Feature

Less is More: Teaching for Deep Understanding

Kat McAdie and Ken Leithwood

Teaching for Deep Understanding is a call for curriculum reform in Ontario. It is our response to the concerns of our members about the Ontario curriculum. We hope our work provokes deep and thoughtful discussion about the Ontario curriculum that we need.

At the 2002 ETFO Annual Meeting, members directed the federation to study the suitability of the curriculum. They hoped to encourage the government to create a curriculum for elementary students that better fit their needs and the needs of society.

In response, ETFO approached faculty at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Together, we set out to better understand the source of teachers’ concerns and to find ways of addressing the causes of those concerns.

Eight years of upheaval

From 1995 to 2003, Ontario’s education system was subjected to tumultuous change. The Conservative governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves introduced a new funding formula and cut the overall funding for education. The government forced the amalgamation of school boards and took principals and vice-principals out of teacher unions.

Politicians questioned teacher professionalism. The College of Teachers was created. The government introduced teacher recertification and performance appraisal and, at the same time, cut the number of teacher professional development days.

Students also felt the brunt of an emphasis on standardization. Standardized testing began for every pupil in grades 3 and 6 and teachers were required to fill out a standard provincial report card. The government reduced the number of years of schooling by a year, and introduced a new, “speeded up” curriculum-a standard curriculum with specific expectations for each subject for each grade.

The impact of some of these changes was quickly apparent. Gaining access to resources was one of the first challenges to emerge: ETFO members said teaching had become more difficult owing to cuts to support staff and resources, increases in class size, and a loss of specialist teachers.

Over time problems with the curriculum itself began to appear. For example, critical areas, such as equity, are missing from the curriculum.

At the 2002 ETFO Annual Meeting, members directed the federation to study the suitability of the curriculum. They hoped to encourage the government to create a curriculum for elementary students that better fit their needs and the needs of society.

In response, ETFO approached faculty at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Together, we set out to better understand the source of teachers’ concerns and to find ways of addressing the causes of those concerns.

Eight years of upheaval

From 1995 to 2003, Ontario’s education system was subjected to tumultuous change. The Conservative governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves introduced a new funding formula and cut the overall funding for education. The government forced the amalgamation of school boards and took principals and vice-principals out of teacher unions.

Politicians questioned teacher professionalism. The College of Teachers was created. The government introduced teacher recertification and performance appraisal and, at the same time, cut the number of teacher professional development days.

Students also felt the brunt of an emphasis on standardization. Standardized testing began for every pupil in grades 3 and 6 and teachers were required to fill out a standard provincial report card. The government reduced the number of years of schooling by a year, and introduced a new, “speeded up” curriculum-a standard curriculum with specific expectations for each subject for each grade.

The impact of some of these changes was quickly apparent. Gaining access to resources was one of the first challenges to emerge: ETFO members said teaching had become more difficult owing to cuts to support staff and resources, increases in class size, and a loss of specialist teachers.

Over time problems with the curriculum itself began to appear. For example, critical areas, such as equity, are missing from the curriculum.

A mile wide and an inch deep

The Ontario curriculum, unfortunately, is very much like those in many other jurisdictions. All students are expected to follow the same curriculum, one that urges coverage of a blizzard of specific “expectations”—almost 4,000 for students from grade 1 to 8, an average of 500 per year. This means students are learning a little bit about a lot of different subject areas—it is a curriculum that promotes memory work and rote learning, emphasizing coverage rather than understanding.

This approach qualifies the Ontario curriculum for elementary schools for charter membership in the “mile wide, inch deep” club. There are many members of this club in the United States, where the “mile wide, inch deep” curriculum is coupled with an emphasis on testing. We believe that this approach to teaching and learning in our schools is ultimately self-defeating.

This kind of curriculum is not the most efficient or most effective means for developing basic skills, and it actually stands in the way of developing the more complex outcomes we aspire to for our children. A more lasting and equitable approach would ensure that all students are encouraged to be critical thinkers, to develop skills that go beyond the specific curriculum.

