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?

4 thoughts on “Depth or Breadth? Yes, please!

  1. I get it and, yes, it makes sense! So by doing a project that takes weeks you give students time for depth while at the same time the very relevance of the project provides the many topics that give students breadth as well! And on top of that students have some choice as to other topics they might be learning along the way as well. Not to mention any writing, reading, communication, presentation and tech skills they need to complete the project.

    I vote both as well! :)

  2. Mr. Rice,
    I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I found this post to be quite interesting. I also feel that one shouldn’t have to choose either breadth or depth when teaching their students. Why can’t students experience both? I think that being able to cover salmon and dams for six weeks is incredible. Your students got to experience depth, while also having breadth as well because you all covered a lot of different science concepts in these weeks.

  3. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I did not understand this post at first, but I had to read it again to comprehend what it is truly saying. I agree with the way you studied the same things for 6 weeks. This way will help the students with the depth and breath parts of the subject. I wish my teachers were worried about if we would actually retain what we learned for longer than just for the test.

  4. The push in education right now is clearly on the side of breadth. I think kids need some of each but I fall much more strongly on the side of depth!

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