Learning in Depth


A problem:

Students have no idea how deep understanding can go. They have no sense of how much of the complexity of the world they can re-create in their own heads — and so have no experience of the pleasures that come with this.

Students don't have any sense of this, because schools don't typically give them this until the master's thesis.

Our basic plan:

We'll build Kieran Egan's Learning In Depth projects into the school week.

Near the beginning of the first grade year, students will come to a ceremony where they'll be awarded a single, simple topic — e.g. dust, horses, or flags — that they'll research over their grade school, middle school, and high school years. (Here's a list of the possible topics.)

Students are the leaders in planning out their own research — their reading, experiments, surveys, and so on. They do so, however, with the help of the teacher, and perhaps with other community mentors.

At the end of each year, students present their learning to the community.

Our goals:

We'll have succeeded if students...

  • gradually get a new conception of how complex the world is — even simple things.
  • gain a warranted trust in their own abilities to understand new things.
  • become convinced that virtually everything is interesting, no matter how dull it may have seemed initially.
  • develop a new sort of love of a topic — a calm contentment that lasts after the flashy, excited passion for a subject has subsided.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

From the outside, nothing would look different — during our "LiD" study periods, kids would be reading, writing, and drawing — just as they might be throughout the day.

At the end-of-year LiD presentation, however, you might see parents, faculty, and local community members gathering in a darkened auditorium to watch kids presenting the fruit of their learning — proving that kids can understand so much more than most of us ever thought possible.

Some specific questions:

  • How should the topics be assigned? We've got three possibilities:
    • Totally student-chosen. A positive: kids begin somewhat interested in the topic. A danger: shortly, they'll lose interest, and think that this is because the topic itself is no longer interesting.
    • Totally random — kids pick tiles out of a hat. This was Kieran Egan's original proposal. A positive: kids don't lose interest (because they'll probably not start with any), but gain interest. More than anything else we do, this could teach everyone in the community that everything is interesting. A danger: some parents may find this insane.
    • A mix — teachers choose a few topics for each child to pick between, based on that student's personality. Kieran recommends this as a possible meeting point for all involved. Some kids are more interested in mechanistic things: teachers might put tiles like "electricity" and "trains and railways" into their bags; other kids are more interested in living things: teachers might put tiles like "mollusks" and "silk worms" into their bags. Some magic (the magic of randomness!) is retained, by having students choose a tile at random.
  • How much time per week should be allocated for Learning in Depth projects?
  • Should we have dedicated Learning in Depth project time? Or should students pursue it as one of their many projects?
  • Is there a danger in putting both Learning in Depth and Independent Projects into the classroom? Do they fulfill roughly the same functions?