Can More Be Less?

The Depth-Breadth Dilemma in Teaching American History

Bruce A. VanSledright

In separate schools five miles apart in a large, urbanized Maryland school district, two classes of ethnically-diverse eighth graders studied the colonization of North America by the French and the English. Both were taught by veteran teachers with 18 years of experience. Nancy Kerwin (a pseudonym, as are all identifying names that follow) led her students through 38 sessions over eight weeks, primarily exploring the settlement of the original 13 English colonies. Bob Jansen was more parsimonious, offering his version of the period of colonization in 20 class periods. At heart, these two teachers' approaches to enacting the curriculum epitomize different views of structuring history for the classroom rooted in differing conceptions of how to provide coverage with depth.
The curricular pattern in Kerwin's class involved following three textbook chapters, one each on the early Jamestown and Plymouth colonies, and the last on the later Northern, Middle and Southern colonies. The unit began with Roanoke, examined the workings of the joint stock company in Jamestown, traced the birth of the colonial Virginia legislature, and ended up focusing on Williamsburg. All told, about two-thirds of the unit dealt with Virginia, with the remainder focused primarily on the growth of the New England colonies.

Kerwin assigned activity sheets to help students condense what they were reading in the textbook, and for use as study guides for assessments. Students, individually or in groups, spent much class time working on these sheets, which were sometimes assigned as homework. Occasionally, Kerwin would provide a lecture/explanation of a concept or colonial practice she thought her students found difficult (e.g., joint stock company). She used a different approach for the last chapter, assigning small groups of students to prepare reports on a colonial region, or colonies within it, for presentation to the class.

For the most part, Kerwin's students confronted a detailed stream of facts and textbook interpretations about colonial life and developments from 1607 to 1750. In many ways, she appeared to be postholing, the practice of focusing in depth on a particular aspect of history for an extended time.

Jansen led his students across the same colonial terrain in half the time, and appeared to push his students harder. He employed a discipline-based structure that centered on the evolution and development of colonial economics, government, and sociocultural life by region. For example, in considering economic change, he wove in the development of slave labor in the colonies, something encountered by Kerwin's students briefly in the textbook, but not discussed as part of colonial economics. Jansen's students used the same textbook as Kerwin's (The American People),1 but only as a resource for research activities. Jansen relied on a variety of handouts that he had constructed himself, some contained directions for in-class activities, some were outlines to facilitate lecture/discussions, while others contained diagrams or maps (for example, of the "triangular trade route" used by the British during this period).

Jansen was more drawn to historical concepts than to chronology. Like Kerwin, he provided coverage of the period, but his was a different version of depth, one constructed around a disciplinary matrix that considered regional colonial development in the context of changing economics, politics, and sociocultural life.

Inside the Two Classrooms
To illustrate these differences, consider each teacher's representation of colonial self rule. Two days prior to her fifteenth lesson, Kerwin passed out a three-page outline she had prepared corresponding to two textbook sections on the settlement of Virginia. Students were to fill in this outline as they read the sections on "Changes and Reforms" and "New Troubles for the Company." Treatment of the House of Burgesses followed subsections on indentured servitude and the headwright system in the text. Kerwin placed parenthetical questions such as "So what?", "How large?", and "Why important?" next to various headings. Lesson 15 was devoted to a review of this reading that included the following exchange:
Kerwin: All right. What was the House of Burgesses? Marcos?
Marcos: A body selected by the people.
Kerwin: Yes, The House of Burgesses is very much like our Congress today. Those of you who have been to Williamsburg have seen the capital building there. (Kerwin draws an H-shaped diagram on the board to show how the building was configured and the locations of the bicameral legislatures it housed.) In order to be elected, you needed to be male and own land. Ladies, we were gypped again. (Kerwin explains to a somewhat restless group that there was a rich and a poor side, the Governor's Council of the General Assembly being the rich and the House of Burgesses being the poor. She notes that the two bodies had to work together to make laws for Virginia.)
Student: Did they build the conference room off the ground?
Kerwin: Yes, it was on the second floor.
Student: Why did they move the capital to Williamsburg?
Kerwin: What do you think, class?
Student: It was too swampy around Jamestown.
Kerwin: That's right. They were trying to avoid flooding and mosquitoes, so they moved it five miles inland to higher ground.
Kerwin (returning to discussion of the General Assembly): Let's go back a minute. Could the members of the General Assembly just go to Williamsburg and leave their affairs unattended?
Students: No.
(Kerwin finishes this treatment of the General Assembly by explaining how it met only when there was business to conduct. The next topic outlined by chronological treatment dealt with the tidewater Native Americans who had conflicts with the Virginians.)

