Friday, March 7, 2008

Moving from Scratching to Digging

PJHiggins posts in Dig Deep or Scratch a Large Surface discusses depth vs. breadth. As a veteran teacher of 20 years, this has crossed my mind more than once. He discusses...

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?

Currently I am using project-based learning and moving to authentic learning. I do not have that down yet. I still feel driven by what I need to cover. Why?

Frankly, we now have a science test students must take in 11th grade. Even though I know those who do well will do well no matter what, I still feel we need to cover the material. How can I let that go?

And now that I am changing how I teach, parent pressure is becoming obvious. There are two teachers of Academic Biology. There is talk for both sides - parents who want their kids taught traditionally and those who want project-based. (I am not sure why I care - they have always wanted their students to have specific teachers in the past for other arguments).

I am no where near what we need to be and think this is a curricular issue that needs to be discussed first. We have never consulted with elementary teachers as well to align our curriculum better. I am encouraged that the administration has hinted at this already. Alignment to stop the overlap and repeats will help. De-emphasis on testing would be a bigger step.

He quotes Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen:

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 rememberwhat they studied a year later?
I for one do not remember much from High School. College perhaps a little more, but certainly not the breadth of material covered. In the past I was the teacher who said - look at all this work we did! What did that mean to the students? It is this last thought that continues to drive me to work towards the thought of core concepts and covering those thoroughly. How do you convince other teachers and driven parents and students to trust this idea vs. what has been?

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  1. Hi Louise,
    Thanks for digging into this topic. It needs more attention! In thinking about whether we should be covering a big swath of content or teaching students to think as scientists, I can't help but reflect on all the scientific breakthroughs that debunk or at least challenge what the world used to hold true. If we're only teaching students to memorize facts, and then the facts go and change on us, what have they really learned? In past years, I've had the good fortune to watch Nobel Laureates talk to high school students at the International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF). The esteemed scientists always emphasize the many unanswered questions that remain for future scientists to answer. (Dark matter--what the heck is it?!) I'm guessing that these great thinkers would encourage you to keep going for depth and keep pushing your students to value their curiosity. Our future depends on it.

  2. Louise,

    One of the things I would stress doing is to coordinate with those grades below you regarding what they teach. One problem that is endemic to education is curricular overlap. For example, why do we feel the need to teach the parts of speech in every grade? What if we built upon the knowledge from grade to grade and just required the students carry it over from year to year? I think we may be building a learned response (or non-response) on the part of the students by not holding them accountable for what they have been taught.

    Great post and great questions to think about.

  3. Thank you for the great comments.

    Suzie, I agree that this needs so much more attention. Bringing others on board is a fight, but one worth continuing to fight for.

    Patrick, I knew there was overlap, but until I sat down with students and asked them, I had no idea. They have been taught cells 5 of the last 7 years. This year, they created a voicethread defending their cell part, but we did not go over them in class, just a refresher as the processes we are discussing in class will dig deeper into things they have not discussed before.

    The fact that they have had PA history for the last 4 years is horrible. They hate it but they know nothing about the rest of the World. Is there an example out there of schools who have changed this?