Our research has convinced us that we need a quite different alternative, one that values and promotes deep understanding as the overarching goal for public education in the province.

We make our case for this alternative based on six straightforward claims:

  1. Many specific facts have a very short lifespan.
  2. You don’t need to sacrifice good test results when you teach for deep understanding.
  3. The experience of deeply understanding something encourages further learning.
  4. Most real-life tasks require serious, self- directed problem solving.
  5. The broader context of our lives places a premium on deep understanding for survival.
  6. The alternatives are not very compelling. If not deep understanding, then what?

Contributions from the OISE/UT research community

We invited 20 faculty members at OISE/UT to summarize the results of their research. The resulting chapters form an amazing collection of some of the best thinking and research on what it means to teach for deep understanding in selected areas of the curriculum, as well as across the disciplines.

Carl Bereiter was one of the first to jump in with his “Reflections on ‘depth.’” While it may sound circular, he maintains that “deep understanding means understanding ‘deep’ things about the object in question.” He goes on to say, “Depth has two opposites: superficiality and breadth.” And he observes, “Superficiality is the inevitable consequence of too much to learn in the time available.”

Clive Beck and Clare Kosnik describe a “constructivist” view of learning, providing an account of the cognitive, emotional, and social processes involved in learning and what that means for instruction. In coming to a deep understanding of something, students need to make connections with their experiences, values, and the content of the thing to be learned - to construct their learning within their own context.

We have chapters on teaching for deep understanding in many of the disciplines—including mathematics, literacy and literature, science and technology, social studies, and drama and the arts.

An additional set of chapters examines these issues across the curriculum—through such lenses as diversity in language and culture, character development, technology, knowledge building, and classroom assessment.

In each chapter we give teachers some questions to ask about their classrooms or their instruction, and provide some implications for teaching. We hope that teachers do not just read the chapters, but work with them, asking themselves other questions, reflecting on how this would describe or change their classrooms.

Asking teachers about their experience

An integral part of our project was a survey of ETFO teacher members. We asked a random sample of teachers for their opinions and experiences in teaching in Ontario’s public elementary schools. Over 900 surveys were returned, a 35 percent response rate.

We found out that many teachers are not able to cover the current curriculum at any grade level in any subject area. Junior teachers reported the most challenge. And almost two-thirds of teachers report assigning more homework than they would like in response to the excessive demands for coverage.

But we also found that, overall, teachers agree with and use instruction practices that promote teaching for deep understanding - they use collaborative activities, encourage discussion, and engage students to look beyond the discipline area to prior knowledge, other subjects, and their own experiences.

Public elementary teachers are for the most part committed to teaching for deep understanding. Improvements in curriculum and assessment policies, and in key working conditions would increase their ability to do so.

Recommendations for curriculum reform

Together, these chapters guided us in making recommendations for the future of Ontario’s elementary schools. Recommendations are made for the classroom, for the school, for school districts, for provincial policy makers, and for teacher education faculties.

These recommendations include the following:

  • decreasing the number of curriculum expectations
  • ensuring that classroom instruction builds on students’ ideas and experiences
  • building strong professional learning communities in our schools in which teachers and other professionals work together to improve student learning
  • ensuring that school districts provide access to high-quality professional development.

There are 17 recommendations in all, not an unwieldy number by any means (considerably fewer than 4000).

We believe that now is the right time to make positive changes to our education system, changes that will benefit all students and allow teachers to really teach for deep understanding. Indeed, the current government has already indicated its intentions to make improvements - for example, its initiatives around smaller classes in the primary grades.

Together, ETFO and OISE/UT can make a stronger contribution to the education system in Ontario, working to ensure that all students are ready to meet the challenges that lie before them, and to take their places in our knowledge society.

Pat McAdie is a research officer with ETFO. Dr. Kenneth Leithwood is a professor of educational leadership and policy at OISE/UT.