You can’t have your cake and eat it. Breadth versus depth.

I am an unashamed believer in the importance of teaching kids lots of stuff. You can’t think critically without wide-ranging knowledge of relevant detail, creativity comes from having seen and experienced a range of possibilities and broad knowledge is necessary for good comprehension.

I want my own children to study history, my subject, because to be truly educated you should have some familiarity with the past. Through history you learn about power and human motivation, human folly, changing values and can realise that moving forward is not always progress, that wisdom is not a preserve of the modern age. Our classes even tell us that through studying the past we learn from our mistakes – sounds possible.

I don’t need to justify my subject through unfounded claims that study will develop generic transferable skills. I don’t think a good grasp of history comes from bite sized chunks of the past chosen because they fit the term’s topic or from a series of thematic comparisons, plucking Hitler and Stalin from their contexts so students can draw up a comparative table and stage a debate. When Gove published his draft history curriculum many teachers on chat rooms scoffed at the chronological approach. Apparently, they argued, it is perfectly possible to teach ‘chronology’ without covering events in order. After a history degree and 20 years teaching I was actually unsure what they might mean by this disembodied concept ‘chronology’ if it didn’t involve  knowledge of change over time, within and between periods.

So why on earth was my first act as a new head of history, to slash the content in our KS3 course? Why did I search for a GCSE board that had fewer topics? Why did I sigh when I found out that apparently you make the new history GCSEs and A levels harder by expecting knowledge of a broader period?

Well it is because you can’t have your cake and eat it.  I have found that you can’t have great breadth and also any meaningful depth.

I don’t understand how some of the knowledge packed curriculums I read about really work. We all know what happens when you put too much in a curriculum. The kids learn none of it. Events merge in their minds in a blur. Tumble weed crosses the classroom when you ask a question on last week’s topic. Students don’t gain the satisfaction that comes from knowing they have mastery of the events.  They don’t enjoy your subject. There really does seem to be a critical moment when curriculum content reaches overload and then virtually none of it goes in. Our new IGCSE course covers fewer topics in greater depth and the consequence is obvious really. Students find it easier to absorb more of a topic they already know about because new detail can fit into an existing schema. They can also produce work of a much higher standard because they really know about the issues AND they actually remember what they have covered.

When I teach Weimar Germany and carefully build knowledge of ideas and concepts the job satisfaction is enormous. The story starts with the Kaiser and the Germany of 1914 and with this come dictatorship, revolution, democracy and communism. Then onto proportional representation, left and right wing and constitutions as we learn about the problems of the fledgling republic. We discuss how a state has power and why our country doesn’t have the same problems. I am the brick layer carefully placing every new slab of understanding with deliberate intent and care.  An interview candidate taught my class this week and, my God, the glow of satisfaction that came as I heard my class explain to him how Hitler exploited the German constitutional structure. They were pretty pleased with themselves as well. Admittedly, every moment isn’t that rosy but contrast that with our old GCSE course, a whistle stop tour through German history. “Sorry no time to stop, Stresemann today Hitler tomorrow, come on, keep up, what do you mean you don’t know what the Reichstag is? You know- that building that burnt down – but we’re onto the police state now.”

I have a tendency to assume that if things don’t add up it is because I have missed something or have weaknesses others have overcome. But, no, it really doesn’t add up. You can’t cram too much in. Yes, I have found regular testing definitely helps with knowledge acquisition and I am sure there are teachers that skilfully make each moment more memorable than I do. I suppose it partly depends on your priorities. I don’t like doing a job if I can’t do it well. Perhaps I am still influenced by my ultra-progressive training because I want written work to show great understanding and maybe a brief chronological outline is possible instead and enough of an achievement.

I don’t believe it is hopeless though. Breadth does not need to be entirely sacrificed. A chronological approach is achievable with some time for depth and our students could finish their schooling with a firmer knowledge of the past than they do now. However, in all subjects on the curriculum, let’s also be realistic and decide on the balance of our priorities. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

5 thoughts on “You can’t have your cake and eat it. Breadth versus depth.

  1. Again, I couldn’t agree more. Am currently wrestling my way through Tsarist Russia 1855-1917 and the USSR 1941-1991. Now these are not the biggest periods in history, but the first in particular means we seldom stop and explore the issues of the tsarist regime in any kind of dept. I have always been a big believer in the maxim that we can appreciate breadth through the depth. There seems to be a crazy notion that all kids can leave school with a good grasp of 2000 years of British history. I have a history degree and have been teaching for 9 years and still wouldn’t claim to have this fully in place. Most of the joy of history I find comes in studying something in depth. Of course, occasionally you need to look up and see what is happening, but Medicine Through Time? No thanks

  2. Hi Heather, I loved my History lessons and my teachers; they opened up a world that for me put the world in context and I think that in some ways History reaches students in a way far more effective than literature (loved this too, but most of my colleagues were bored stiff). I am intrigued that you mention iGCSE. Do you still teach the iGCSE at your school? I live abroad and have the option of putting my kids in a iGCSE school at primary level. However, I am worried about whether they will be able to move into the UK system with ease when we come back. I would appreciate any of your thoughts on the iGCSE, particularly the criticism that it is ‘easy’.

    Thanks, Viv

    1. IGCSEs are very similar to GCSEs and you don’t need to feel concern about them being easier. It isn’t quite like that. They contain more advanced content than many current GCSEs, especially in subjects like maths and science. In history they are not easier really, the history is harder. I explain sbout it here. IGCSEs are very similar to GCSEs and you don’t need to feel concern about them being easier. It isn’t quite like that. They contain more advanced content than many current GCSEs, especially in subjects like maths and science.
      I presume that if you are concerned sbot transfer to the English system you actively want your students to do IGCSE as it is so equivalent to GCSEs

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