Kieran Egan: Teacher of the Years

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by Karen Olson, Utne Reader
November-December 2010
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The curriculum for K-12 education looks like a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge, notes Kieran Egan, a professor of educational theory at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. Unfortunately, the information students learn often fades away after only a few years—even if they manage to do well on tests. Equally distressing, Egan says, is the fact that most students come away with virtually no sense of wonder. He posits that this is a result of an education system that values breadth over depth.  

In his new book Learning in Depth, Egan offers a solution, arguing for an ambitious but simple change in curriculum: Students follow the usual program, but during their first week of schooling, each is given a topic to study throughout her or his entire school career. Let’s say a student is assigned “apples.” Over the course of perhaps 13 years of self-guided learning, that student might investigate apple types, tastes, botany, lore, history, and poetry references—among myriad other possibilities.  

“With regard to the knowledge we learn in breadth, we rely always on the expertise of others; when we’re learning in depth, we develop our own expertise,” writes Egan. “One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows.” 

Instead of being depressing, realizing how little they know will exhilarate students and expose them to the mystery of knowledge, Egan predicts. Long-term immersion in a topic can do for kids what memorizing formulas, dates, and names can’t do: It can engage their imaginations and emotions and enable a broader understanding of the human experience. 

Extras: 

Take your pick of various radio interviews, television appearances, and seminar discussions given by Egan, all collected by the Imaginative Education Research Group. To learn more about Egan’s concept of “learning in depth,” a method of education Egan designed to help students “know as much about [a specific] topic as almost anyone on Earth,” read this brief guide featured on Simon Fraser University’s website, or visit Egan’s individual SFU website.

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