Depth or Breadth? Yes, please!

“When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is a choice unto itself.”
~ William James, American Philosopher


The depth vs. breadth debate roils on in education.

The depth party says, “kids need to learn important big ideas deeply… make personal connections… apply the content.”

The breadth party says, “kids need to be exposed to a range of concepts and topics… they might need to know these things for test X/ college/ work… you have to be exposed to something multiple times before it really ‘clicks.”

What if they’re both right?

What if they’re both wrong?

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to pick a side!


When a student engages in a deep, rich project around a relevant real-world issue, problem or topic, they accomplish both – depth and breadth.

How is this possible?

Let’s look at an example:

My students just studied the issue of salmon and dams along the Columbia RiverĀ for 6 weeks in our 9th grade program (PBL integrating biology, English, and history).

Some would say, “Whoa! How do you have time to spend 6 weeks on one topic? And, where is salmon and dams in the standards, anyway?

To which I would first answer, “have you read the Washington State Science Standards?”


And second, here are just a few important science concepts students experienced in this project:

  • nutrient and water cycles
  • life cycles
  • energy production
  • species relationships and interactions
  • factors affecting population size
  • ecosystems
  • systems thinking
  • scientific inquiry
  • climate change
  • sexual reproduction
  • evolution
  • and much more…

We sure managed a lot of breadth in our depth, didn’t we?


In the end, the answer is not depth or breadth, necessarily. The answer is asking kids to wrestle with complex, messy, challenging real world topics. In doing this, they will need to develop an understanding of the relevant content knowledge and apply it in a way that is meaningful and memorable.

What is your opinion on depth vs. breadth?

Meaningful Grading

Note: This post is part of the Teaching 2.0 Masters in Curriculum and Instruction Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. My current classes are about Project Based Learning and Assessment.


For grades to be valuable, they must be meaningful to all stakeholders. Teachers, parents, administrators, and students all have a vested interest in the value of grades. However, the most important link in this chain – the student – is the one that is often forgotten. Grades affect the lives of students throughout their formal schooling experience. Grades color, and often taint, the way students perceive their school experience and, ultimately, themselves. Yet, by the time students reach me in high school, they have been conditioned to look at grades as reward and punishment for following orders, meeting deadlines, and guessing what is in the teacher’s head. As Susan Brookhart states in Grading and Learning: Practices that Support Student Achievement (2011), “As students progress through school, their dissatisfaction with and cynicism about grades increase and their belief in the fairness of grades declines (Evans & Engelberg, 1988).” Not only is this an unfortunate situation for student motivation and enjoyment of school, it can be detrimental to learning; “Grading policies that are intended to elicit student compliance are not conducive to the active pursuit of learning.” (Brookhart, 2011) Isn’t student learning the primary goal of education?

The Challenge
My challenge at the high school level is to break through these years of conditioning with a different approach to grading. I have found that this is a monumental challenge. Not only does a lone teacher diving into this battle on his own battle the inertia of years of conditioning, he also must swim against the current created by his colleagues who teach the other classes that each student is currently experiencing.

What I’ve Already Implemented
My answer to this challenge has been to strive to make grades as meaningful and as connected to student learning as possible. However, I have also endeavored to devalue grades in my classroom. I don’t give “points” for any task, activity, or assignment. Period. My gradebook is completely focused upon each project that my students engage in and the critical science standards aligned with that project. At the culmination of each project, I ask my students to self assess the quality of their project work and the level of standard attainment. This self assessment process includes a reflection on the project, a rubric, and a conference between myself and the student. At this conference, the student tells me what grade they feel they have earned and why. This process is repeated at the end of each semester with a semester portfolio and reflection, followed by a conference. This reflects the principle that, “grades for individual assignments should reflect the achievement demonstrated in the work. Grades for report cards should reflect the achievement demonstrated in the body of work for that report period.” (Brookhart, 2011)

Next Steps
My next step – and this may be the most challenging step – is to involve students more effectively in the identification of learning goals for each project and in determining methods for reaching those goals. I have done this at times with mixed results. That being said, I don’t know that I’ve ever done it effectively and intentionally enough. My plan is to hold discussions with my classes early in our upcoming projects about the ultimate end goal of the project and the required learning for said project. I will share the state standards with them and ask them to help me identify the ones that they most want to tackle within the project. We will discuss ways to meet those standards; both along the way and in the final product. I will spread this process out over several days in small doses in order to prevent student burnout with reading state standards. The next step will then be to discuss specific activities, lessons, etc. that they would like me to deliver in order to help them meet these goals that we have agreed upon. Finally, we will co-create a rubric for the final project that will help them to see the criteria upon which they will assess the quality of their learning and the final product of our project.

