What does it mean to teach from depth?  It connects to the principle of adult learning that adults are internally motivated and build on prior life experience when they learn.  Motivation is tapped into and amplified through reflective techniques and critical discussions that help the adult make sense of the new learning and situate it into what they already know. Asking thoughtful questions can lead this inquiry so that the learner constructs their own meaning. The facilitator of adult learning recognizes the ‘messiness’ and complexity of learning and therefore strategically employs different levels of learning, making connections and establishing networks of information, while being aware of context and power dynamics.


Teaching from depth means nurturing and valuing self-awareness, committing to self-reflection and mindfulness and practicing teaching from depth. This last point is important in order to balance reflection and introspection with action. Herminia Ibarra (2015) refers to this as ‘outsight’ (in contrast to insight) and argues that direct experiences and experimentation are important in order to develop external perspective.  In the context of facilitating adult education this means trying out various strategies and learning through trial, error, refinement and adjustment.  Where internal knowledge, past experience and thinking contribute to insight, external knowledge, new experience and acting contribute to outsight (p. 6).  Teaching from depth involves developing insight and outsight – through utilizing both reflective practices and strategies and experiential learning.


One strategy that can be used to teach for depth is called Stanislavski’s Magic If (Schuyler, p. 204). Stanislavski introduced method acting in the early twentieth century.  This method, often referred to as role play, is where actors draw from their own life experiences to produce truthful actions and emotions.  In the context of adult education, the learner imagines the circumstances of a particular learning experience and tries to figure out what to do in that situation. This technique is often applied in the classroom when case studies are utilized so that the learner’s life experiences are bridged via the imaginary situation, challenging the learner to construct and integrate new meaning while being solutions-focused. Among the many examples in Brookfield’s Discussion Book some of the strategies that foster teaching for depth include: Snowballing p. 49, Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) p. 59, Nominating Questions p. 77 and Writing Discussion p. 157. I encourage you to review these particular strategies – linked to their summary in pdf form thanks to Columbia.  See what you can add to your proverbial ‘toolkit’.

Teaching from depth is very important because so much of the global culture is superficial. We tweet in 140 characters or less, we get our news in sound bytes and we have become experts at multi-tasking to the point of distraction.  As adult educators we can and need to go deeper with our learners by being grounded in who we are and by designing learning that privileges collaboration, values and systems leading to growth and transformation.  When we are intentional about doing this, we develop our web of interconnectedness and strengthen our personal and professional integrity.



Brookfield, S. (2016). The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ibarra, H. (2015).  Act Like a Leader, Think like a Leader.  Boston, MA. Harvard Business Review Press.

Schuyler, K. (2014).   Leading with Spirit, Presence, & Authenticity.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.