Spreading Myself Too Thin? Why Pedagogical Master Planning Matters

Am I spreading myself too thin? More importantly, perhaps: Am I spreading my students too thin?

Lately, I’ve been giving some serious thought to this question. Beyond simple content coverage, there are so many things that I want to accomplish in my classroom, and every year, it seems, I add a new wrinkle or two. I come back from my summer adventures in professional development excited to try something I’ve learned, but I never seem to take anything off my plate.

In my American history classes, for instance, I now try (or have tried) to incorporate a year-long scholarly research project/paper, a class blog, (almost) daily Harkness discussions, explicit instruction in historical thinking, classroom community-building and experiential learning activities, project-/problem-based learning, and some form of public speaking.

I believe that all of these add to my students’ experience, and none of them has detracted significantly from my core commitments to critical exploration of the past and a focus on strong persuasive writing—at least not yet. I do fear, however, that I may be doing my students a slight disservice.

In some ways, my approach to educational methods runs counter to my approach to historical content. When it comes to content, I tend to favor a “less is more” approach, slowing down to explore smaller chunks of material but in much greater depth. As I reflect on all of the things I’ve added to my “pedagogical toolbox” over the years, though, it occurs to me that I have been emphasizing variety of experience over depth of engagement.

Would it not be better to pare down some of these things to give my students a clear, sustained focus and the opportunity to truly master one or two experiences? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I think it might.

The problem is, I find myself pulled in two directions at once: a somewhat traditional desire to focus on the things I do well—that is, historical thinking and clear written and verbal communication—and a nagging sense that education must evolve to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. To be sure, I believe that the things I do well are timeless in their importance, but that’s not to say they’re more important than the others.

These two roads are diverging in my proverbial yellow wood–which path should I choose? Again, I don’t know; I’ll have to keep wrestling with the question. (I suspect a lot of teachers are confronting similar concerns these days—at least, I hope they are.)

All of this said, I do think that this is one reason why Bo Adams’ exploration of “pedagogical master planning” is so attractive to me. I think all of my various approaches have merit, and I want my students to experience them all, so in the absence of a comprehensive master plan, I end up trying to do more than I can successfully handle. If I knew that students would encounter some of these things in other classes or in co-curricular/extra-curricular settings, I might feel less pressure to incorporate them into my class.

By establishing a master plan, then, schools could achieve a sort of “internal comparative advantage.” Teachers who are best equipped to provide students with Experience A are charged with doing so, while Experience B falls to those teachers who are best suited for that particular task. In the end, as I see it, the master plan would not be an exercise in administrative autocracy or classroom conformity, but rather an attempt to deploy a school’s resources–human, financial, natural, technological, etc.–in the most productive way possible. Students could enjoy a rich variety of educational experiences, and faculty would be freed up to focus on the things that they do best, all in pursuit of a cohesive common goal.

(Of course, it’s possible that I’ve totally misrepresented Bo’s ideas here, so I welcome his input. Either way, I look forward to reading Bo’s ideas on this topic as he continues to flesh them out.)

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