Learning in Depth

Project Representative
Kieran Egan
Creation Date: 2008
Geographical Reach: Worldwide
Nature and number of beneficiaries: Schoolchildren. Currently more than 20,000 are enrolled in the program.
Contact

Learning in Depth

About the Project

Learning in Depth (LiD) is a simple though radical innovation in curriculum and instruction, designed to ensure that all students become experts in something during their school years. Each child is given a particular topic to learn about through his or her whole school career, in addition to the usual curriculum, and builds a personal portfolio on the topic. To the surprise of many, children usually take to the program with great enthusiasm, and within a few months LiD begins to transform their experience as learners. The program usually takes about an hour a week, with the students working increasingly outside school time.

LiD is an unusual program and tends, after the first simple description, to elicit enthusiasm from some people and hesitation from others. While the basic idea is quite simple, the potential implications of the program for students, teachers, and schools are profound.

In most of its literature, LiD suggests beginning when children start school. This is the ideal, but it is not always possible for many teachers. If you teach Grade 6, for example, and are attracted by LiD, there is no reason not to start then. At the moment there are LiD programs beginning in all grades in some schools somewhere, even Grade 12.

The aim is to have LiD become a part of the experience of every child at school. It was implemented first in Canada in 2008, and since then has spread to many countries in the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The impact of the program tends to begin in a single classroom with a single teacher trying the program. Mostly teachers are surprised by the students' enthusiasm, and it then spreads to other teachers. Its impact is greatest when all classes in a school become involved in LiD. The small-scale evaluation studies carried out so far indicate great student and teacher satisfaction, and also "transfer" of LiD-gained skills to other areas of the curriculum by the third year of its operation.

The program takes only one hour a week of school time and everything else in the school continues as before. The investment in time and money required to implement LiD is very small; the beneficial educational impact on the students is nearly always enormous.

Another feature of the LiD program is that it is not graded. Students direct their own learning, with support from teachers where necessary.

Each year, all students are expected to make a presentation on their topics.

Some comments about the program:

"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)

“Learning in Depth outlines a bold and stimulating curricular innovation designed to improve the quality of schooling from kindergarten through high school.” (Philip W. Jackson, University of Chicago)

“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” (Sheri Dunton, Corbett Charter School).  “LiD has changed my children!!! In the two years since their school adopted this program, my children learned how to love learning!” (Parent, on IERG website).

Context and Issue

The school curriculum is often described as a mile wide and an inch deep. In everyday schooling the aim is to introduce students to many things and one result is that they engage with most things superficially. This has a number of unfortunate consequences. First, to adequately engage the imagination with a topic one needs to know quite a lot about it, but this depth of knowledge is rarely achieved in schools most of the time, so students' imaginations are not caught up in their learning.

Second, all educational authorities, say that to become educated one needs to know many things - the regular curriculum - but one also needs to learn something in depth. If one does not know something in depth, then one never really comes to understand the nature of knowledge which, in turn, can lead to people not distinguishing clearly between knowledge and opinion.

Third, the experience of children in schools is nearly always that the teacher knows more than they do. In the LiD program, within months children begin to learn more than their teachers about their topic. Within a few years most children begin to develop genuine expertise.

The enthusiasm of "LiDKiDs" is surprising to many, and the portfolios they build after three, four or five years’ studying their topics are unlike anything that children have produced in the history of schooling. This in most cases leads to a new confidence in themselves as learners. Unexpectedly, LiD is also a favorite activity in school for students with learning difficulties. Uniquely, after a year of so, they know more about their topic than anyone else, including their teachers. This gives new confidence in many cases.

Solution and Impact

The subtitle of the University of Chicago Press book about the program indicates something of the solution LiD offers and the impact it is having: "Learning in Depth: A simple innovation that can transform schooling." The program is an elegant and simple solution to a fundamental problem of schooling - the superficiality of knowledge and lack of imaginative engagement in the content of the curriculum. The related problem is that students remember so little of what they learn in schools. The schools in which LiD has been implemented find that the program has a transformative impact on students and also on the culture of the school.

Future Developments

As LiD spreads into new countries and to new populations of students, more and more is being learned about the kinds of resources that make the program easier to implement and support. LiD is adding resources for teachers, and also a place for students to compare items from their portfolios on its website. It has also published a "LiDKit" with all the resources developed so far. It is hoped that future developments will move in three directions:

First, that the program will be taken up by more and more schools in countries around the world.

Second, that experience with the program will generate more resources to help teachers implement the program easily. (The LiDKit, for example has two packs of cards, on each of which there is an idea for students who might be looking for advice about where to go next with their topic. There are 104 such cards.)

Third, LiD has begun to use its website as a portal through which, and on which, students from different countries or localities within a country – but with the same topic - can share parts of their portfolios. The aim is to develop this possibility much more in the future, so that a child in Chile, for example, can cooperate in making a presentation with a child in Australia.

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