Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling

Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling

by Kieran Egan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226190433
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2011
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kieran Egan is the author of many books, including The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding and The Future of Education: Reimagining our Schools from the Ground Up.

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Learning in Depth

A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling

By Kieran Egan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 Kieran Egan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19045-7


The Problem

Whether or not our current cohort of students is setting new records in the ignorance stakes, we do have a problem concerning an inadequate return in terms of the knowledge they learn for the high-cost teaching effort expended in schools. What is the point of teaching a curriculum crammed with the wonders of human discoveries and inventions when we see most students come out of our schooling system recalling little of this knowledge and with virtually no sense of its wonder? That is to say, we surely have a problem. And here's a solution that I hope to persuade you is worth trying. As it comes at the problem from a new direction, let me elaborate the problem a little to explain why this unconventional proposal stands a fair chance of resolving it.

Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

Nearly everyone who has tried to describe an image of the educated person, from Plato to the present, includes at least two criteria: first, that educated people must be widely knowledgeable and, second, that they must know something in depth. The first criterion is fairly straightforward—pretty well everyone associates being well educated with knowing a fair amount about the world, about its history and geography, about politics in their own and other countries, about what is generally going on in the sciences, about the arts and literature, and so on. That is, a person who really has learned, retained, and somehow made meaningful the curriculum that has been taught in school satisfies the breadth criterion. In addition, we expect that breadth of knowledge not to be some loose assemblage of facts, but also to involve some conceptual schemes that give it order and give the person some general understanding, and we also expect the educated person to have developed habits of critical reflection on what is known, along with a commitment to continuous learning. Such a person is equipped with the knowledge and skills that a modern society requires.

The depth criterion is there because most commentators on education recognize that having a relatively superficial knowledge of many things is somehow not adequate to give an understanding of, to put it a bit vaguely—as it usually is put—the way knowledge works, or the nature of knowledge, or the insecurity of knowledge. By learning something in depth we come to grasp it from the inside, as it were, rather than the way in which we remain always somehow on the outside of that accumulated breadth of knowledge. With regard to the knowledge we learn in breadth, we rely always on the expertise of others; when learning in depth, we develop our own expertise. It is assumed that learning something in depth carries over to a better understanding of all our other, "breadth," knowledge.

In everyday classrooms, teachers commonly try to achieve both breadth and depth by covering a topic in a general way and exploring some particular themes in more detail, or by allowing students to choose projects they can pursue in more depth within an overall unit of study. The main curriculum provision schools make for achieving the depth criterion is to enable students in high schools to specialize in something or to develop specialized skills as part of vocational preparation. But in terms of satisfying the depth criterion, these faint moves don't begin to have an impact on the problem. They merely encourage students to learn something a little less superficially.

This proposal is not concerned with the obvious utility value that a lot of specialist knowledge serves for someone working in a technically demanding area or someone in a profession that requires considerable detailed knowledge. Accumulation of relevant "vocational" knowledge cannot achieve what we want educationally, and, anyway, it generally comes far too late in a person's education to achieve what learning in depth can do for the school-aged student.

Breadth Important for All; Depth a Luxury for Some

It is usually assumed, as far as the school system is concerned, that the depth criterion is a bit of a luxury and available mainly to the more academic students or to those in wealthy private schools; the breadth criterion is what we mostly struggle with for the mass of students most of the time—ensuring exposure to and coverage of the general information we consider essential for an effective citizen in today's world.

Our currently dominant educational ideas require that we justify curriculum content in terms of its relevance to the kinds of lives students are likely to lead. That criterion leads us to cover a great deal of important knowledge that will have utility in their daily lives. It does not lead to prescribing consistent and deep learning of something that might have no particular relevance to their social lives—indeed it suggests any such prescription would be considered eccentric. That is, we assume that our main task is exposure to a wide breadth of relevant knowledge, and we hope that in among this there will be some topics or subjects in which students' own interests will carry them to greater specialization.

I think there are a number of things wrong with these educational ideas, but here I want to address only the implications for attaining breadth and depth of knowledge. I think we have got it the wrong way round; I think that achieving the depth criterion is a key to also achieving the breadth criterion better. So I will show how we might manage successful learning in depth, and suggest how this might go some significant way toward solving the more obvious problem of graduates of our school system seeming to know little of the curriculum they have been taught for more than a decade.