This was the extent of student encounters with the House of Burgesses, and largely the extent of their exposure to colonial self-rule in class. Only in one of the group presentations, that which covered the Georgia colony, were governmental practices again discussed.

In Jansen's classroom, on the other hand, lesson 16 was the kickoff for a three-lesson treatment of colonial self-rule. In that lesson, students received index cards bearing such words as Magna Carta, Virginia House of Burgesses, Mayflower Compact, and Toleration Act. Jansen explained to students that each term represented both an "institution and a document." Students were placed in groups of three and asked to use a textbook (several were available on the shelves) to find the date of their "document" and describe the significance of the "institution" the document had helped to create. Jansen gave students a good share of the period to work on this task. In lesson 17, the class reviewed what they had discovered as follows:

Jansen: Okay, open your notebooks. You will have to help me make sense of how our current government comes out of this colonial period. Who has the first document about colonial self-government? (Students had been asked to place documents in chronological order.)
Student: I do. The Magna Carta of 1215. (Jansen writes it on the overhead.)
Jansen: (provides some brief background on the document and defines the Latin words as a "great charter" forced on King John by English barons) Sammy, what was its significance?
Sammy: It was one of the first documents to limit a king's power.
Jansen: (provides more background, alluding in the process to the Robin Hood story) What does it say exactly, Sammy?
Sammy: It requires the king to follow the law and it says that you are innocent until proven guilty.
Jansen: And it also requires a trial by jury. This is one of the first steps toward democracy, the whole idea of rule by law, and [that] no one is any better than others in the face of the law. Why is it important for our understanding of the growth of democracy that the Magna Carta happened in England?
Student: Because the English colonies [sic] brought some of these ideas with them.
Jansen: Yes, and they built them into their colonial governments as we will see. Okay, what's next?
Student: The House of Burgesses in 1619. (Jansen writes this on the overhead and indicates next to it that it was the first representative government in the colonies.)
Jansen: What do we mean by representative government?
Student: When the average people can send people they elect to give their ideas in government. That way people have a say.
Jansen: Why is representative government important?
Student: When you have it, not just one person has all the power. The power is shared.
Jansen: What did they talk about in the House of Burgesses?
Student: They made laws for Virginia, like about tobacco and stuff like that.
Jansen: Did you know that you had to be male and a landowner to be a member? So it really wasn't an even distribution of power was it? Who was left out?
Student: Slaves, women, the poor people.
Jansen: That's right. So we don't have full democracy yet in the colonies. In fact, it took a long time to get a more full democracy. Okay, what's next?
Student: The Mayflower Compact, 1628.
The class continued in this vein, identifying in chronological sequence and then discussing each of the items Jansen had given them to research (others included the Petition of Rights of 1628, the Toleration Act of 1649, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the Albany Plan of Union of 1754). Jansen asked students questions directed at connecting each seedling law or act to the form of representative government found in the United States today. He also stressed their derivations from English law where relevant. Despite their being separated chronologically by over 500 years, all of these documents were pulled into one thematic story centering on Jansen's idea of the birth of democracy.

In lesson 18, Jansen continued the discussion. It led to an examination of bicameral legislatures and separation of powers as they evolved in different ways by colonial region. By representing colonial government as one subsection of the larger unit, Jansen provided reasonably deep treatment of the topic in a fairly short time span, while also giving it a schematic structure.

As these illustrations suggest, the two teachers favored quite different structural representations of history. Kerwin operated primarily from a chronological frame of reference. She was careful to follow the evolutionary growth of the colonies from Jamestown and Plymouth, to the expansion of Virginia and New England, to further developments in the Middle and Southern colonies. Historical events gave substance to this linear change, and change was progress, despite temporary setbacks such as Roanoke. One needed the flood of details to account for the change in colonial development, and students were to master this detail-laden set of colonial stories. This was depth study by Kerwin's lights.

