Deep or Wide?


It pains me whenever I read or hear someone say, “I was never taught __(insert information here)__ in school”. Or “Twenty Things You Were Never Taught about __ (insert issue here)__”.  And I have to be honest here, I feel pained because I am fiercely proud of my former profession, my colleagues who are still fighting the good fight, my former students, and the schools in which I have taught. But, beyond my own ego, there is a very good reason why educators need to reflect on these statements. It might go a long way towards helping with what my spouse calls “client education” so that people have a more realistic understanding of what goes into creating curricula for the classroom and across grades.

In educational circles curriculum developers try to straddle the gulf between “survey courses” and “in-depth courses”.  A survey course is one where you cover a lot of information in a short amount of time.  They are often introductory courses which are meant to give the students the big picture of a field of study, and the expectation is, generally, that the student will go on to study the topic in more detail later.

Students of survey courses are expected to handle a lot of information quickly and are expected to regurgitate said information on demand or on tests designed to measure how much of the information stuck. Their grades, often, are tied to tests and possibly a term paper which employs a limited number of learning modalities that can be difficult for students who find traditional learning difficult. (I’d use the word Medieval, but this type of learning was proliferated by Queen Elizabeth I, which means it really falls in the English Renaissance.)

This mode of delivering curriculum generally requires from students a proficiency at note taking, textbook reading, memorization, and fluency with the writing process.  Teachers and professors who lead survey courses rarely have time in class to allow for in-depth questions, work on papers, and textbook reading, putting the entire responsibility of the learning onto the student.  It is what is called “teacher centered” as opposed to “student centered”.  As in, the onus is on the student to react positively to the professor, as opposed to the teacher learning the ways of and responding to the needs of the students.  So, interestingly enough, a survey course which is meant to be an introduction, requires more from students in terms of learning proficiency because the teacher has so much material to get through that the best they can do is get through the material. This methodology leaves the bodies of students on the side of the educational highway, which is why they are also often considered “gate-keeping” classes, weeding out those students who struggle.

An in-depth course is one where the teacher or professor picks a few seminal items to create the curriculum and requires students to use Bloom’s Taxonomy (or something in that line) to get a deeper understanding of the topic.  Students also generally have many different ways to prove that they have grasped the material. Often the teacher will use one learned item to build upon the next item.  This takes a lot more time than a survey course, which is why you cannot dispense as much information in them.

In my experience, students prefer an in-depth approach to curriculum than a survey approach, which is why many of us use this model if we can, even though it is more work (far, far more work).  (It’s also why I often feel the need to kick survey course professors in the teeth when they complain about their students.  These people are not teachers; they do little but profess.)

So, let’s do the math.  Let’s say you’re a teacher. You see 35 students in one 50 minute class per day.  You know it takes 4-5 minutes to settle the class down at the beginning, and at least 4-5 minutes to get students packed up and out the door.  You are now at 40 minutes.  In that time, you need to pick up and/or hand back work, you need to hand out new assignments, answer questions, and get students started on new tasks, which may or may not include the amount of time it takes for a class of 35 students to get into small groups or pairs.  You may need to go over the homework due that day.  You will give a lecture or mini-lecture to help students grasp the material.  You will tell students what they are going to do.  You will show students what they are going to do.  You are going to help students do what they are going to do.  You are going to let the students do what they are going to do.  You will make corrections and suggestions and let them do what they are going to do.  You will ask them to demonstrate proficiency.

In my experience, students enjoy this learning modality more than one where they come in, sit down, listen to a professor profess for 40 minutes, maybe take notes, and leave.

Research also indicates that in-depth learning has more staying power for long-term learning, because it has more opportunities to make connections with past learning, or at least it stays with the learner for longer than the memorize-and-regurgitate model.

So why the hell are you blaming me for the fact that I didn’t teach you frickin’ everything there ever is to know in the whole frickin’ universe? (Pardon my Klatchian.)

Well, if you are going to blame me (and by me, I mean us teachers, professors, administrators, state legislators, curriculum developers, textbook writers, bus drivers, lunch staff, crossing-guards, secretaries, custodians, and all the others who go neatly into the category known as “school”), then blame me for not teaching you how to educate yourself.

There is no way, none, to teach a person absolutely everything that he or she will need, will want to know, or will find interesting enough to put in a Buzzfeed list, in his or her life.  In fact, the very teaching modality that reaches the most learners will by its very nature require that not everything can be taught.

The only way to solve this problem is to create learning environments where students are taught how to teach themselves. That, we can do.

We can teach how to research, how to sift and mine for useful information, how to ask the kind of questions which lead to answers (or better yet, more and better questions).  We can praise and provide a place for independent learning.  In this way, we may see more articles called What I Taught Myself about the Senegalese Boat People Because My Teachers Were So Busy Teaching Me How to Teach Myself That They Didn’t Have Time to Teach Me Themselves about the Senegalese Boat People, And What a Cool List It Is, Too.

A girl can dream.







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