Why Depth?

Encouraging students to learn something in depth is not generally seen as essential in our schools, especially when so many students seem to have difficulty mastering even the most basic levels of literacy and numeracy. So, what educational purpose does knowing something in depth serve? Since Plato's days to our own, this question has been posed in terms of what deep knowledge does for the mind. What reasons are usually given? Here are a few:

1. Expertise and Learning How Knowledge Works

The most common claim is a kind of tautology: lacking deep knowledge of something is to lack an adequate understanding of what knowledge is, and how it functions. If one's knowledge of everything remains at a general and superficial level, one never really comes to appreciate the nature of knowledge. One of the things a person learns in the process of learning in depth is how claims to knowing can be built and attacked and defended—it's all part of the slow process of discovering the insecurity of our claims to know. As noted above, knowing something in depth is like knowing it from the inside, where the student gains expertise, and comes to recognize from one area studied in depth something about how knowledge works in all areas.

People who know nothing in depth—who know everything from the outside—commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge. They do not learn adequately the difference between knowledge and their beliefs about things. This leaves them easy prey to those who take advantage of the gullible—they lack the defenses that deep knowledge can provide. It can also make them assertively confident in their opinions about things where secure knowledge is lacking. During a few years of teaching in universities I have commonly noted a strong positive correlation between students who have difficulty stringing a grammatical sentence together or making a marginally coherent argument and confidence in their opinions about how to organize societies, run the country's foreign policy, and instruct others how to live.

It's not that people who lack deep knowledge come to believe nothing, but rather that they will believe anything. (Alien abductions; monsters of all kinds—especially the unhygienic undead; vampires and supernatural events—without which many movies would not get off the ground; fantastic conspiracy theories; possession by exotic spirits; access to memories from a previous life; a stunning array of crazy "urban myths"; and so, bizarrely, on.) Learning about something in depth can provide some inoculation against confusing opinion or wild claim with knowledge, and one of the products of learning in depth is gaining greater delight from learning about the wonders of the natural world than from tacky, clichéd, superficial falsehoods.

Incorporating some of the ideas supporting learning in depth, Howard Gardner gives a more focused, precise, and compelling set of arguments for why learning in depth is crucial to producing an adequately educated person and an adequate understanding of any topic. He shows, taking particular examples, that only by disciplined work can one get below the parochial level of knowledge that is too common. Furthermore, he shows that in-depth knowledge can bring about a state of mind such that students "will have a sense of what it means—of how it feels—to understand consequential topics" (1999, p. 245). He notes, too, that such understanding gained from the study of one topic or issue gives one a sense of the nature of knowledge and what it means to properly understand something that serves as a "litmus test" to apply to other topics and issues. He argues that currently our schools are less effective than they need be because they try to teach too much too superficially; they would be much more successful by focusing on a smaller number of consequential topics and ensuring students learn them in depth.

2. The Pleasure of Learning

Educational philosophers have consistently argued that the educated person needs to combine both breadth of knowledge about the world and depth of knowledge about something in particular. Plato, in the Republic, most conspicuously argued for the importance of learning in depth. His curriculum for the best educated was to take fifty years of study. More recently, Peters and Hirst (1970) have also emphasized that only by learning something in depth can a person escape from the confusions that commonly accompany a superficial knowledge base, and that this achievement yields something we consider worthwhile for its own sake, and so call pleasurable.

There is a related aesthetic benefit connected with knowing something in depth. Without this pleasure, the idea of learning for its own sake can never really take hold. The alternatives are always utilitarian learning—justified by some specific use to which it will be put—and entertainment. This would seem to describe the norm for most people; we learn what we need to know for some purpose, and then we turn to entertainment to fill our time. The related problem is that nearly all learning in schools is coerced in some way—no teaching without evaluation or assessment of some kind. It's as though we assume students will learn only if they know "it will be on the test later." The very structure of schooling today seems to militate against students developing the accumulating pleasure of learning for its own sake.

Knowing nothing much in significant depth also means that the victim's understanding never becomes clear. The problem here is not that a person well equipped with a wide range of knowledge can't lead a perfectly contented life, but rather that a very peculiar human pleasure is denied them. That pleasure comes from the particular wisdom available only after one recognizes the nature of the knowledge one holds. Once one knows something in depth, the resulting understanding spreads to everything; without some deep knowledge, it spreads to nothing much.