In contrast, Jansen operated from a dual frame of reference. While chronology served as an implicit guide for the story he wished to convey, this story was actually structured around metaphorical "chapters" on social life, economic change, and political/governmental developments. The subfocus of these larger structures was colonial regional differences. To watch Jansen teach was to follow a series of exercises in which he appeared to think from a 3x3 matrix with Northern, Middle, and Southern colonies across the horizontal axis and social-cultural life, economics, and government down the vertical axis. In effect, students were invited to recreate this representational structure in their heads.

Two cases, two different approaches to depth, one a detailed and chronological approach, the other a disciplined-based matrix structure with chronological and regional evolutions as a backdrop. The former required twice as much classroom time as the latter, yet provided a rich panoply of details and historical events for students to consider. The latter overlaid a second structure on chronology in an effort to create a framework to aid memory of the period; but as a consequence, it also left a number of historical details and events unexamined.2

Depth vs. Breadth and Curriculum Reform
History teachers currently are faced with a barrage of educational reform documents. The curriculum standards movement at the center of these reforms has unleashed at least two sets of recommendations, one from the National Center for History in the Schools,3 the other from National Council for the Social Studies.4 States also have been revising their curriculum standards in light of this reform impulse. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards5 has circulated a draft of "Social Studies-History Standards for Board Certification" that by all indications raises the bar for excellent history teaching to new heights. There is also much scholarly talk of teaching for understanding as a theoretical mantelpiece for reform. Meanwhile, teachers are tugged at (again) by reports of the low scores students received on the 1994 U.S. History National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.
One facet embedded in all these reforms-the depth vs. breadth issue-figures prominently in the curriculum decisions of history teachers. On the one hand, consideration of historical episodes in depth breathes life into the past and is pivotal to the development of understanding. On the other hand, detailing the vicissitudes of chronological change over large expanses of time remains central to students' understanding of historical context. However, the sheer weight of all the events one might consider in learning about historical chronological evolution threatens to overwhelm students and teachers alike. Choices must be made about what to foreground and background, and these choices are not easy.

As curricular-instructional gatekeepers,6 teachers stand in the middle of decisions about historical significance, as they enact the curriculum and construct learning opportunities that help students understand the past. But given the inherent difficulties in making these choices, what is to guide history teachers' decisions? The textbook? The district curriculum guide? Case studies from the research literature? Lone professional judgment?

One answer might be contained within the teaching-for-understanding literature. There, the current call is for establishing depth even at the expense of breadth in the teaching of history.7 For example, following a lengthy review of teaching and learning in the field of social studies, Brophy described his view of teaching for understanding.

Rather than give shallow coverage to everything within a domain of knowledge, I would stress major principles and generalizations and focus in depth on a few examples chosen either because they were prototypical representations of important principles and generalizations or because they provided a good contrast to the examples that are most familiar to students in the United States. In studying a country's history, for example, I would emphasize the basic economic, social, or political forces that have shaped its development (not just the chronology of noteworthy events), linking these to discipline-based concepts, generalizations, or principles (such as colonization or modernization).8
But despite their surface appeal, calls for depth over breadth may raise more questions than they answer. In what follows, I explore three questions fundamental to the depth-breadth issue with the two eighth-grade teachers, Kerwin and Jansen, as the backdrop.

How might history teachers enact the curriculum to develop historical representations that would approach a focus on depth, but not at the expense of building a historical context offered by a sense of chronology?

Many school districts persist in requiring broad-based survey coverage in their curriculum architectures, and this was no less the case with these two teachers. Each battled the clock as they deferred to district curriculum demands and the county and state assessments that reinforced them.

Given this dilemma-laden context, developing historical representations that use chronological frameworks but go beyond focusing on them unidimensionally offers the possibility of a more efficient way to steer a potentially bloated history curriculum through the classroom. Although it might be argued that Kerwin's chronologically-detailed treatment of the unit went deeper into the history of the period, it nonetheless afforded her no effective method (except perhaps deferring to the textbook) for choosing which details to include and which to leave out. Over the course of almost eight weeks, details and events folded into and over one another in a steady, potentially confusing stream.

Adding another structural layer (e.g., sociocultural, economic, and governmental dimensions), as Jansen did, provided a framework in which to trace developments across time. In effect, he produced a series of relatively compact schemas for containing the virtually

endless spread of historical details and events. What might have been added was a third causally-oriented structure-for example, connecting economic developments with political and social life-to produce even tighter webs of meaning. Chronology alone appears to be a necessary but insufficient requirement for depth study. Vivid and interleaved organized structures of the sort used by Jansen hold more promise for creating depth of understanding.

