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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Expertise — Or the Bartimaeus Educational Theory

If you haven’t read Myra’s latest comment (in the strand on empathy and understanding) please do, because she mentions a classroom strategy she uses that I first read about that approach in the works of Kieran Egan — a Canadian educational theorist. Take a look at his home page, and in particular, The idea that if students become experts in one area, if they really make that piece of knowledge their own, they will grow in many ways. In the Egan model, the topics are assigned randomly — not where one might begin intuitively — but he argues that 5 year olds have many varied and changubg interests, so to build a mulit-year study on what they think they are interested is almost random itself — a movie they just saw may spark an interest, for a day. But I think there is another point to why the random assignment makes sense: the purpose of the lengthy study is not mainly to train the 5 year old to become a better future biologist, farmer, doctor, historian, astronomer, but, rather, to give the student that glorious experience of — as they call the program — learning in depth.

Marina recalls that in her Queens public school sixth grade they spent most of the spring leading up to, slowly reading, then seeing Antony and Cleopatra. In my eleventh grade class (which combined English and History) we spent the entire year leading up to, then slowly reading, Moby Dick. We both treasured those years not just for how we came to be able to read classics, but how we came to be able to read, to think. We got the chance to be active learners because we were led slowly to know enough to go deep, to get beyond identifying names and facts (Monica’s objection to the NAEP tests). Any child who builds up expertise gets to use his/her scholarly muscles — doing research, questioning interpretations, formulating theories. And those are the delicious moments of being in school — when you become a scholar. In a way it is like Nathaniel at the very beginning of the first Bartimaeus book — when, in a fit of will and anger, he risks summoning a djinn well before his master thinks he is ready.

Myra is right, Dr. Egan is right — I’d love to see more school give students the gift of becoming experts — and see what they let loose upon the world.