I believe that this process will also allow students to more effectively track their own learning throughout a project. This is an area that my students really struggle with. And yet, “long-term projects lend themselves to monitoring and feedback along the way before the final project is finished and graded.” (Brookhart, 2011). While I have made feedback and revision an important part of my classes, I have not yet settled on an effective process for students to track their own progress. Regular blog reflections and revisiting the project rubric have helped. That being said, I often feel that students don’t understand the goals upon which they are reflecting and self-assessing. Furthermore, I feel that many don’t see the value of or reasoning behind these goals. I am convinced that this will cease to be a problem if I bring them into the goal identification process from the beginning.

At the culmination of the project, students will go through the same portfolio, reflection, self-assessment and conference process that they have been experiencing thus far. However, I believe that this process will be much more meaningful for them when they have a deeper understanding of the learning goals within the project. I plan to pilot this process in my physics

My Element Project Reflection

Project Summary:

My chemistry students completed a project in which they selected an element to research and relate to themselves. They used Animoto to create videos about their element and themselves. Along the way we did several labs and class activities to help them learn about properties of elements, atomic structure, and the organization of the periodic table.

Student Work Samples:

Project Reflection:

This was a fairly “high-minded” project with a significant technology aspect. In the attempt to make it personal and relevant for my students I reached for the idea of connecting the element to yourself. This was very successful for some students at times. Others never really grasped the idea or did it in a shallow, passing manner. Overall, I think this project did much of what I had hoped it would do, although I still would like to revise it a bit for next year.

Project Strengths:

One of the greatest strengths of this project was the use of technology. The students really picked up Animoto quickly and made some engaging, fun products. These videos were much more engaging for the audience (fellow students) to watch than any other form of presentation I’ve had them do in the past about elements.

The personal connection caused them to think much more analytically about the properties of the element than when I’ve had kids do similar projects in the past. They were trying to find out the context for the “stats” that they looked up about their element to see if it related to them. For example, I had several conversations with students about boiling points of elements and what was a high or low boiling point and what that meant (an easy connection to temperment). Many students had to do additional research about the periodic table and other elements to put the facts about their element into context. That was certainly one of my central goals of this project.

I was pleasantly surprised about how personal and deep some students chose to make their connections. There was a lot of heartfelt applause in the classroom after some of these videos and I think a big part of that was respect for the risks that their peers took. I believe this project has impacted the community of our classroom in a very real and positive way. While impossible to quantify, that is a huge accomplishment in my mind.

I also heard a lot of rich content discussions between students during research time as they were learning about their elements. They would share interesting tidbits with each other, ask questions, explain, compare, make connections. I explained the concept of isotopes to a couple of students who asked and then heard those students explaining it to their peers later.

Students are very good about supporting each other with technology. Whenever I do a “high-tech” project with students, I can count on showing a few of them how to do something and then watch those few teach several others. This happens so naturally that they often don’t even realize that they’re doing it. The funny thing too is that they often have content discussions interwoven with their technology discussions. This type of learning is very hard to quantify but powerful nonetheless.

Project Weaknesses:

In spite of the successes, this project definitely had its weaknesses. The greatest weakness, in my opinion was that it became a bit of a “project-oriented learning” experience. In other words, we spent a few weeks doing labs, lessons, and in-class activities before my students selected an element and got down to work. In fact, because I told them that they needed to pick an element that described them in some way, that almost forced me to teach them a fair amount of content before they could make an informed element choice.

Another weakness of this project is that many students struggled to connect their element to themselves. Some made poor element choices that made their project much more difficult than it should have been for them. Many just weren’t sure how to make a connection between themselves and an element or didn’t want to be that transparent in public.

How I will change this project for the future:

I will try to find a way to help my students select their elements earlier in the project and take time throughout the project to make connections. For example, when we do a lab early in this project about the properties of several common elements, I will then ask the students to research those properties for their chosen element. This would be a way to interweave the content and the project more closely together.

I would like to better scaffold the personal connection part of this project as well. I actually had hoped to develop a collaboration with the 10/11 English teacher for this project but it didn’t come to fruition this year. My idea was for them to be writing a very personal and closely related essay at the same time that they are doing this project in chemistry. Assuming that will not be a part of this project next year, I will need to spend at least some time (homework?) getting them to be introspective and completing some sort of graphic organizer to help them compare to their element in a structured way (Venn diagram, maybe?).

