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One step at a time: the importance of depth over breadth in classroom teaching

One step at a time. According to Cambridge dictionary one step at a time, means, ‘slowly and carefully, doing just a little.’  There is lot of wisdom in this quote and we, very so often use it as an encouragement and advise to our friends, colleagues and family when they feel overwhelmed with some task. Also when it comes to teaching or advising are students, our opinion is no different. Whether it is  a student whom we see struggle to understand and learn new concepts, techniques, and skills, or to a colleague new to the programme or school.

I recently reintroduced goal setting to middle school students in one of the schools. Students were taught how to set SMART, personal goals, academic goals, and career goals. Separating these goals allowed students to think and reflect on where they were at this point in time and then plan their next steps keeping their long term goals in mind. While the students found the activity little challenging in the beginning, they quickly picked up steam and got on with the task in hand with some help from their teachers.

Exploring where we reached

To review the success of our lesson plan, which was focused on building a key skill and habit, we conducted a survey. Two of the questions on the survey sheet were, do you think goal setting is a valuable habit of mind that one should develop, and the other was, how many times have you practiced this skill in the past two months?

Almost all students accepted the importance of developing this habit. But to the second question, only few had actually put it in practice more than twice in the past couple of months. What is totally convincing is, their ability to reflect on their desire to learn what they consider important for success.

Raking it a little more

If each one of us were to just add on different strategies in our own classrooms, it can only get confusing and difficult to comprehend for the students. These multiple strategies can only serve as a delightful distraction in the form of activities rather than encourage deeper learning.

But there is always hope

How a child’s mind works is a miracle. All they need is, for us to be available to them and to create opportunities for them to learn and practice. The point I am making is that, teaching something and leaving the students alone to practice till they perfect is wishful thinking. It is only if we expose the students through different opportunities to practice repeatedly till it becomes a habit, will they have learnt it truly. And therefore, collaborative planning with clear focus on the what skills, and attitudes have to be built, would ensure that all teachers run the initiative like a campaign for it to be internalized by the students. Joint endeavors require time, energy and planning. Increased collaboration can only lead to an increase in both  individual and organizational knowledge.

Baking a cake

The analogy I use often with my colleagues is of ‘baking a cake’. As we prepare the cake batter, we sieve the flour whisk the egg and then slowly add the flour and other ingredients to the whisked egg bit by bit, whisking all the time till the mixture becomes homogenized. In the same way, every skill taught needs to be practiced over and over again till it becomes an act that is performed almost involuntarily.  Guy Claxton explains this well in his post here.

All that students need

Building a skill or habit in students slowly and carefully doing just a little with careful planning and implementation and slowly through repeated practice is all that students need.

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