A Mile Wide and a Mile Deep

A number of months ago I published a post in these pages about a fishing trip that I took last summer with three of my sons. It was a great experience that also offered me many lessons that pertain to my true passion: education.

One idea that I shared then was that educators need to "cast many lines" in order to effectively "hook" their students. For our trip, the crew cast a sizable number of fishing lines from all sides of our boat's rear. Some were thrown far out; others were weighted directly below the vessel. This reminded me of the fact that students have many different interests and abilities. What excites and stimulates one child may not engage another. Teachers who wish to draw all of their charges into the learning process need to consider the types of "hooks" that they should use in order to make the learning stimulating and meaningful.

Upon reflection, I realize that there is another lesson to be learned from the many lines that were cast. As noted above, some were hurled far distances from us. (We would catch two fish on those lines, called "punishers" because of the arduous work that is needed to reel in the catch.) Others were lowered directly below us, at varying depths. Throughout the morning, we followed fish activity around the boat with a special sonar tracking device. As fish made their way around and under the vessel, our crew tried to adjust the hook positions to bring the bait closer to the hoped-for catch.

The presence of both the "breadth" (i.e. distance) lines and their "depth" counterparts on the boat's deck was absolutely necessary. Each one served a distinct purpose and was needed in order to maximize the experience. But there were some natural tensions that went along with using them, such as making sure that the lines did not entangle, as well as determining just how many of each to cast. Both sets of lines were important and the crew needed to manage their resources in order to maximize the experience for their customers.

I believe that this same tension also exists for teachers. As educators, we want to expose our students to as much information as possible (what we might call educational breadth). We also feel compelled to "cover ground" in our quest to meet curricular demands. At the same time we want to go deeper, to probe further into the learning and give our students a richer experience than the superficial treatment that may otherwise experience.

If there was ever a time when teachers were well positioned to meet this challenge head-on, it is now. We have so many technological and multimedia tools at our disposal, including interactive educational programs, as well as videos and social media. These resources allow us to move faster than before, by offering different ways for students to intake information. They also give us more opportunity to go deeper, such as with the enhanced search capacity that we have today with Web 2.0.

Outside of increased technological integration, how else can we effectively walk the breadth-depth tightrope? How can we give more than meaningful lip service to both domains in order to ensure that our students are learning in the most robust manner possible? The following strategies may help:

  1. Map out each unit - Before beginning instruction map out all of your instructional goals. These should include how you intend to engage your students in each of the six levels of Bloom's taxonomy (original or updated versions). By identifying how and when you intend to go deeper in the learning, you can advance through the curriculum confident that the learning will not be overly superficial.
  2. Differentiate your content - Content differentiation is perhaps the most challenging component of differentiated instruction (DI). Teachers worry about having to craft multiple lessons for each content block and often do not realize that content differentiation can be easily achieved by going deeper in the learning. After using a pre-test to measure student knowledge and readiness, teachers can use Bloom's taxonomy to identify opportunities for more advanced students to explore the content at higher cognitive levels.
  3. Cut down on the note taking - One technique that I used effectively in my social studies classes was to cut down on how much note taking I expected from my students. The curriculum called for a study of many centuries of world history and I loathed the idea of having my high school students simply listen to lectures and take notes. I wanted the class to be interactive and for my students to learn more than basic historical information. In order to achieve this goal I gave my students a set of incomplete notes in the form of PowerPoint handouts (3 slides per page) and delivered the lesson using PowerPoint. Their job was to fill in the gaps and then participate in the cooperative learning tasks that I assigned with the time that we saved by not having to write cumbersome quantities of notes. Such assignments included role play, debate and other interactive tasks.

The tension between breadth and depth is one that will never go away, so long as there are strong curricular demands that we must adhere to. Using these techniques can help teachers better manage this conundrum in a manner that gives students the most rewarding learning experience possible.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at impactfulcoaching.com/blog.