What Schools Should and Shouldn’t Do

Although a considerable degree of uniformity in what is taught and how it is taught is both necessary and good, our children do not give up all of their intellectual or human rights when they enter the formal school system. Learners should always be respected as unique individuals who deserve some measure of autonomy. The intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and social fulfillment of every child must absolutely be held as a core responsibility of everyone involved in the educational enterprise. As J. Zaccharias wrote, “Children come to school different and it is our job to make them more different.” This can absolutely be accomplished while at the same time ensuring that our schools provide a challenging, high-quality and coherent curriculum that will provide a focusing and integrating force in society. To press this point, schools should be about human development and not selection. It is regrettably true that a truly equal, democratic society in which all students have received the same life chances doesn’t exist and perhaps never shall. Yet I strongly feel it should be our goal as a society to attempt to at least ameliorate existing inequalities. Schools should never exacerbate social and economic divides. Look at the current situation across the nation and ask yourself if we are on the right path.


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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.