Depth Over Breadth – Studying the Same Topic for 12 Years?

When I speak to audiences about project-based learning, the depth versus breadth conversation always comes up.  I am usually the one to bring it up, but even if I don’t, someone else will ask a question or make a comment related to it.  Project-based learning provides students and/or small groups of students with an opportunity to spend an extended period of time digging deeply into a driving question or perhaps seeking solutions to a relevant problem or challenge.  As a result, learners walk away from a successful project with deep knowledge about the topic at hand.  Given all the time that the project takes, one criticism is that project-based learning sometimes results in learners missing out on a broad overview of a subject.  In response, the project-based learning advocate might argue that the learner is developing skills that will last a lifetime, allowing one to learn many more things in the future.  Another response might be to challenge the value of broad but shallow knowledge and whether it will last.  These sorts of conversations can go back and forth, with several valid points coming from both sides.

For some, the resolution to this debate comes by seeking to balance between project-based learning and other learning experiences that offer more breadth.  One such example is not new, but I hear little mention of it in the United States.  This is the Learning in Depth Project, championed by people like Kiergan Egan (who is also known for being a critic of Dewey and the progressivism philosophy of education, as well as his work on Imaginative Education).

The Learning in Depth concept is simple.  You keep a more traditional curriculum, but you add one significant element to it.  In addition to all the other courses, you add a “Learning in Depth” course (although it may just be a few minutes a day) to the curriculum.  The idea is that you randomly assign a simple topic to every learner, or if you are starting with older students, you might let them choose from a list.  There are specific criteria for what constitutes a good topic. The topic might be something like dogs, light, sacred buildings, apples or mountains.  In some schools, this topic is assigned in grade one and the student continues to study this topic for the next twelve years, developing an immense amount of knowledge, exploring it from dozens of angles.  If your topic is cats, then you might study the biology of cats, learn about different types of cats, draw cats, take pictures of cats, study myths and legends about cats, look at environmental topics related to cats, or perhaps examine the role of cats in literature and film.  By the end of twelve years, there is little question that the students will each have an area of expertise that exceed almost everyone else that they know.  Advocates of this approach argue that it teaches research and inquiry skills, helps students discover the power of sticking with something for a longer period of time, that it build confidence, that it helps students cultivate creativity and imagination, and that students learn any number of other skills along the way to becoming experts about their topic.

There are schools around the world that adopted the Learning in Depth program with fascinating stories about student learning. You can read some of these stories firsthand by following the links to participating schools on the Learning in Depth web site.