Over the course of the past year, I had the opportunity to hear Kieran Egan speak several times on a very simple idea — that students be randomly assigned a topic to study in depth for 12 years. And just what topics did he suggest? In A Brief Guide to Learning in Depth, produced by the Imaginative Education Research Group at the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, possible topics included paper, skin, gold, cotton, storms, leaves, castles, jungles and coffee. In addition to the usual curriculum, students would study their assigned topic throughout their elementary and secondary education.
The first time I heard Egan present the concept, I was as skeptical and cynical as many of those who commented on Janet Steffenhagen’s blog post last fall about Egan’s new book, Learning in Depth. I had the “yeah, buts” that Egan addresses in his book, like: “wouldn’t students become bored with a topic for 12 years?” “it is unfair to randomly assign topics?” “it would be difficult to organize;” “how do we know this works?” and “would this learning transfer to their other parts of school?”
With the perceived complications around making systemic changes so many believe are needed to evolve our education system, Egan’s idea is simple, doable, and is already happening in many places. One of the concerns I share with the many, is the minutia in the curriculum — the hundreds of specific outcomes which do not allow one to ‘go deep’ on topics. I believe it matters little what students can go deep on — it is that they have the ability to do so, and move beyond surface level and recall. While I am still not sure I want my five-year-old son studying silk for the next 12 years, I do like the idea he could do deep learning outside the bounds of what we normally think of as school.
In Learning in Depth, Egan suggested that “for each student, by the end of her or his schooling, [the goal] is to know as much about that topic as almost anyone on earth.”
The benefits included a deep understanding of the nature of knowledge; engaging students’ imaginations and emotions in learning; building confidence and pride in knowledge; developing research expertise and organizational skills. There are similar benefits suggested for teachers and schools — enriching experiences, a de-emphasis on assessment and grading and an enriched school culture.
As part of his presentation last week, Egan spoke about the thousands of students who are participating in this program in Canada, the United States and around the world. Participation has grown rapidly over the last few years. While some have modified their study to only one year, or a few years, and in advanced grades some all choice, many schools are carving out time for this in their week.
Before you quickly dismiss the concept like I did at first, take some time to explore the Learning in Depth Project.
While we continue to explore many grander changes to schooling, I am becoming convinced we need to carve out specific time, each week, for this new, deeper, integrated learning (attach the buzz phrase of your choice). It may seem ludicrous on the surface — blocking out time for something intended to be part of everything we do — but, somehow, on the journey we may need to set aside time to do something different. Whether it is a project like Learning in Depth, or an initiative like Destination Imagination, or engagement in DreamBox (more on both Destination Imagination and DreamBox in future posts), we need to systematically move forward and make a commitment to do similar ‘new’ activities — not just one teacher, one class at a time, but entire schools and districts.
Egan’s project reminds me of Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools that were started in the United States; albeit, Littky builds projects around student choice while Egan’s are randomly selected. On the topic of rethinking secondary school learning, I find Littky to be one of the most thoughtful and important voices and his book Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business is a must-read.
With so many educational reformers speaking and writing about deep learning these days, Egan provides us with a simple entry point.