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Opinions not the same as knowledge

Okay. This educational reform idea could be a tough sell.

In his recent book, Learning in Depth, author and university professor Kieran Egan suggests that the current school system doesn’t provide enough content depth. We spend too much time asking kids to remember a little bit about everything without finding ways to ensure deep knowledge about anything. This leads to dis-engaged kids, under-educated global citizens and lazy thinkers.

His solution?

Have a kid study the same topic for 12 years. Bees. Apples. Treaties. War. Pretty much whatever.

In a recent Washington Post article, Egan uses dust as an example:

Dust could take a student from house dust to the Dust Bowl, from the origins of the color khaki (“khaki” is Urdu for “dust”; how it came to refer to a color is a long story involving British camouflage uniforms and Afghanistan) to the origins of the planet.

In this process, students will have learned important, even life-changing lessons about the meaning of expertise, the value of dedication and the delight of knowing something in depth. This sort of learning can engage student imaginations and emotions and enable a broader understanding of the human experience.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows.

My first thought is the guy’s nuts.

But another quote got my attention:

People who know nothing in depth commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge.

In a society that typically relies on “truthiness” rather than facts, Egan’s idea starts to make a bit more sense. We need to find ways to develop critical and rational thinkers.

Columnist Leonard Pitts once wrote:

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

Egan’s solution seems a bit extreme but the concept itself maybe isn’t. Could a modified Egan plan work in our social studies departments? Create mini-experts on different periods of time or different historical concepts and themes over a period of three or four years? Some schools already have high school seniors create year-long projects. Why couldn’t we expand that a bit?

It would encourage teachers to become more generalists that specialists, facilitators rather than presenters. And it would make for some awesome problem-based learning.

Traditionalists would like it because it emphasizes in-depth mastery of knowledge. Progressives would like the idea of providing choice and achievement-based rather than time-based learning.

What would your topic be?

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I sort of take an opposite approach in my class. I spend the first few days in Fall asking students “Why go to school” “Why learn?” “What do you need to learn?” Once we get past the usual “I go to school because my mom makes me” this generates some interesting discussions.

    My answer to this question is: You need to learn how to learn. You need to learn how to find information, process that information, reach informed conclusions, and communicate the ideas you’ve learned. (Curiously, this follows the steps of Information Processing — Input, Process, Output, Store/Use.)

    BTW: I just joined wordpress and I want to subscribe to your blog… hope I do it right.

    February 24, 2011

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