Going Deep - Finding Time for In-Depth Learning

In a survey of 8,310 undergraduate students, students who had been exposed to a topic in depth (meaning they had spent at least one month studying it [e.g. electromagnetism in physics]), earned higher science grades than those who did not. In contrast, "those who had been exposed to a relatively long list of topics, but not in depth, did not have any advantage in college chemistry or physics and were at a disadvantage in biology."

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.

Depth Matters
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


  1. Thanks for sharing this - I love thinking about alternative education principles.

    It seems to me that they have hit upon a really great idea - teaching how to be an expert (or anything at a level of depth) is rare these days. But, I can't help but think that managing 30 different topics in a classroom would be a challenge to say the least. First of all, by having so many different topics, they wouldn't be able to be seamlessly integrated into lots of lesson plans (e.g. testing the pH of an apple in chemistry class; learning about the history of apple farming, etc). Secondly, it would encourage a lot of individual projects and learning, when one of the main functions of schools today is teaching social behavior and collaboration.

    It would make more sense to me to give each grade / group a different, possibly complimentary, topic that starts off large, enabling each student to specialize as they get older. So, for example, your class starts with "Mammals" or "Fruits" or "The Sky" or "Europe" -- which gives every kid the space to figure out what they are interested in later, while giving them enough of a common ground that they are becoming experts together, rather than in distinct silos. To show how this would play out, looking at fruits, one kid could go into depth about flavor and how the tongue works, another could look at migrant worker populations, another on the finances of an apple orchard, etc. I could see it going that they study together in elementary school, study several groups (a handful of options - people, money, science, history, writing, etc) in middle school and then pick their expertise for high school. Now, that sounds like a compelling education to me!

    Thanks for the thought provocation!

  2. Thanks for this discussion of the Learning in Depth Project. Rebecca's comment is interesting as it raises quite new ways of thinking of introducing topics to students in schools. The LiD idea is actually much simpler than she infers from the article. LiD topics are not "taught" in class. Over the years students compose a portfolio on their topics, and most of the work is conducted outside of school--though the school is crucial to supporting the development and revisions of portfolios. Many schools are now implementing the program, and students' involvement is surprising most teachers.

    there are also a number of reasons for simply assigning topics. Contrary to most people's expectations, within a few weeks students adopt their assigned topics--which is to be given in a small ceremony--as very much their own. We find no distinction within a short while between students who chose their topics and those who had them assigned. We do have a set of criteria, available on the LiD website, for appropriate topics that will sustain students' study over about 12 years.

    You may be interested in a book about LiD: "Learning in Depth: A simple innovation that can transform schooling", to be published by University of Chicago Press in late 2010.

  3. Apologies: I gave the LiD webpage wrongly above: http://www.ierg.net/LiD/

  4. Oh dear--please forgive my abusing the hospitality of this discussion, but I thought it might be of interest to readers to see some responses to the book mentioned earlier, and particularly a teacher's view of the program in operation:

    "This is a fascinating, provocative, utterly visionary and courageously speculative imagining of an educational future that is simultaneously elite and egalitarian, deeply intellectual yet utterly connected to passion and identity. A most audacious proposal from one of education's most audacious thinkers . . . an inspiring challenge to those who aspire to deep understanding for their students.”—Lee S. Shulman, President Emeritus, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    "The Learning in Depth project has brought to our students a completely new relationship to learning that has been surprising in its depth and quality. After seeing Learning in Depth at work in our school community, I know this has been a critical, missing element. It has proven to be everything we imagined (and much more we didn't) when we heard about Kieran Egan's remarkable vision.”—Sheri Dunton, K-3 Teacher, Corbett Charter School

    “Learning in Depth outlines a bold and stimulating curricular innovation designed to improve the quality of schooling from kindergarten through high school. The book’s key idea is certainly worthy of serious debate and continued experimentation. For that reason alone, I commend its suggestive proposal to the attention of thoughtful educators everywhere.”—Philip W. Jackson, David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus University of Chicago.

  5. Why did you put ""taught"" in quotations marks? Rebecca did not use that word so you in effect put words in her mouth to serve your own point of view.

    I read Rebecca's words and never did I think she was to [teach] 30 topics in the class room. She said "managing 30 topics" ( your monthly meetings idea) would be a challenge.

    I've been surfing the interweb about you Dr. and I see you responding to very good and legitimate objections with comments like "and I’m not sure I will be able to answer them all to her satisfaction" and " In the end, this is an objection that won’t be resolved by assertion, but by practice." Instead of telling us a story about one time when you were on TV, list the objections in bullet form and respond to them directly.

    I am a huge believer in life-long learning but it must be based on passion. Your approach, without passion, can only hope to achieve a Skinner's Box response rather than progressive and collaborative learning.

    Freedom of choice is what we want.
    Freedom from choice is what we get.