Benefits of Learning in Depth for Kids and Adults

It is often said that “there are no quick fixes in Education”. Yes and no. There are no panaceas, quick or not. However, for many complex problems in many domains, there are some relatively simple but potent partial solutions. Vaccination is one example.

Today, I attended Prof. Kieran Egan’s Royal Society of Canada seminar on “Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Education”, nearly the title of his latest book. Having read the book, attended the seminar and discussed it with Prof. Egan, I think he is right: Applying this idea could have major benefits for the education of our children. And it has implications for adults.

The big idea in Learning in Depth is that in order to become a truly educated person, one needs to study topics in depth. Otherwise, one is at at best a dilettante or a magpie intellectual. The benefits of Learning in Depth go well beyond being considered an expert or having expertise in a narrow field.

I was introduced to the concept of “breadth through depth” by Prof. Claude Lamontagne at the University of Ottawa in 1989. Lamontagne’s AI-oriented course on perception, which he is still giving, has changed the lives of many students, myself included. Learning-in-depth is how Artificial Intelligence research (the theoretical core of cognitive science) proceeds at its best. One chooses a problem and then tries to see it through as systematically as possible using a designer approach. The problem might be, for example, the visual perception of motion. One (a) studies the requirements in question, (b) proposes designs, (c) tries to implement the design in computer simulations, (d) assesses and analyzes the implementation, design and relations between them, and studies (e) studies the space of possible requirements and designs. There is nothing quite like trying to simulate a design to help discover its flaws and consequently remedy them.

Egan’s Learning in Depth book deals with the education of children in grades 1–12. Ideally, in grade 1, each child is ceremoniously given a germane but randomly assigned topic, such as Apples. Going forward until grade 12, children work at least an hour a week on their portfolio. They are to use the portfolio to develop their knowledge and understanding of their topic. Interestingly, their portfolio is never graded! The Learning in Depth approach goes well beyond project-based learning. When teachers address curriculum areas, children are able to use their topic as a focal point. If the kids are studying nutrition, then the child can do her nutrition assignment on apples (if that’s her topic). By the time they graduate, kids are world-class experts on their assigned topics.

I’m sure that a number of questions and objections came to your mind as read the previous paragraph. Having read his book and discussed the issues with you, my impression is that Egan has aptly dealt with a large number of them. I believe these graduates on average, and other things being equal, will be much better prepared to contribute to the knowledge economy than their competitors. But, buy the book, read it, and judge for yourself.

I will only mention a few of the expected benefits. (I say expected because the program is only 4 years old and has not yet been thoroughly assessed. The early indicators are very positive, however.)

  • Perceived cognitive self-efficacy and confidence.
  • Pride in one’s cognitive work.
  • Love of knowledge and love of scholarship.
  • Fluid expertise, i.e., abilities to solve problems, build knowledge, and develop expertise.

These are all things that we deeply value at CogZest.

I raised a question at the seminar today about how to handle the difference between  (a) referent-centered learning and (b) building problem-based knowledge. I was referring to an important distinction emphasized by Carl Bereiter in another one of my favourite education books. The former is knowledge about an object or area. Whereas the latter is about developing knowledge in response to problems of understanding. The 3 main aims of science are:

  1. to develop knowledge about the content of the world; (e.g., history, geography and botany)
  2. to develop knowledge about the form of the world; (formal aims of science)
  3. to develop knowledge about how to solve problems. (practical aims of science)

Problem-centred knowledge is relevant to all three of these. However, it is particularly evident in the pursuit of the second and third aims. It’s been my informal observation, and hence I speculate, that there are individual differences here. Everyone prefers acquiring  one type of knowledge over the other two.  One would want to ensure that the Learning in Depth program does not unduly bias children towards the first type of knowledge. This is particularly relevant for high school students.

Egan’s response was that the referent-centered/problem-centred distinction is not as significant as Bereiter or I make it out to be. We agreed to disagree for the moment. In any event, I think my concern can easily be addressed. It depends largely on how teachers conduct the non-LiD part of the curriculum. So long as as the teachers are proceeding in a problem-based fashion, as they should, then children will naturally proceed in a problem-driven fashion. It may also be that the children, or at least some children, will naturally proceed in the desired fashion thanks to Learning in Depth (something that would not come as easily without it.)

It’s very inspiriting to apprehend a radically simple but far reaching idea issued from a such a deep, rigorous thinker as Kieran Egan. I highly recommend Egan’s book. (And also another one of his books, The Educated Mind.) Also check out the Learning in Depth project web site.

What this has to do with CogZest

For parents

Many of the people we serve at CogZest are parents. To put one’s child through a Learning in Depth program might not merely benefit the child; it might also benefit the parent. The parent would gain a unique window into deep, extensive learning over 12 years (possibly more!) This would be very rewarding for parents who value cognitive productiveness to have their children develop a love of knowledge. It is very difficult to devise a systematic K-12 educational program that delivers on this. (Some of the great programs out there churn out kids who at best strive to excel academically—but that striving is not always accompanied by a love of knowledge and the other putative benefits of Learning in Depth .)

The Learning in Depth approach also offers our customers an opportunity to reflect on their own learning. They can ask themselves whether they have projects that allow them to Learning in Depth? If they do, they can for a lifetime reap the benefits of Learning in Depth.

About simple solutions

To the extent that Learning in Depth delivers on its promises, this shows that relatively simple solutions in education can have far reaching benefits.

We are currently developing several such solutions to important cognitive productivity problems. In order to solve these problems, I have had to extend cognitive science.

My new book

My upcoming book deals with many of the issues that Kieran Egan deals with, but at the adult level. The aim of my book is to help my readers learn in such a way that they get intrinsic benefits that matter to them.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

2 thoughts on “Benefits of Learning in Depth for Kids and Adults”

  1. When, a couple of years ago, I revisited Susan Wise Bauer’s book The Well Educated Mind, it occurred to me that people might confuse it with Egan’s book, The Educated Mind, due to the similar title. I was right: Last night I accidentally linked to her book instead of Kieran Egan’s book. I’ve corrected the post.

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