George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

You Can’t Cover Everything

Teachers have mandated content to cover, but also seek to develop skills that students will use long after they have forgotten rote facts.
Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Now that it’s March, I’m going back and forth about what to cover in my American history class for the remainder of the year. Should I prioritize skills or content? Are the two mutually exclusive? Years from now, what do I really want students to still remember and find useful?

Even after a decade in the classroom, I struggle mightily with deciding what to cover and in how much depth. I feel guilty about focusing less on World War I, for instance, to emphasize the 1920s and the Great Depression. If I’m being honest, I often feel inadequate, wondering how much less other teachers would think of me for making that call.

Don’t Try to Cover Everything

Needing advice, I recently sought out Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association and a giant in the fields of history and history education.

Grossman put me more at ease. “You can't cover everything,” he told me. “It’s just not humanly possible. Therefore, different teachers have to make choices as to where they are most likely to engage their students.” More to the point, Grossman said, “It’s not whether you should do X, Y, or Z, but how much emphasis you put on X, Y, or Z.”

For added perspective, I contacted Dan Lang, head of the middle school at Francis Parker School in San Diego. “Too often we believe that a ‘debate can be won’ or a ‘problem can be solved’ when the best path may be to recognize that the perceived ‘problem’ to be solved is actually a healthy tension that needs to be managed well,” he wrote to me in a recent email.

Emphasize Relatable Content

With this tension in mind, Grossman reaffirmed my refusal to force students to memorize a myriad of seemingly endless facts, citing the accessibility of the internet. He reminded me that my students could use their phones to easily get information on people and events.

Grossman urged me to consider what I want students to still know and consider useful years down the road. “I don’t think it’s very often going to be some particular pieces of information, so much as you want them to learn how to think about something,” he told me. This calls for capitalizing on content that students find most interesting, and how and why a particular topic still matters today.

For example, Grossman says, “The Constitution is something that students probably don’t realize constantly matters in everyday life,” and that it could be a wise idea to discuss how a document ratified in 1788 remains relevant in 2017.

Emphasize Relevant Skills

I told Grossman that I was already following that advice. After we studied the Jacksonian Era during election season, for example, I asked my students to respond to the following prompt:

“This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “And that’s how [Donald Trump] posited it right from the beginning, the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional. And yes, it’s a defeat for the Democrats, but this is a defeat for some Republicans too.”

In what respects, if any, do similarities exist between President Andrew Jackson and President-elect Donald Trump? What might these parallels reveal? Or is Giuliani off base here? Either way, please compose a well-written, convincing editorial that supports your stance.

I instructed students on how to respond in journalistic form, which they found more engaging and useful than more formal academic writing. One junior, Sophie Lapat, wrote a highly engaging article—“Trump: The New Jackson?”—which I shared on The Gator, a student news site where I work and which I also advise. Several students enjoyed the assignment so much that they enrolled in my journalism class.

It’s comforting to hear of teachers in other disciplines who share my emphasis on introducing relatable content to help reinforce key skills. “I would rather [students] understand how to ask questions and use data to support conclusions than have, for example, memorized the electron configuration of neon,” Amy Banks, a science teacher at the Hockaday School in Dallas, told me via email.

Agree on Skills Taught, Not Content Delivered

When it gets down to it, Grossman said, five historians gathered in a room would never agree on every bit of content to include in the curriculum, “but they can agree on what skills a student has to learn from spending a year indulging in historical thinking.”

Certainly, it’s important for students to gain a foundational understanding of key events, like the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. But at a certain point, it’s not the content delivered that should matter most, but rather how such content can engage students in building upon their understanding of historical inquiry, which will stick with them long after their memorization of facts has faded.

Granted, the majority of teachers are mandated to cover certain content. Still, the pinnacle of instructional success, I believe, is balancing how to make content also relevant to refining critical, lifelong skills—no matter the subject taught. Depending on intrinsic interest in a certain area of study, this is more or less challenging. After chatting with Grossman I’ve come to see that while skills can’t be developed without content, without content that students find meaningful, it’s unlikely that many will remember much of either for very long.

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Georgina Levey's picture
Georgina Levey
5th grade general classroom teacher from and teaching in Aspen, CO

This is so timely... I have given hard thought to this idea of teaching history in thematic form rather than chronologically for a while now. Thanks for providing some added insight about this.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

I despise the word "cover."
When teachers talk about covering something, to me, that means checking it off a list somewhere. That's how you get books like Jane Eyre or Great Expectations assigned for summer reading--everyone knows that they won't get read, but you can still check off that box.
I try to think about what I want students to know in five or ten or twenty years. They won't remember how many plays Shakespeare wrote, but they will remember the confidence that they gained when they analyzed a speech on their own. And maybe, if they choose a speech that they love and they memorize it and create something to represent it and write about it, they'll remember the actual speech in a few years.

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

Christina, I think you and I agree about the word "cover," as I explain in my article. I also explain that I am much more concerned about what students will recall and find useful down the road. It's reassuring to know that others are on the same page. Thank you for your comment.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Statistics show that homework overload can make learners nervous, affect their responsibilities, and can even create an emotional burden. Too much homework is a serious issue because if a student gets too much homework they have the attitude to stay up later to finish it which will affect the student's performance in school the next day.

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