In Praise of Teaching a Mile Wide

One of the favorite tropes of professional education is that teaching an inch wide but a mile deep is better than teaching a mile wide and an inch deep, where the former suggests fairly little content covered in extensive detail, and the latter is the opposite: a curriculum that favors quantity of content over depth. 

The idea is that the mile wide teaching confuses kids, goes too fast for them–in short, leaves them behind–without giving enough context for them to understand or care about what they’re learning.  Mile deep teaching, on the other hand, posits that choosing a smaller core of priority material, and teaching it with enough care to produce mastery, will help students become self-sufficient learners, and end up giving them more material in retention, anyway. 

This makes a lot of sense, and I used to subscribe to it.  I no longer do, though.

For one thing, I’ve never seen anything substantial to show me that mile deep teaching does, in fact, produce better comprehension and retention.  Like exercising any other muscle, there’s a limit reached fairly quickly, after which, you’re just burning what’s already there.  Most times, if a student hasn’t grasped something after a few days of class, they’re not likely to get it ever, even after a few months. 

Mile deep teaching, then, tends to be boring and condescending.  Students hate hearing about the same basic thing–even if you try to approach it from different angles or appeal to different “intelligences”–for more than a week. 

Mile wide teaching–which emphasizes quantity of material given at a faster pace–demands that students exert themselves to keep up, requiring better attendance and focus, lest they fall behind.  In that respect, it’s not only more exciting, as it necessarily invites more variety into lessons, but it strengthens character. 

Also, the nature of our world is such that it now contains an overwhelming amount of information, and as much as we might like to cherry pick a few choice elements and hope the rest will come another time, we can’t trust outside literacy or future educational opportunities to fill in fundamental holes–there’s just too much to cover. 

In my own area of concentration these past several years–American Literature–this means that we study more authors, and do more reading, but do not delve into more than the essentials of each.  Major subjects like this demand such a philosophy; they must become survey classes out of necessity.  I can’t justify spending a month on Puritan poetry or the Harlem Renaissance, or a semester on Transcendentalists or Colonial literature, if it means that I can only choose one or the other.  I feel a responsibility to expose students to as broad a range of the possible curriculum as possible.

Yes, I regret that I don’t get to spend more time getting into the nitty-gritty details of things I like, but in the real world, choices must be made in the name of priorities, and I see greater gains to be made in emphasizing breadth over depth. 

And it’s profoundly gratifying to make passing references to things in class, and then have students go out and find more about it on their own, and enthusiastically report back to you what they learned.  That’s what it’s all about.

2 comments on “In Praise of Teaching a Mile Wide

  1. But if you teach Am Lit a mile wide, they may actually find an author or genre they like. That opens many more windows than fighting your way through “The Old Man in the Sea”. (At least for me.) In my adult years, I have gone back and re-read Willa Cather and others because of a taste in HS Lit.

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