What do history teachers need to know about representing history in the classroom to pursue historical study in depth?

Interviews conducted with each teacher revealed that Kerwin actually was teaching outside her disciplinary concentration of geography, although she had enough history courses to be certified to teach American history. Jansen's collegiate major and specialty was American history, although he had also taken a smattering of social studies courses to satisfy certification requirements. He continued to read in American history, while Kerwin read in geography and was especially interested in travel literature.

To the extent that knowledge of a discipline makes a difference in how one represents it,9 Jansen held an important advantage that may help account for the additional structural dimensions he brought to the unit organization. In informal interviews near the end of the unit, he explained that he had favored the discipline-based, matrix-like structure since the mid 1980s, when his continued reading of American history helped him to see how some historians used such "thematic" approaches. This would suggest the importance of the relationship between deep subject matter knowledge and structuring classroom representations of the past. Possessing a deep understanding of the content one will teach helps to provide a rich array of principled, structural representations useful in depth study.

Do depth studies, as they imply, necessarily consume more valuable classroom time and thereby shortchange efforts at providing chronological coherence?

Jansen took less time with the unit than did Kerwin, yet may have provided richer and more memorable sets of representations. However, there are limits to the efficiencies that such structures provide. For example, what do novice learners need to know to make sense of the structures that Jansen provided? What types of scaffolding are necessary to provide meaning for discipline-based frameworks? How much time does it take to fully develop them? Did Jansen spend enough time?

The richer and deeper historical representations are, and the more conceptually interwoven they appear to learners, the more likely they will be to amplify understanding. How much time it takes to embellish these structures to increase understanding depends on learners and the prior knowledge at their disposal. Most likely, this issue of detail and structural representation will continue to be a difficult one for history teachers interested in approaches to depth.

Pursuing depth in historical study appears to be a worthwhile goal. These two cases suggest that there may be a variety of ways to accomplish it, many worth exploring. However, each approach is not without its trade-offs and decisionmaking dilemmas. Exacerbating the struggle are curriculum architectures that fail to support depth treatments, opting for broad survey coverage and mastery of facts. A second concern is what needs to be known about the discipline of history, and of particular periods and topics, in order to make principled choices about structuring representations to provide depth of understanding. Last, the nature of students' prior knowledge must not be overlooked. These are complex issues that require more than exhortations from reform advocates. They will need concerted empirical research along with continued experimentation in classrooms by intrepid history teachers who are supported by savvy supervisors and curriculum policymakers.

1 Pauline Maier, The American People (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1986).
2 Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).
3 National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for U.S. History: Exploring the American Experience (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1994).
4 National Council for the Social Studies, "Ten Thematic Strands in Social Studies" in Social Education 58 (October 1994), 365-368.
5 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Social Studies-History (Draft): Standards for National Board Certification (Detroit: Author, 1994).
6 Stephen Thornton, "Teacher as Curricular-Instructional Gatekeeper in Social Studies" in James Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 237-248.
7 See Paul Gagnon, ed., Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in the Schools (Washington, DC: Educational Excellence network, 1989).
8 Jere Brophy, "Teaching Social Studies for Understanding and Higher Order Applications," The Elementary School Journal 90 (1990), 351-417.
9 Bruce A. VanSledright, "Studying Colonization in Eighth Grade: What Can It Teach Us About the Learning Context of Current Reforms?" in Theory and Research in Education 24 (1996), 107-145; Suzanne Wilson, "Parades of Facts, Stories of the Past: What Do Novice History Teachers Need to Know?" in Mary M. Kennedy (ed.), Teaching Academic Subjects to Diverse Learners (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991), 99-116; Suzanne Wilson and Samuel Wineburg, "Wrinkles in Time and Place: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers" in American Educational Research Journal 30 (1993), 729-769.

Bruce A. VanSledright is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland at College Park.
This work was sponsored in part by a grant from the General Research Board of the University of Maryland at College Park. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the position, policy, or endorsement of the Board. The author wishes to thank Lisa Frankes, at the time of the study a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland, for her help during the data collection phase of this research, and S.G. Grant and Stephen Thornton for helpful remarks on an earlier version of this paper. Portions of this paper were presented in April, 1995, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, CA.