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?

Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation that Can Transform Schooling


Schools: historically, not too great at birthing in-depth learning. Let's explore that: What do you understand — really understand? That is, what topic do you know inside and out? Grasp all the details, perceive all the evidence, appreciate all the controversies, comprehend the historical development of our understanding?

On what topic do you see the connections to the big picture? On what topic are you cognizant of the limits of your understanding?

Okay, pencils down! The real question: did you learn about that topic in K-12 schooling?

I'm going to wager "no." (If I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments. I'd be interested to hear it!)

Schools, historically, haven't inculcated students in in-depth understanding: in fact, they've rarely even tried. When modern schooling was devised in the 1800s, this sort of comprehension was thought to be a luxury unnecessary for people who would work in factories. Those whom it would benefit could get it at a liberal-arts college.

And, indeed, people can occasionally get it at college. I finally got it when I researched my undergraduate thesis on historical Jesus studies — a project I spent almost two years on, and which finally turned into a 140-page paper.

By the end of it, I could tell you the details of first century Judea — theological, archaeological, textual, political, economic, and social! I could talk to you about the major reconstructions of the historical Jesus — prophetic preacher, charismatic healer, political insurrectionist, and so on (and so on, and so on…). And I could tell you on what grounds those reconstructions differed. (Say, if you think the Gospel of Thomas was written before the Gospel of Mark, then you're likely to conclude Jesus was a sage proffering secret wisdom, rather than a prophet warning of an apocalyptic Kingdom of God).

I could even tell you how, roughly, we got these understandings of Jesus: how the field of historical Jesus studies emerged in fits and starts in the late 1700s, died at the hands of a missionary-doctor in 1906, and was revived in the 1950s (and then again in the '80s).

And I could, at my best, tell you what I didn't understand — though there were, indeed, spots when I thought I knew it all! I could acknowledge the limits of my knowledge, and even suggest where the limits of everyone's knowledge might lie.

I had grown an organic body of knowledge — achieved understandings that changed me as a person. But it took me until the end of a liberal arts degree at an honor's college to experience this depth of understanding.

That's tragic, and for two reasons.

Pure Joy

First, it's tragic that everyone doesn't get in-depth understanding (and sooner than the end of college) because it's so stinking pleasurable.

To understand a real-world topic so comprehensively is one of the sweetest joys of the intellectual life. Like most joys, it's impossible to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it themselves — but I'll try anyway!

Such understanding is power. The knowledge is a resource that can be utilized — and at the oddest times.

Such understanding is a world to escape to. Picking up yet another book about the topic can easily hold your full attention, even when events around you are painful.

Such understanding is self-esteem. Knowing as much about historical Jesus studies is — dare I draw the parallel?! — like being a level 85 gnome mage. (Admission: I don't understand World of Warcraft at all. I didn't even know there were gnome mages until I Googled it, right now. I DO NOT HAVE AN IN-DEPTH UNDERSTANDING OF WoW.)

Such understanding might even be one of the purposes the human mind evolved for. Homo sapiens spread across the world not because of its impressive claws and fangs but because the three-pound jello sitting atop its neck could grok new topics. To survive and thrive in the natural world — though less the post-industrial world of modern America — demanded having an in-depth knowledge of the plants, animals, and other humans in the environment.

Thus to make children study, but to never allow them the full depth of understanding their minds are meant for, might be like making them practice chewing without ever giving them a full meal to chew on.

The brain is an amazing tool — a nuclear-powered Swiss Army Knife! — but we're only using it to open beer bottles. 

A Higher Bar

Second, it's tragic that we don't encourage kids to get this in K-12 education because gaining this depth of understanding in one topic changes your relationship to knowledge in all topics.

Such understanding raises the bar for what it means to "know" something. An example: I'm preparing, right now, to participate in a public dialogue on Islamophobia. I was asked by one of the moderators how well I understood Islam, and my immediate answer was "not very well — I've only read three or four books on it." Before I had done my undergraduate thesis, I would have thought that reading three or four books on something would have meant I understood it very well!

Such understanding in one topic tugs up at your understanding in other topics. It's not that after your bar is raised you stare forlornly at how comparatively little you know about other things, occasionally sighing dramatically. Rather, you suddenly want to know more about them. And, by and by, you do.

Such understanding makes you slower to assume you're right about other topics. You can't achieve this depth of learning without changing your mind a few times about some important things. And so you achieve some measure of intellectual humility — one that nicely complements the intellectual arrogance you're probably gaining alongside! (Ah, learning: a complex beast.)

A path to in-depth understanding

So: how can we do this? How can we help every student achieve something approaching this lofty state — before they graduate high school?

There's an answer to this, created by my favorite educational thinker, Kieran Egan (he of Imaginative Education). It's called "Learning in Depth" (or "LiD", for those who appreciate camelcase acronyms).

I'm going to do something different: instead of explaining LiD myself, I'm going to let Kieran do the hard lifting. I'll attach his article "Learning in Depth" which ran in Educational Leadership six years ago. It's a breezy read — eight minutes, max — but the idea it contains packs quite the wallop.

I'll lay my cards on the table: I think this intervention can supply much that is lacking in modern education. I'm a LiD fanboy. And I think it will be one of the distinctive elements of our school — at least, until the rest of the world adopts it, too! (May that day be near at hand.)

I'll say only these two things:

First, that Kieran's proposal isn't the standard unschooling "let children study what they're passionate about" idea. And second, that though most people (in my experience) come around to LiD, it can seem very off-putting at first.

There's much more to be said about Learning in Depth, and how our school will make use of it, but the best way to address those is to answer questions you ask. So please post comments and send me e-mails — and feel free to be as critical as you care to be!

The article: Learning In Depth, Kieran Egan



Note: The photo at the top is from a LiD awarding ceremony presided over by the fantabulous Sheri and Bob Dunton at Corbett Charter School, when the kids are first matched with their topics. I got to talk to some of these students: I've rarely seen kids so stoked! Sheri's lucid explanation of LiD can be read about on her blog. For a much fuller explanation of LiD, you can check out Kieran's recent book: Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling, from which I stole the title of this post!