The Best Idea in Education, Ever.

Last time I teased you by hinting at the existence of a game-changing educational idea. Now I want to tell you about it. In future posts I will show you my students’ work and lay out more evidence for the bold claim in the post’s title.

It is called LiD (Learning in Depth) and it is, for my money, one of the best ideas I have ever come across in education. LiD is the brainchild of Kieran Egan, the Irish-Canadian educationalist. About Egan’s educational philosophy and work in general, I would only say, “Read his books and read them now.” Egan is the epicenter of an exciting educational movement called Imaginative Education, which is just as innovative and humanistic as the name implies. More information about this important thinker and his ideas can also be found at the website of his Imaginative Education Research Group, http://ierg.ca/

What is LiD? The concept is simple but profound. In Egan’s original conception, first-grade students are assigned an individual challenging topic possessing both breadth and depth (examples: Trees, Birds, Energy, Tools, Shells, Writing Systems, Clouds….) and then allowed to work on it outside of class, as a sort of more-or-less free independent study project. The children’s major concrete assignment is to amass an enormous individual portfolio, which they periodically review with the teacher. Egan also suggests presentations and other communicative products. The key element of LiD, and the stroke of genius that sets it apart from other progressive, topic-based and 21st century, student-centered schemes, is that under LiD the students continue to work on their topic until they graduate from high school. That means that theoretically a young person could pursue the same subject for at least thirteen years. Think of it: imagine the depth and breadth of their domain knowledge, the potential richness of its links to other topics; imagine the study skills, metacognitive knowledge, self-confidence, motivation, and sheer thinking power that would slowly and naturally develop over the years as the children explored their topic. They would become ever more sophisticated in their analyses, resourceful in their problem-solving, flexible and creative in their intellectual products…Egan himself speculated that the unprecedented gains from a program of such long-term,synergisticdynamism would result in students whose like has probably never existed in the history of formal schooling.

End dramatic italics. But I am in my fifth year of implementing a slightly modified version of LiD[1] and I can state with absolute certitude that Egan’s surmise was correct. Allowing students to engage over a long period of time (again, think years, not weeks or months, as is unfortunately the rule in our standard curricula) leads to transformative improvements in every conceivable (and some inconceivable) aspects of learning and teaching. At one stroke it clears away the extraneous, stress-inducing elements that have over time attached themselves to formal schooling like so many barnacles. I am speaking here of pop quizzes, prints, rigid deadlines and the breathless pace of the coverage curriculum, of exhausting competition for grades, of one-size-fits-all pedagogy, and most of all, testing, testing, testing. LiD reduces learning to its pure, beautiful essentials: a motivated learner, a friendly and helpful adult, an engaging, meaningful topic. Really, is anything else needed? Both learner and teacher are finally set free, free to explore the topic and possibly gently guide in any way they wish. They are limited only by the characteristics of the subject and their own imaginations, both of which are in principle unlimited.

Next time I will give you samples of my students’ work and a copy of my topic list. Until then….

 

[1] I meet students when they are already in junior high, so they have a maximum of six years with me. Consequently, many of my topics are somewhat narrower than his. Also, I do more in-class work with LiD and I grade it, whereas Egan suggests removing LiD from any formal evaluation scheme. Finally, I let students choose their topics, while he recommends assigning them, so that they learn that any topic is interesting.

 

A Book/Author Recommendation

A. All educators at all levels should read John Hattie. He’s an Australian educational researcher who has been a driving force behind evidence-based teaching and curriculum development. I believe his major contribution has been his meta-analyses of every conceivable aspect of educational achievement and the factors that can help or hurt students’ learning : teaching methodologies, gender, family situation, teaching materials; you name it, Hattie has meta-analyzed it. That means, for any given variable, let’s say, homework…(does it really aid achievement is the question here) he and his team collect hundreds of studies and subject them to all kinds of rigorous statistical analysis. He simplifies the results into 1 figure, “d”. If that number is greater than .40, the innovation or educational feature is worth trying; if not, it isn’t. Hattie is attempting to introduce a measure of scientific rigor and logic into the maelstrom of fads, and political, ethnic, and socioeconomic solipsism that is modern global education. Some of his findings are quite counter-intuitive. For example, class size isn’t very important; homework can be helpful but only certain types really support learning, etc. He tries to be careful in his claims.

Whether you agree with all his work or not, you must read Hattie. He represents a major strand in 21st century education and must be absorbed into teachers and schools’ thinking.

His big books, which should be read in the order listed:

Visible Learning, Visible Learning for Teachers (a simplification of the first volume) and the forthcoming Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

If you have access to scholarly journals:

Has John Hattie really found the holy grail of research on teaching? An extended review of Visible Learning

in The Journal of Curriculum Studies, Volume 43, Issue 3, 2011.