In a recent chat with a colleague, we were discussing a persistent perceived challenge when educators think about moving beyond lecture and direct instruction. When we learn about different approaches to teaching and learning, whether it be project-based learning, self-directed learning or the flipped classroom; we sometimes find ourselves continuing to struggle with a concern about not “covering everything.” The more I think about concern statement, the more I recognize how much meaning is packed in those five words, “I need to cover everything.”
What does it assume about the primary role of the teacher?
Is it to expose students to all the content in a textbook or course resources? Perhaps we see our role as introducing all ideas and at least leaving modest room for students to ask clarifying questions. Or, is our role to help students meet certain learning objectives? If it is the latter, then covering everything might prevent us from accomplishing our goal. This comes back to a frequent conversation about depth versus breadth. The interesting part is that the less depth required in a course, the less important the role of teacher. We can learn simple things by ourselves more easily than complex things. There are teacher-less learning experiences that help students get a breath of knowledge in an area. However, when one wants to progress toward deep knowledge, that often requires learning with and/or form others who have depth (by the way, the people of depth might be traditional teachers, authors, practitioners, or a combination of people; which is partly the vision behind project-based learning). I contend that teachers and facilitators are more valuable when depth of learning is the goal. If we just want breadth, then a few good videos, readings, quizzes, and/or computer-based instructional units work just fine for many learners.
Does covering everything result in breadth of knowledge?
I framed this as a breadth versus depth debate, but there is no certainty that covering everything in a set period of time (like an 8 or 16-week course) is the best way to achieve broad subject area knowledge for a group of learners. We may have institutional time restraints for a course, but we can’t disregard the restraints that exist in each learning, caused by developmental, attentional, social, emotional, and other factors.
What does this assume about the learner?
The statement seems to assume the role of learner as secondary to that of teacher. In reality, learner is the only essential role for learning (of course, good teachers help that learning take place). A statement about “covering everything” has no reference to individual learners. It is about covering content in the presence of a group of learners regardless of what each student learns from this covering. “Covering everything” does not help with the personalized and differentiated instruction that assists each learner to progress and find success.
What is everything?
We might be referring to all the content in the text(s). Or, is it more helpful to define “everything” as that which is necessary to meet the course objectives? Teachers often love their content and they know it well. We find it hard to think that some of our knowledge on the subject is not essential, so we find ourselves giving students everything. If we want students to be successful, then that requires serious consideration about what is essential for a given learner or group of learners at a set time. Too much too soon produces cognitive overload. Students shut down, get confused, or get overwhelmed; which reduces the amount and depth of learning. We may consider a certain body of knowledge to be critical in the class, but each learner has a different capacity for learning in a set period of time. Force more on learners and they get less out of the class.
Will exposure or engagement have the better long-term impact?
Which is likely to draw your longterm interest in and commitment to learning about a subject, reading 2-4 sentence summaries of hundreds of different historical events or learning deeply about a few of them? Which one is most likely to inspire one to embrace historical thinking as useful cognitive tool in life? Interview people about how they discovered their life’s passions and it rarely started with covering a subject. Instead, it came from something more experiential and immersive. The extent to which this is true varies by content and context, but the idea seems to hold up for most classroom contexts.
If the don’t get it now, will they ever learn it?
There is a sense of urgency that teachers sometimes bring to their classes. “If they don’t get this ‘stuff’ now, then they may never learn it.” Or, in an assessment-driven school system, there might be concern about students not being prepared for a major assessment and how that will reflect on the class and school. Again, this goes back to the point about what each student is capable of learning in a given period of time. Differentiation of time is an important factor when it comes to learning. Our sense of urgency does not change this fact.
What is the context?
With all this stated, there may be good reasons to cover everything in a particular learning context. Each context has distinct needs and demands, which is why I do not advocate for a one-size-fits-all approach to education. The context, purpose of school, course goals, and much more factor into these decisions.