Strategies For Teaching Breadth AND Depth In Humanities

Photo by  Nicolas Tissot

I’ve joked here and in person about how much content I was expected to teach when I was working as a world history teacher. But I also sometimes point out that the same year that I managed to teach 10 units using the content that spanned 20 chapters, the other world history teacher at my school taught 3 chapters. All year.

This illustrates a few issues, but the question that this post addresses is how to teach both breadth and depth in a humanities class. In my own classroom, I like to teach topical issues that are all connected through common themes. But what I do in my classroom is not necessarily what another teacher would choose to do. Here I present a few strategies to consider when teaching for both breadth AND depth.

Pique Student Curiosity

It’s important to remember that as the teacher, you are by no means the sole source of information for your students. That’s why it is important to pique student curiosity in a topic so that they will want to continue learning on their own. If you need to teach a set of well-defined standards, you can venture to tangential subjects when teaching related current events or when building skills such as participating in class discussions and practicing civil discourse.

Plan Units To Solve Problems

When the content of a humanities class is applied to the “real world,” the resulting knowledge base can solve some of the most pressing problems that people and places face. This is why you can develop your units to answer questions that get at the larger how, why, and what questions. Some of my favorite curricular materials are already centered around themes. In this blog post, Social Studies School Service (formerly Nystrom Education) addresses how to design a unit centered around a thematic question.

Teach With Case Studies

Case studies are valuable, because they investigate a delimited scope, but have the possibility to elucidate parallel issues. Harvard University’s ABL Connect (Activity Based Learning) provides us with resources for teaching cases studies. The Choices Program from Brown University offers case study units that may cover an entire academic year. When I taught world history to 9th graders using these units, I was pleased that these young learners were able to transfer knowledge of societal development from one case study to the next.

Teach With Centers

When you teach with centers in your class, you give students the opportunity to dive deeply into certain topics while topically glazing over other areas. This can be done with random assignments or by allowing students to chose what they want to become specialists in. Once a group of students becomes “experts” in one topic, they can teach others on their topic. This can be done with a gallery walk, which Facing History describes here.

Give Choice With Projects

When you pique student curiosity but also delimit the content that is discussed in class, this opens space for students to research topics that they are interested in, as long as the topics fall within the larger scope of the class. I have learned about a couple of projects for high school students, which I described here. The post is for language learners, but the same principles apply to a humanities class.

Quick Summary

After years for professional experience, and some research, I’ve found five strategies work well for teaching both breadth and depth in a humanities class. They are summarized below:

  1. Pique student curiosity.

  2. Plan units to solve problems.

  3. Teach with case studies.

  4. Teach with centers.

  5. Give choice with projects.

*I didn’t write this all on my own.
See the list of helpful resources that I used:

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