggests what is similar between the countries and what is different. Compare and contrast activities help to take classroom topics to another level beyond learning facts through this thinking process[x].


These are just a few of many activities that help promote deep learning. Others include anticipatory sets, simulations and role plays, socratic seminars and interpretive discussions, and specific activities that promote high level thinking. Learning about these activities and how to use them as part of the instructional process is critical for teachers as they move towards a deep learning approach to teaching.

In my next commentary, I will discuss some strategies and models of teaching that also support a deep learning perspective, including literacy, project based learning, thinking routines, and others.



[i] Himmele, Persida, and Himmele, William, Total Participation Techniques. Alexandreai, VA: ASCD, 2011

[ii] See Bob Samples, Reflections on Curriculum, Teachers and Training, Educational Leadership, April 1984.

[iii] Jon Saphier and Mary Ann Haley, Activators (Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching, 1993) can be purchased from the Research for Teaching website or through Amazon.  An Internet search using the term “activators” suggests additional resources.

[iv] Jon Saphier and Mary Ann Haley, Summarizers (Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching, 1993) can be purchased from the Research for Teaching website or through Amazon.  An Internet search using the term “summarizers” suggests additional resources.

[v]  These two books provide extensive information about visual tools and graphic organizers: David Hylerle. Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge. Alexandria, VA:Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), 1996;

Phyllis Green, editor. Graphic Organizer Collection. San Antonio, TX: Novel Units, 1999. Other resources include software tools such as Inspiration, and “graphic organizers” searches provide a number of sources of information for finding and using visual tools.

[vi]  For more information, search “interactive notebook” on the web, and go to:


[vii] Among the many sources of information about writing process is the website:


An overview of writer’s workshop by Steven Peha, Welcome to Writer’s Workshop, can be downloaded at:


[viii]  Search for think-pair-share and wait time on the Internet for more information; or

Go to:   http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/de/pd/instr/categ.html       (there are also many other interesting strategies at this site)

[ix] A basic concept development activity can be found at:


 [x]  Learn more about Compare and Contrast activities at:



Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design cadre member and trainer. He currently continues to write about and address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. His other many commentaries can be found on ASCD Edge, and his website can be found at: www.era3learning.org

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