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Simon Fraser University education professor Kieran Egan, seen in Vancouver earlier this month, created Learning in Depth.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Do Make Say Think is the name of a Canadian rock band, but we also thought the title was a good one for a weekly summer series introducing readers to British Columbians out of the public eye who are doing things, making things, saying things and thinking things. This week, for Think, we talk to Kieran Egan, an SFU education professor who has created a program aimed at engaging students' imaginations and emotions by allowing them to spend their elementary and secondary school years focusing in-depth on one topic of the students' choosing.

Lori Driussi admits that she did not expect much from the boy on sharing day.

The fifth grader had been assigned the topic of insects and was to share with the class the findings of his research to date. But when he was given class time to work on his project, the boy had wandered around the classroom, seemingly distracted, disengaged.

However, Ms. Driussi, principal of Burnaby's University Highlands Elementary School, was pleasantly surprised.

"That boy had way more knowledge than I would have expected him to have," she said. "He presented confidently, articulately, with humility, with patience. He knew the parts of an insect's body; he spoke about insects like he really knew about them.

"And he had an interest that was surprising. He spoke about insects in a caring way – how they're good for the planet and why it matters we have insects."

The boy was participating in an unconventional program called Learning in Depth (LiD), which aims to foster in children a deep understanding of the nature of knowledge by having them study one topic throughout elementary and secondary school in conjunction with the regular curriculum. With help from teachers and family members, students research their topic a little more in-depth every year.

For example: In kindergarten, a student who has received the topic of "apples" might, with a teacher's help, make a list of apple varieties, noting the different characteristics of each. The next year, the student might learn about the nutritional content of an apple, and sayings involving apples: "The apple of my eye." In high school, the student might focus on apples in mythology, religion and other stories: Isaac Newton, Adam and Eve, Snow White. For the most part, the students decide how they learn the material.

It is a shift away from rote learning and toward student-driven exploration.

Kieran Egan, the Simon Fraser University education professor who created the program, said the idea is to engage students' imaginations and emotions, fostering the pursuit of a topic in great breadth and depth.

"After three or four or five years, the portfolios these kids put together is unlike anything that any child has ever done in the history of schooling," Dr. Egan said. "Nobody has worked this intensively and extensively on something that then becomes a passionate interest to them."

Internal research has found

that, by the third or fourth year, students in the LiD program showed a "transfer effect," bringing enthusiasm to other subjects, Dr. Egan said.

Time and organizational requirements have been notable hurdles in implementation, but a few dozen B.C. schools have adopted the program in some form: sometimes only a classroom or two and sometimes the whole school. University Highlands adopted LiD school-wide in 2013.

When asked whether children might grow tired of a topic after so many years, Dr. Egan said he believes the opposite is true.

"Boredom is a product of ignorance. The more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes. The real danger with this project is that kids treat it like everything else in school: that once they've learned a bit about it, it's time to move on.

"This project, one of its virtues, I think, is that it gets kids beyond thinking about knowledge [superficially]."

As in the case of the fifth grader who seemed disengaged, Ms. Driussi said the program has taught teachers and administrators that sometimes they need to "live and let learn."

"We need to trust students to find their way, in their own way," she said. "All the things that we recognize and label as learning – kids with their noses in a book, with pens to paper, keyboarding away at a computer – we're used to calling that learning. But maybe learning looks like something else, sometimes, for some kids."

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