Monday, May 31, 2010
Going Deep - Finding Time for In-Depth Learning
At the high school level, the debate between depth and breadth often arises in the discussion of the value of Advanced Placement courses. From the Washington Post: "The two biggest shortcomings that I see in the would-be AP U.S. History teachers I meet are their sparse knowledge of history and their limited understanding of what it means to "think historically" (and how to teach their students to do so). To many of them, history is just facts and AP History merely requires that they memorize more facts."
The difficult thing to do in this period of crowded course and subject requirements, is to find time to do it. As Dr. Kieran Egan of the Learning in Depth Project argues that children who never have the opportunity to study a topic in-depth never realize how knowledge is structured, and that does ring true. With out knowing how present knowledge is structured, all sorts of mischief and misconceptions arise as people never come to recognize how existent knowledge was created and what its limitations might be.
The answers are not always so simple - for instance in the situation in which Phil Sadler and his colleagues analyzed what factors determined success in college chemistry, fact memorization was as important as repeating work for conceptual mastery. So perhaps some breadth and depth should be considered both essential components of a 'complete' education. In high school, the requirement for a senior project or mini-thesis in addition to survey courses might help bridge both worlds. Our daughter's attending a classical Great Books school that's roughly based on the Trivium: with grammar (rote), logic (analytical / reasoning argumentation), and rhetoric (persuasion). Some of the sweep of World History is introduced in the early years so more depth is possible in the high school years.
A very different approach to depth in education is suggested by the program Learning in Depth. When first grade students begin their classes, they are assigned a subject that they will study over the 12 years of their future schooling (examples given: apples or dust). The idea is that as they will return to their subject over the next 12 years, continually adding to it so they will have a greater respect for how knowledge is accrued and learning can be conducted from different points-of-view. I don't think that approach is for everybody actually, but it's an interesting idea. I much prefer allowing students to choose their topics and encourage continuity as much as possible - but working with intrinsic interests more than subjects that can be easily digested and assigned in the 1st grade. Even if students had some experience of working on a project for a year or two - this would be an improvement over never having to really think.
A Brief Guide to Learning in Depth
A theoretical model for learning complexity - depth, abstraction, and transfer of learning
Cognitive Complexity in Math and Science