Depth Over Breadth
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
One of the biggest challenges in education is that a crowded curriculum leads many teachers to choose content over pedagogy.
Dylan Wiliam in ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ highlights the problem.
“A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.”
To overcome this, we need to give permission to our teachers to teach less and go deeper.
How did we find ourselves in this position? Well, Senator Tudge, the Australian Federal Minister for Education, recently provided us all with a perfect example. A brief timeline:
Tudge proposed changes to the national curriculum without engaging with the teaching profession.
Educators took to social media to voice their displeasure at the proposed changes.
To remain tone deaf, Tudge blocked all and sundry, ensuring there is a disconnect between policy makers and the very people who put policy into practice.
Thus, the debate about what should be taught in schools has been front and centre again. Stay with me now! This piece isn’t going to be about politics, I’m already at my limit. Don’t get me started about Barnaby Joyce being Australia’s current Acting PM 😳
This isn’t the first time that the curriculum has been politicised, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. With the world enduring 18+ months of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and the media have used war metaphors to express the challenges society has faced. I understand it is a metaphor, but surely nothing compares to war. The education profession is unparalleled when it comes to such metaphors.
Tudge has rekindled the Curriculum Wars, or History Wars. We’ve also had the Maths Wars (1989), and of course the Reading Wars (dawn of time - ?). The wars in education are tiring. I mean the Reading Wars have been going on in an echo chamber for so long that it feels like it is rivalling the Hundred Years’ War (which interestingly actually went for 116 years). Enough to exhaust even the most bloody-minded warmonger. Perhaps it is the notion that teachers have all this spare time that leads to thinking they can teach anything and everything 🙄
Nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers need to be provided with more time to be able to develop deep curriculum.
The debate (not war!) in these curriculum areas has been important to have, but if it detracts from pedagogy and therefore learning, this is the last thing anyone wants.
On top of this I’m going to let you in on a little secret … no one teaches everything in the curriculum anyway.
So, what do we teach and how do we go about it?
Marzano writes about the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum and is quoted by Schmoker in his book, ‘Focus’:
“…the school can “guarantee” any parent or community member knows that an agreed-upon body of content and skills is indeed being taught by every teacher. Of importance is that this agreed-upon curriculum must be “viable”: it can’t contain more content than can be effectively taught within the time constraints of a nine-month school year (2003).”
I vividly remember when I was first shown how to develop rich units of curriculum that were guaranteed and viable. The unit was on poetry and the colleague who led me down this path, Keay Cobbin, has had the biggest influence on my career, and in many ways my life.
The development took place over two separate days. On the first day, myself as principal, the literacy coach, and Keay met with each team for an hour. We worked collaboratively and recorded our thoughts on chart paper as well as electronically in an agreed template. The focus was on what poetry forms will we explore, and what will be the anthology expectations? After school each team presented back to the rest of the staff. This highlighted our whole school approach, but we were also able to discuss our poetry scope and sequence. Were there any gaps between levels? Was there too much duplication between levels? Was there a graduated expectation on what was expected in a student’s completed poetry anthology?
The second day had the same format but was focused on a key question and building the unit. What do we want students to walk away with at the end of the year, and remember ten years from now about poetry? The answers to this question helped form the big ideas and goals for the unit. Other considerations:
Existing skills and understandings of the students
Knowledge and skills of teachers
Possible teaching focuses for each of the unit goals
How will we constantly check for understanding (formative assessment)?
Highlighting which aspects of the Victorian Curriculum the unit met
By investing the time and money we were on our path to a guaranteed and viable curriculum. The unit which was 20+ pages long, fed nicely into weekly and daily lesson plans. Teachers went into the 5 week unit the following term with a lot of clarity and increased knowledge about how to teach poetry. The most important thing though was that the students loved it, which led to teachers wanting to replicate the process with subsequent units.
It is 10 years on, and while I haven’t been there for 5 years, I know the school is still refining their curriculum and looking for ways to make it better. It’s never-ending!
Many educators ask for copies of such units. I oblige, but it comes with an asterisk. The best way to build quality curriculum in your school is to collaboratively develop your own units using the process outlined above.
It is common for schools to be more breadth than depth, but as you can see there is an alternate path available. In my experience schools that have deep, rich units of study are more likely to also have excellent pedagogy on display. Combined, they lead to excellent student outcomes, which is what drives us all.