Posted in Curriculum, Education, Humanities, Learning, Sixth Grade, Students, Teaching

Breadth vs Depth: How Much is Too Much?

School for me was like being in a shoe factory where only one type of shoe was made.  Every day was the same: Listen to the teacher talk and take notes or complete a worksheet.  That was basically the formula, day after mundane day.  Learning was the same for every student as we were supposed to all be the same at the end of our experience just as all pairs of shoes need to look the same when coming off of the assembly line.  My teachers just scratched the surface of every topic covered.  While I was sometimes interested in a particular topic covered, we never got to go deep into any one area.  We learned just enough to be able to answer questions on a test or write an essay.  This always frustrated me as a student.  Just as I was becoming engaged in school, the topic changed, causing my interest level to decrease significantly.  Whis was that?  Why did my teachers feel the need to cover so much, but only so deeply?  Why could we not spend a month or more on a topic or unit of study?  Why did we have to rush through the curriculum at such a breakneck speed?  Genuine learning can’t possibly happen when the material and content is taught and assessed over such a short time period.  Brain science tells us that it takes more time than a few days to move information from the working memory to the short term memory and then into the long term memory; therefore, it was not possible for me to learn anything in a meaningful manner when I was in school.  So then, back to my previous question, why did my teachers do it that way?

As a teacher, I feel that covering so much content and curriculum at such a fast pace is ineffective.  In order for relevant learning to happen, the students need to be provided time to play with the new skills and content learned before they can be assessed on it.  They need to have opportunities to engage in the material, question the information learned, and process it so that they can make connections between the information learned and their prior knowledge.  This approach takes time.  As a teacher, I’m all about depth.  I want my students to jump into the material being covered and swim around for a while rather than simply dipping their toes in, which was my experience as a student.  While I believe, based on my past experience as well as my knowledge and training as an educator, that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to curriculum and content, I do sometimes wonder if my approach is the most effective one.  What if there’s something I’m missing?

In my Humanities class, the students have spent the last month working on a research project regarding a self-chosen topic.  The boys are in the midst of finishing their class presentations.  They are being so methodical with how they present all that they’ve learned about their topic.  They are crafting amazing documentary videos, learning how to use new digital tools, and really trying to think about how they will share their knowledge with their peers so that they will be engaged.  It’s impressive.  None of the students are rushing to finish their work and meet the objectives.  They are enjoying the opportunity to deeply and meaningfully learn about a topic of interest.

Imagine if I had condensed this project into a week or two so that I could cover more material and content.  Would the students be as engaged in their projects and presentations?  Would they have the chance to really get excited about learning if they had to worry about completing their work on time?  Would meaningful learning be happening if the students weren’t provided the ample time needed to delve into their research topics?  I think not.  I think the students would dislike the project if they didn’t have the time to dig deeply, question, process, learn, and play with the material.  For me, helping my students find the joy in learning is all about time.  I want them to have the time necessary to fall in love with the material and learning involved.  It’s all about depth and not breadth.  At the end of the day, knowing how to be a thinker, learner, writer, reader, student, problem solver, and person is so much more important than knowing a lot of useless facts about various topics.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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