Going Beyond Group Work to Authentic Student Collaboration

Note: This post is part of the Teaching 2.0 Masters in Curriculum and Instruction Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. My current classes are about Project Based Learning and Assessment.

This synthesis essay is intended to focus on group work and is based upon readings from Productive Group Work by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove


“…things can happen in a band, or any type of collaboration, that would not otherwise happen.” ~ Jim Coleman, American Actor


Authentic student collaboration is the Holy Grail of classroom teaching, elusive as a double rainbow. In the pursuit of this goal, we are tempted to settle for productive group work as the best we can do. While better than having students sit silently in rows working independently, this watered down collaboration should not be the ideal.

My primary criticism of Productive Group Work (the book) is that the examples given were very simplistic and mostly derivative of fairly traditional classroom structures and teaching methods. That being said, I think the authors did this intentionally to try to move the dinosaurs a few steps in the right direction. For one already using group work in his or her classes, the examples were minimally helpful. That being said, the key tenets served as good reminders of things I already knew – with some useful gems sprinkled in here and there to boot.

The foundation of Productive Group Work is Johnson and Johnson’s (1975) five principles for making cooperative learning successful: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small-group skills, and group processing. With these broadly applicable principles, I find no quarrel.

However, in Frey, et. Al.’s treatment of these principles I found a major disconnect. The classroom example (Cube-It) that they chose to use here was so simplistic and teacher centered that it grated on me. In fact, I realized that the example used in this chapter is why I quit reading this book when I first received it from ASCD.

With that said, I found the rest of the book to be mostly enjoyable and I felt that I learned some new ideas and structures from it while being remembered of other good things that I had forgotten. The prompts and reflective questions that they provided are an outstanding resource that I will definitely make use of. There are a few of them that I would like to turn in to a student handout and/ or a poster for my classroom (Language of Learning, Common Interpersonal Skills, Active Listening Techniques, Discussion Starters).

I also appreciated the heavy emphasis on reflection and the importance of group processing. I have become increasingly focused on student reflection in my classes and enjoyed the take that Frey, et. Al. brough to the table. Their treatment of group processing, in particular, gave me some new methods to implement. For example, the “roundtable activity” is one I plan to use in my classes immediately.

One key idea was the importance of having students maintain learning logs for group and individual reflections. By keeping  a learning log and referring to it at reflection times, I believe my students would be more likely to “keep the thread” of the project and further reaffirm the learning that they have already done.

Finally, although I have had students complete self monitoring questionnaires, I’ve not used them as part of a group processing structure. I could envision this being a regular part of the reflection process in my classes.

I could see a typical reflection day during a group project going like this: first, students use a self monitoring questionnaire to evaluate their personal and group efficacy for the prior week; second, students get out their learning logs and engage in a roundtable activity to “debrief” recent activities and learning; third, each student gets on his or her blog to reflect on their learning and group/ individual activities for the past week.

Frey, Fisher and Everlove missed a real opportunity with this book. They could have pushed for teachers to take their students to the next level of group work – authentic collaboration. I define this as when students work together to create (or support each other in the creation of) a high quality product with genuine value. When the students care about the outcome of this product and are committed to its success, authentic collaboration can take place. This collaboration can be formal (co-creating a product) or informal (ad hoc peer critique).

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly collaborative; whether in the workplace, school, or creative spaces.

If we do not prepare our students for this world in the most authentic way possible, we are doing them a disservice.



The importance of intentionality

“Ultimately, human intentionality is the most powerful evolutionary force on this planet.”

~George B. Leonard (American author b.1923)

Next time I have the opportunity to talk to a new or pre-service teacher about improving their teaching (like tomorrow in my PLC), I will give them the following 2 thoughts to consider:

#1 – Reflection

You will do a lot of good things and a lot of not so good ones as a new teacher. This is normal and perfectly acceptable. Reflect on the good and the bad in order to shift the balance in favor of the good. This is a gradual process that will frustrate you with its glacial pace.

#2 – Intentionality

The greatest difference between a novice teacher and an expert is not necessarily skill or knowledge but intentionality. A novice teacher does things – good and bad – by accident. A master teacher does good things intentionally to achieve the desired end.

Caveat – the best way to shift from novice to expert, from accident to intention is reflection (see #1, above).