Do Students Need Depth More Than Breadth?

Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling
By Kieran Egan
(University of Chicago Press, 232 pp., $25)

As anyone in the field of education can tell you, one can argue ad nauseum about the breadth of the “ideal” curriculum.  In the Progressive Era, “more” was fashionable.  Courses in Bachelor Survival, Parenting, etc. were de rigueur.  I was once on a television show with the Superintendent of the Denver City Schools, who boasted of having 600 electives in his school system.  Conversely, in the wake of No Child Left Behind, the curriculum is in danger of being narrowly defined in order to accommodate high-stakes testing in reading and mathematics.

So the notion implied in the subtitle of the book “Learning in Depth: A simple innovation that can transform schooling” strikes me as being somewhat ingenuous.  To be sure, after introducing his proposal—each student will choose one topic and study it in great depth from kindergarten through 12th grade—Kieran Egan takes us through every conceivable objection to his proposal and refutes each objection in turn.  But I am less convinced than he that concentration on a single topic (he uses “apples” as an example) is equally suitable for 1st as for 12th graders (and all grades in between), or that the structural separation that divides elementary from secondary education is really compatible with the kind of continuity his proposal envisages.

On the positive side of the proposition, it is certainly a good thing for students in elementary school to know what it is to master a topic and thereby develop a sense of ownership.  It is also extraordinarily beneficial to a teacher to supervise a project which requires of the teacher enhanced knowledge.  In a world where it seems that the liberal arts are giving ground to a more technocratic approach to learning, such innovation would seem to be timely.

However, as an Oxbridge graduate, all my prejudices are to the contrary.  The common core of knowledge, so essential to life-long learning and civic engagement, would seem to be threatened rather than enhanced by this degree of specialization so early in a student’s intellectual and social development.

I would need to visit a school, or better still a school system, where this approach is being used, to have any chance of becoming converted.  Have levels of academic achievement been raised significantly as a result of this innovation?  Are the attributes traditionally associated with the liberal arts – such as the capacity for critical analysis, tolerance for and appreciation of ambiguity, etc, etc. – more or less in evidence when such a project is in place?  Furthermore, it is unlikely that such an approach would be equally beneficial to all students, especially given the increasingly diverse student population of contemporary America.

That said, Mr. Egan’s book is well-argued and genuinely provocative, and as such, makes a tangible contribution to the current literature on school reform.

-A. Graham Down

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