Want smarter kids? Make them study something - one thing - for a long time.
Into the rancorous wars over school reform steps Kieran Egan, who wants to make students experts on beetles. Or tea. Or dust.
His idea goes like this: Assign each student a single, specific topic, which he or she will study over and over again, from every possible angle, from early elementary school through high school. Egan, a professor of education at Canada's Simon Fraser University, hopes that by the time such students finish high school, they will be world-class experts on their topics - as well as more effective citizens and better people.
"People who know nothing in depth commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge," Egan writes in his forthcoming book "Learning In Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling," which will be available in January. He also contends that "a central feature of becoming a moral person is to learn to become engaged with something outside the self."
Egan knows that his proposal could be a tough sell. He spends a third of the book heading off obvious criticisms, chief among them the threat of boredom - or, as Egan puts it, the specter of "little Nathan howling in misery because he has just been told he has to study dust for the next twelve years."
Egan, wisely, doesn't start with dust. He begins with apples. He imagines a young student first drawing apples, then cataloging apple varieties, and later collecting stories about apples (from the Garden of Eden and Johnny Appleseed to William Tell and Isaac Newton) and figuring out why apples float.
Dust, meanwhile, could take a student from house dust to the Dust Bowl, from the origins of the color khaki ("khaki" is Urdu for "dust"; how it came to refer to a color is a long story involving British camouflage uniforms and Afghanistan) to the origins of the planet.
Egan thinks his plan has the potential to cross the usual school reform battle lines: Those with more traditional views on education will like it because it emphasizes in-depth mastery; progressives will like the idea of letting students learn at their own pace, according to their own style.
In the past few years, Egan has sold a number of educators on his plan, starting in British Columbia and now extending to classrooms in the United States, Australia, Japan, England, New Zealand, Romania, Greece and Iran. All in all, a couple of thousand Egan-inspired students are busy becoming experts.
"The doubts that some expressed that students would get bored with a single topic . . . seem to have been disconfirmed," he wrote in an e-mail. "No child, apparently, has asked to drop out or change topics, [and] the students seem to be finding it their favorite activity in schools."
But what about parents? Won't they recoil at the prospect of having to listen to their child talk about dust for 12 long years? Egan says no: "Parents are often the most enthusiastic supporters of the program."
At least they are now. Check back in 12 years.