Dig Deep or Scratch a Large Surface

A while back, I sat down with a teacher whom I believe truly makes a difference in the minds of students. His concern was a one that I, too, struggled with while in the classroom, and even now when I present:

Depth v. Breadth

Those of us in public education are faced with a set of standards that we must teach our students within a certain time frame; in fact, we are legally bound to do so. But what does that mean if in the process of covering said standards, little time is given to deep inquiry or study of material in an academic manner?

Last week over at Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds put his musings on this topic together in this way:

…I have wondered for the longest time if teachers — especially
college professors — attempt to cover too much ground (and not
enough depth) per semester. That is, do too many classes sacrifice
depth and understanding for scope? Yes, it depends on the subject I
suppose, but is it better to learn, say, only six core ideas deeply and
repeatedly or is it better to cover as much ground as possible and go
for the greatest breadth in the time allotted? Great scope certainly
makes for an impressive syllabus and perhaps even a feeling of
accomplishment for those who pushed hard and got the highest marks. But
how many of the students who got a ‘C’ or better will actually remember
what they studied a year later?

My downfall as a teacher was never making it through the prescribed curriculum in the allowable 180 days of school; the real hope is that there is a marriage of the two, that the teacher will be able to engage and explore areas of student interest deeply while still managing to satisfy the state requirements. How likely is that? Looking at the range of time, the range of topics, and the fixed time that teachers have with students, it does not look promising. If you ask teachers the reasons why one area is covered and not another, invariably the issue of time comes up.

Just for nostalgia, here is Barry’s analysis of “time” in a school year:

I am beginning to think that time, in the most commonly thought of manner, is not the answer. We are tasked to present material to students in a given frame of time and of context. What they do with it when they leave our classroom is entirely up to them. We don’t know when they will think about what we discussed, when they will process it, mash it up, connect it to something else in their lives, or even have a conversation with someone else about it.

However, what if we gave them that chance to revisit it. Someone in one of my first Web 2.0 classes brought that up about discussion boards on wikis. She called it the “drive-home effect;” your incredible contribution to the classroom discussion that day happens several hours later in the privacy of your car and to an audience of no one. We can give them that space. We have the tools to continue conversation online, and to archive it, retrieve it, and bring it back into the present so that it has relevance again.

So, to recap, here is my answer to the depth v. breadth conundrum in public schools: teach mightily and try to manage depth within the required curriculum, but provide a space where your topics are debated by those who so choose to do so. Don’t hold onto the learning, let it go and let your students play with it in a secure environment. Make it real, and engage the hell out of ’em.

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2 thoughts on “Dig Deep or Scratch a Large Surface

  1. Patrick,

    Very thought-provoking post.

    I do think this question of depth vs. breadth is one that needs some focus. As we continue to add content, what do we remove, for one thing? Is everything equally important when students can and do Google what facts they don’t know?

    And is rushing over content at the surface level in order to finish really engaging them in a way that they will retain the information or understand it at a more complex level?

    I don’t have answers to this problem, but I do believe we have to quit viewing a specific curriculum as sacrosanct, and recognize that any curriculum, no matter how excellent, was created by someone with a series of choices and preferences and viewpoints. And we have to recognize that a curriculum should be something dynamic, flexible, and living.

    (I find the same depth/breadth issue is true in the microcosm of research units–students skip across the surface of things too often which we allow, and we don’t teach them strategies for taking their time and digging deeply over time.)

    I really like your idea for creating a space where they could dip back into previous content, ask a question, ponder it later, and create more of a sense of continuity for themselves.

    Lots to think about in your post.
    Thanks, Carolyn

  2. Carolyn,

    You brought up a point that is asked of me all of the time: “if we do this, what gets left out?” and it often gets asked in terms of technological integration. Some of the teachers I work with fear that the things they have passion about are going to be removed or pushed aside by the introduction of new skills, or in this case, new technologies.

    Our challenge is to try to amplify those passions through the use of pedagogy, good research methods, and technology.

    Also, your point about the characteristics of who created the curriculum is spot on. Realizing that there is dynamism in curriculum and flexibility in its creation is a huge step for education.

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