Breadth and Depth in Education

The breadth versus depth debate is a pretty common one. Throughout secondary education you will hear the refrain over and over again that we should study fewer concepts, but study them deeper. I have no objection to studying a few concepts in great depth, but what I have noticed is that there seems to be a great deal of confusion over three things: (i) what a "concept" actually is in a humanities course; (ii) what the connection is between texts and the development of conceptual knowledge; and; (iii) the distinction between deep reading, by which I mean sustained intratextual criticism, and conceptual depth.

There has been a lot of writing on this issue lately, both in the popular media and elsewhere. One study receiving a great deal of attention declared that depth is unequivocally more important than breadth. It identified a strong correlation between the amount of time spent studying a topic and the performance of students in first-year university. It determined the breadth versus depth of their science education in senior secondary school by surveying the students about how many instructional days they spent on specific concepts in high school. To my mind there is a major problem with this study's conceptual design and the extent of its bold claims; Mainly, the conflation of depth with time spent on a subject is highly problematic. One could spend four weeks surface learning, drilling, re-drilling, memorizing and regurgitating to ensure student mastery and high results. One might ask relatively simple first-order questions during that time. There are just too many unknowns in this confusion of terms. Setting aside informant error and the possibly problematic conflation of time with depth, it raises important questions about studying a lot of different things rather than studying a few. But note what it refers to: concepts not texts. The Province of Alberta's Ministry of Education tackled the problem head on in a curriculum document in the mid 2000s. After a sustained and comprehensive survey of a number of academic studies and curriculums from around the world, the document concludes by encouraging educators to move from "surface learning, which tends to focus on fact finding and rote memorization, to concept-based inquiry [which] allows students to develop abstract thinking which causes them to think more deeply and in an inductive fashion. The universality of conceptual learning also has value beyond school, as students can see the relevance it has to them personally, to their community, to their country and to the world as a whole." Again notice that the discussion of depth focuses on the concepts investigated, not the texts used in their investigation. 

It does seem that less is more when we are speaking about conceptual knowledge and understanding, but it is as yet unclear how the number of texts, or resources used fits into this equation. Admittedly, I am a historian, and we have a curious understanding about the uses of texts when compared with our brethren in the humanities. We don't tend to wax poetic or philosophical over a single text. We use texts to access deeper understanding of overarching concepts and their individual multiplicity. This doesn't mean avoiding deep reading skills; It means that deep reading is only on tool available to us. This tendency is most explicit in historical methodologies, but should you venture to read any academic article in the humanities you will actually find the same implicit process at work. Most academic articles in English, for instance, will focus on one small portion, or aspect of a text, like Gatsby's parties. Typically, though, they do so to further understanding and knowledge about how Fitzgerald constructs gender, or how whiteness is performed. Without the ability to relate their investigation to broader conceptual questions that transcend disciplinary and institutional boundaries these studies would be relatively superficial and of limited interest. It is the conceptual self-awareness of the study that provides the depth befitting of academic merit. It is what allows the study to go beyond being interesting and to become an instance of knowledge creation. 

Yet, I am sometimes worried about the way we emphasize depth in secondary classrooms. Frequently it is done so in terms of core texts rather than overarching concepts. In my mind, this is a troubling misunderstanding of the issue. The depth versus breadth article widely quoted in the media didn't ask how many textbooks or resources the students used when studying concepts. In fact, what research we do have on that issue suggests that a variety of conceptually related, but diverse texts, fosters greater depth of understanding than a single text. To me, this suggests that we should be giving our students more texts, not fewer, but connecting them back to a small handful of overarching concepts like a few specific schools of literary criticism and an overarching issue for the course as a whole (i.e. isolation and community). Thus, the concept in English classes isn't The Great Gatsby; rich as that text may be, it isn't conceptual. It warrants a close reading, to be sure, but is not the basis of conceptual depth for students. Reading Gatsby and connecting it to a series of smaller texts that empahsize different parts of the book is the proper way to deepen conceptual knowledge. Core texts are the anchors we tie our concepts to, lest they float away; yet, all too often they are cofused for the concepts themselves.

Consequently, a rigid focus on intratextual analysis at the expense of intertextual analysis prior to grade twelve paradoxically ensures that students do not develop a depth of understanding even while engaged in close reading activities. A better approach is to decide what concepts you want to anchor within all of your core texts and to focus on reading them for those specific purposes while acknowledging that their are many other issues one could explore. This also means providing a rich array of conceptual texts to help model and develop student analysis along those chosen lines. For instance, one could just look at Hamlet for the tragic hero, or one might wish to explore it as a text that anticipates the numerous modern derivatives of the tragic hero, specifically the antihero and absurd hero. If studying the tragic hero alone, you would need many conceptualizations of it, not just the Aristotelean, to achieve any real depth of understanding through intertextual analysis. If studying the triumvirate I outlined, it immediately forces the student to read closely, weigh evidence and engage with overarching concepts. It is deeper because it understands the difference between texts and concepts and avoids conflating the two.

So while I know we can all get behind depth over breadth in matters of conceptual knowledge, lets also acknowledge that this depth in a particular concept involves encountering it in numerous iterations. This means that conceptual depth is partly a function of textual breadth. The issue isn't breadth versus depth, but how to use textual breadth properly to foster conceptual depth in the humanities.

© Braden Hutchinson 2014