Excavating the wonderful

An illustration of a girl and a dog perched on an open book, flying through the bright blue sky. The girl is waving at a small town that is passing beneath her.

Excavating the wonderful

Researchers at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Imaginative Education are developing new teaching models that engage students’ imaginations to make the mundane memorable
August 25, 2015

Like many students, Kieran Egan was bored throughout much of his schooling. He was bored by the structure, bored by the rigid, joyless, dull shuffle from class to class, subject to subject. As a university professor, Egan turned his research attention to developing new models of education that are scaled to the students’ natural interests and inquisitiveness. In 2001, he established the Centre for Imaginative Education at Simon Fraser University, where brave, new ways of teaching, learning and connecting with students are developed and tested.

Q: What goes on at the Centre for Imaginative Education?
A: Mostly, we work on finding ways in which teachers can engage students’ imaginations in the stuff of the curriculum. We’re trying to reimagine the everyday classroom.

Q: Why is it important to engage a student’s imagination?
A: If you don’t, you’re basically wasting your time. It’s only when emotions are caught up in the content of the curriculum that you can learn and find it enriching. We’re trying to create ways in which the average teacher in the average classroom can do this more effectively. Typically, the curriculum — to both teachers and students — is a series of things, like learning to prove that alternate interior angles of a parallelogram are congruent. It can be fairly soul-destroying if you don’t excavate what is wonderful about these things.

Q: How do you inject a parallelogram with emotion?
A: We start with an image of a guy in a courtyard in Alexandria 2,000 years ago, digging a hole and planting a stick upright. He knew that 500 miles to the south at the summer solstice, in the town of Syene, a stick upright cast no shadow. But he knew that in Alexandria, it did cast a shadow. So knowing that Syene was 500 miles away and measuring the shadow and knowing that alternate interior angles of a parallelogram are congruent, Eratosthenes was able to calculate the circumference of the Earth fairly accurately. If you’re telling this to children, you can build up the character of Eratosthenes and the drama of the situation so that you embed the content in a meaningful context. Children can find it engaging and interesting.

Q: Are these techniques used widely?
A: No. Most teaching most of the time is pretty dull. The school has not been a terribly successful institution. Enormous cost and effort go into producing, for most students, marginal literacy, a vague grasp of scientific principles, and little joy from the cultural inheritance available to them. But it needn’t be as bad as it is. Some of the programs we have developed have been designed to be disruptive of the everyday routines of schooling. The Learning in Depth model is an example.

Q: What is the Learning in Depth model?
A: It is a simple but dramatic addition to the curriculum. The idea is that in the future, within two to three weeks of children starting kindergarten, there will be a big ceremony in which each child is given a topic — birds or apples or whales or something like that. And then they build portfolios on those topics for the rest of their schooling for 12 years. It generally takes about an hour a week, but it means that all the children become an expert on something during their schooling. By the time they finish high school, they’ll know as much as just about anybody on Earth about their topic.

Kieran Egan, co-director of the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University, explains how his Learning in Depth model of teaching can capture students’ imaginations by making them experts on a subject by the time they graduate high school. (This video is only available in English.)

Q: Why should students become experts on something?
A: Mostly, kids in schools never become expert on anything. The typical description of the curriculum is that it’s a mile long and an inch deep. Most kids learn all kinds of things very superficially, and consequently, they forget them quite quickly as well. If you learn something superficially, it never captures the imagination. Imagination requires knowing a lot.

Q: Can this approach work at all grade levels, kindergarten to grade 12?
A: Even at the undergraduate level. There’s even interest in using it in retirement homes. Instead of playing bingo all day, people are looking into taking on a Learning in Depth project.

Q: Can it be done across the entire curriculum?
A: Yes. Everything is wonderful if you know enough about it.

This article was originally published in August 2014.