3. Stimulating the Imagination

A less obvious benefit of learning in depth concerns its importance in the stimulation and development of students' imaginations. Being able to find particular knowledge in the mountains of information in libraries or on the Internet can be educationally valuable, of course. The downside of the emphasis on such procedural skills, however, is a disastrous underestimation of the importance of actually knowing things and having access to knowledge in memory—because the imagination works only with what we know. That is, the more we know about something, the more imaginative we can be about it (Egan 1997). Knowing a lot doesn't mean we will be imaginative, of course, but we cannot be imaginative about what we don't know. At the end of their schooling, students who have been through a Learning in Depth program will have immensely stimulating material that can engage and enrich their imaginations when it comes to thinking about their topics and things related to them. The imagination is not some idle spinning of airy nothings, as it has sometimes been represented, but is one of the great workhorses of learning (Egan 2008). Without serious and significant knowledge, the imagination cannot do its best work. Ignorance impoverishes the imagination because ignorance leaves one with little to work with. Also the more we know about something, the more imaginatively we can solve problems related to it. Richness of knowledge is what gets imaginations up in the morning.

4. Projects and Their Focus

The persistence of Kilpatrick's "Project Method" in Western education systems also speaks to the recognition by many that greater depth in learning has obvious benefits. Kilpatrick believed that properly organized projects involved students not simply in learning a topic in greater depth but also as a part of purposeful social activity, such that learning enriched the students' experience and their understanding of moral and democratic life. Recognition of the values of more engaged and systematic learning that a well-organized project allows has ensured the continuation of this form of teaching today. Among its most energetic promoters are Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard (1989). They suggest that projects offer a complementary form of teaching to regular forms of systematic instruction, especially in the early school years. It is a form of teaching they, and many others, believe has some clear and potent advantages over regular modes of instruction.

The Learning in Depth program shares with the Project Method a recognition of the values students derive from learning something in greater detail and developing a fuller understanding than is common with much of the curriculum. But LiD is also different in a number of important ways, in particular in its assumptions about how much individual work the student has to do before gaining really significant insights into any topic.

5. Deep Learning and the Sense of Self

Another educational benefit that is sometimes identified comes to fruition when the understanding that can result from learning in depth interacts with our sense of self. I don't want to make this into a kind of spiritual discussion, but many do use that kind of language to describe how deep knowledge can give us insights into ourselves, into our human condition. It is as a result of learning something in depth that we can connect with the layer of human understanding that leads to what we often vaguely call wisdom. Not just any kind of depth learning will produce these benefits of course, so it will be necessary in designing our LiD programs that we put in place criteria for the kinds of topics that can stimulate this deeper kind of understanding.

6. Learning in Depth and Humility

One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows, that the more one learns the more one realizes there is to learn about any topic. Superficial knowledge is a curse of education—the target of Pope's "a little learning is a dangerous thing."

When people learn something superficially they often easily assume they know everything about the topic. One hears people with only the most marginal information confidently claiming certainty about things of which they know very little. As one acquires more and more knowledge about something, and as one begins to amass genuine expertise, one learns something about how insecure our knowledge really is and also how little we truly understand about almost anything. This is a sobering experience, and sobriety of this kind is one of the gifts of learning in depth. Realizing how little one knows is not disabling and is unlikely to cause depression and result in lack of interest in the topic; instead, it is properly exhilarating, giving a thrilling sense of bringing knowledge into our minds in ways that recognize both what we know and what remains to be known, and perhaps also gives a sense of the mystery of knowledge too—adding a dimension to the engagement of imagination. This sense of how little we know even about what we know best generates an important sense of humility before the world of knowledge, and adds to our sense of who we are and what we can hope to achieve.


Excerpted from Learning in Depth by Kieran Egan. Copyright © 2010 Kieran Egan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1 The Problem

2 The Proposal

3 Objections and Responses

4 The Nature of the Topics

5 Some Operating Principles and Examples

6 Building the Portfolio

7 What Do We Do Next?


Appendix A: Foundations for Learning in Depth

Appendix B: A Brief Outline of the Learning in Depth Program


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