Understanding Your Curriculum: Deep or Wide, or BOTH?

in Blabber, Philosophy

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Man studying street map

(Note: As I said before, this series makes me nervous. It seems my understanding of education grows and changes by the week and I’m afraid that I am about to say a bunch of dumb stuff. Please keep that in mind. This is all my “current” opinion.)

Education communicates values and culture.  There’s no such thing as a system that communicates only facts.  In attempting to communicate only in facts, it would still be communicating a value system where facts are king.  So regardless of how “secular” the curriculum seems, there are underlying values that guide it.

Inch Deep, Mile Wide Curricula

These days, it seems to me that the underlying value system for some curricula is about diversity and environmental responsibility.  That makes the curriculum very WIDE.  You can’t ignore anyone and nobody gets judged unless they are polluting.

Every year is a smattering of information in social studies, science, art, and music.  Inch deep, mile wide.  Regurgitate it for the test and forget it, but you WILL come away knowing that diversity is the priority!   Tolerance must prevail.  Even math word problems have names that are unpronounceable and include examples that are from other continents.  “Bakda is from Indonesia.  He is making a quart of Javanese rujak.  How many cups of grated blimbing does he need?”

That’s an exaggeration.  But, the point is that the facts of the education in this system are meant to form a certain type of person.  One that is tolerant of people who are different from him and who takes care of the planet he lives on.  These are not bad goals.

Neck Deep, Mile Wide

This is where a lot of your classical ed curricula shakes out.   It seems to me that the goal is a huge PERMANENT transmission of information.  If you are going wide, it’s a lot of work to make it STICK. And these folks do it, by golly.

It kind of reminds me of a prep school education.  Dang, it’s a lot of work, but those kids know their stuff!   Do you watch Castle?  Beckett has this kind of education.  “So you were in an Arabic speaking country in the jungle?  Um…that’s Yemen…Somalia.”   Just rolls off the tongue like you’re naming rooms in your house.  Who knows that stuff?  Prep school kids.  It’s like medical school for little people.

Read, read, read and/or drill, drill, drill.  Do all of human history every four years.  200 point timelines in third grade.  100 Latin words here, states of matter there.  Narrate a chapter from each of your books.  Draw me a beech tree, ID this composer, and name the dynasties of China!  Skip count to 300 and back by 12’s.  It’s amazing.

If your goal is Harvard or a political career for your child and you can’t afford prep school, this is the homeschool style for you.

Deep Curriculum

Our curriculum is deep.  We do American history until you think you can’t stand another story about Washington.  We repeat catechism and creed year after year after year.  These kids learn select US history and geography facts until you, your preschooler, and the neighbor across the street can recite them in your sleep.  We draw our own house, town, neighborhood, route to church, and country SO MANY TIMES.   The message I get is “Good stuff is worth going back to again and again; there’s plenty of it in your own backyard.” We are Catholic Americans, so that’s where we dig in.

And it’s not even “learn EVERYTHING about your country.”  You could construct a WIDE curriculum that generates little US history experts.  Ours is not that.  We learn many of the same stories and facts, every year.  Why?  Because it’s aimed at FORMATION.  You get more out of something the longer you digest it.  It gets into your heart after a while and becomes a part of your soul.  Every time you hear it, you own it a little more.  Something worth reading (like a D’Aulaire biography or Narnia) is worth reading every other year.  Going deeper and deeper into the same well of good stuff is more formative than a small taste of every good thing at the buffet.

Even when we finally leave US history, it’s deep.  My son just spent an entire year on Ancient Egypt.  He drew the map of Egypt and the Ancient world over and over and over.  He wrote on a paper about Ancient Egyptian daily life for six weeks.   Book after book on Ancient Egypt.  He loved it.  He has THOUGHTS about Ancient Egypt now and he’s had plenty of time to form them.  Ancient Egypt belongs to him in a way it wouldn’t if he’s gone wider.

But What Is It Called?

It’s classical, but it’s the medieval version.   Medieval learning was primarily about forming virtue.  Study and worship were synonymous whether it was Psalms or Homer.  If you’re familiar with Lectio Divina, you will recognize the process.   It was compared to honey-making.  Gather the pollen, digest it, then act on it.  That takes time.  Better to marinate in one good book for a year, discussing, thinking, chewing on it over and over; than to read a new one each week.  It’s more FORMATIVE to slow down.  See this video for inspiration and more info (especially 19:20-27:12, amazing.)


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah May 6, 2015

Thanks for this post. I’m glad other people see that it is worthy to go slowly. One of the general ideas from Charlotte Mason education is that her way of educating is like taking a stroll in an English meadow, rather than speeding down the highway.


2 Lauren May 4, 2015

This was a really thought-provoking post. It really helped me to articulate the bigger picture in ways I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks! Oh, and that video? FASCINATING.


3 admin May 5, 2015

I just posted another great video. I LOVE it.


4 Lauren May 5, 2015

Oh awesome, can’t wait!!


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