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Learning in Depth

“Look at the curriculum guides for all those years of school: they are like a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge. But it is as though all that knowledge was taught to students in a foreign language for all the effect it has had on their minds by the time they leave school,” explains author Kieran Egan. Essentially, the premise upon which Egan’s simple innovation that he believes can transform schools was born thanks to circumstances similar to your child memorizing words for a spelling test and then forgetting them as soon as it’s over.

According to Learning in Depth, it’s unfair to blame teachers for the problems with education in America. He explains, “Teachers mostly work hard to ensure adequate coverage for the mass of students of the basic knowledge a modern citizen might require.” The problem, Egan argues, is that “learning in depth, in as far as this has been pursued in schools, has usually been a kind of educational luxury reserved for high-achieving students.” Therefore, Egan proposes, an approach that values both general knowledge and detailed understanding.

Why is this necessary? “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.” In other words, we are no longer dependent on the expertise of others and we also gain a new appreciation for the complexity of topics.

According to Egan, “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.” This presents two main problems: they are vulnerable to those interested in preying on the gullible and they can be assertively confident in their opinions based on limited knowledge. Learning in Depth asserts, “It’s not that people who lack deep knowledge come to believe nothing, but rather they will believe anything.”

Egan argues another problem with schools is that all learning is coerced in some way. It’s counterproductive to set up an educational system that only values knowledge that can be assessed, as it prevents students from learning for its own sake. Combine this with the fact that a “richness of knowledge is what stimulates the imagination” and ensuring that children learns in depth becomes that much more important.

Luckily, what Egan proposes is not something parents need to rely on a school to provide. The basic idea is that children study a topic throughout their entire academic career, in addition to the usual curriculum. By building a personal portfolio, the child acquires genuine expertise. What makes this an initiative parents can take into their own hands is the fact that it’s work students primarily do alone. For example, a topic as simple as “apple” affords children countless opportunities for investigation. What begins as an exploration of varieties of apples moves on to cultivation practices around the world and can become a look at apples in literature. It works because the topic is theirs and therefore the possibilities are endless.


Having grown up fascinated by monkeys, I love the idea behind this book. Every chance I got to choose my topic, I selected one primate or another to report on, study, or even sculpt. While I never became a scientist, my interest did eventually take me to the jungles of South America and my trip exemplified one of the great paradoxes of life that Egan explains, “Only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows.” Although this may seem discouraging to some, it’s exactly the kind of quest I’d like to set in motion for my children. After all, it’s the pursuit of knowledge, not the grade, which makes learning fun.



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Read my other blog Befriending Forty at http://befriendingforty.blogspot.comand find out what happens when the person I thought I’d be meets the person I actually became.

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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