Deep Learning, Survey Learning, or Both?

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can to education today is to teach few subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” – C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy

I’ve read this book several times in my life, but for one reason or another, the above quote captured my attention more than usual this time. What struck me was his insight into the importance of giving students a chance, in their formative years, to experience deep learning, the type of learning that comes from exploring a few disciplines over a long period of time. For Lewis, those few subjects were part of a classical education, but others may well agree with the general idea of focusing upon a few things. This contrasts with a survey approach to education, one that seeks to take students on a tour of dozens of subject areas. It reminds me of Kieran Egan’s proposal for Learning in Depth, an approach that gives students the chance to study a single word for years.

Some might argue that such a vision of education comes from a previous era, one that preceded the knowledge explosion of the information age.  There is certainly more content available to each of us, and there are an ever-growing number of fields of study.  As an example, consider this massive list of current academic disciplines and sub-disciplines. There is no way to offer a meaningful education for a single person that includes substantive understanding in all these disciplines.

Of course, what does this mean in an age of standards and outcomes?  It is interesting to note that one of the most widespread national emphases upon standards in the United States (the Common Core) came from am effort that included standards in only two areas of study: math and language arts. While states, national bodies, and others have standards to address many other subjects, it could be argued that this is a “less is more” movement, with many people challenged by the depth of knowledge expected in the common core math. I’m not interested in making a defense or critique of the Common Core at this point, but I offer it as an example of the impact that comes from picking just a couple of areas to emphasize.

The survey argument usually sounds something like this. Give students a survey of subjects and that produces a well-rounded student. Without this, students are likely to have gaps of knowledge that will be harmful to their future work and life. This survey approach allows learners to explore and decide what to focus upon at a later stage in life, perhaps at University.  Of course, it also helps to protect them from looking foolish if they get interviewed on the street from a late night talk show host trying to show how little people get out of high schools and/or college (which, as an aside, seems like a good media spot, but an unfair and deficient way to critique the state of contemporary education).

The other side argues that going deep is a superior approach.  You can find many versions of this approach. Penelope Trunk makes a compelling case against raising well-rounded children. She and others argue for diving in over dipping your toe in a hundred pools. Those who specialize, Trunk explains, have better career options and have a better chance of experiencing flow, that idea from Csikszentmihalyi about being lost in a task or experiencing…like being “in the zone.” Others argue that deep learning and specializing leads to joy and helps young people discover the wonder of building upon your strengths and not spending most of your school years dwelling on fixing your weaknesses (an approach that gets people fired in many workplaces).

Interestingly, you will find both sides making the following claims:

  1. Our way recognizes that life is about more than work, that education should be about a good life, not just a good worker.
  2. Our way prepares students to thrive in the workplace of the 21st century.
  3. Our way helps cultivate a life of meaning, purpose and opportunity.

I happen to see wisdom in several sides of the argument. I’ve seen people thrive who had a well-rounded general education. I have seen some struggle.  I’ve witnessed people flourish in an unschooling experience of deep learning, as well as an education focused on the classics. I’ve also seen them struggle. What I take from this is that there is not a recipe for the perfect or best education, not for this or any other age. This is why I continue to be an advocate for choice and flexibility in education. This is not a statement in favor of choice programs, but about choice of any type for young people and families.  Since we do not have definitive research to prove that one way is the best for all young people and all purposes, why not offer some option among schools with different philosophies and approaches?

Nonetheless, in a world of information overload, it might just be useful to place a little extra emphasis upon deep learning, spending an extended period of time exploring a single topic or a few subjects.  It helps protect from information addiction, gives learners a chance to discover the joy of cultivating a rich insight into a subject, and it prepares them with the thinking skills and discipline needed to learn new bodies of knowledge throughout their lives.