Breadth, Depth and Understanding

*Chapter 7 (What Is Uncoverage?) from Understanding by Design focuses on two important concepts in teaching/learning – depth and breadth, both of which need to be balanced in a spiraled curriculum that engages the learner to not only know or perform but understand.

Wiggins talks about the need to uncover as it stems from a “blind spot” many teachers exhibit when they teach – that is, they teach from the standpoint of the expert without realizing that what is connected and meaningful to them is not perceived as such by students.

Another challenge is also presented by textbooks where information, regardless of the subject, is linear and convergent. That is not how knowledge was constructed – even in sciences, let alone humanistic studies, many competing theories, hypotheses and struggles occurred historically, and students need to understand why and how a certain say, mathematical theorem, came to be widely accepted and used.

Obviously, not all knowledge should be inquired into – there is not physical time for that anyway –  we need to find what is valuable and relevant within a discipline and design these increasingly sophisticated challenges that push students’ thinking beyond the simple knowing of content. 

Wiggins makes a very simple analogy to discuss depth:

“We may sit in a car and may know how to drive it, but that doesn’t mean we understand how it works. For that we need to look under the hood, literally and figuratively. To be a mechanic one must know how to drive but also know how a car works, why it works, and how to diagnose and fix it.”

*Here he gives the example of students solving math problems knowing certain algorithms but without having the deeper understanding of why a formula works, how to derive the formula or how this problem is (un)like other kinds of problems.

He further continues the analogy to explain breadth:

“The successful mechanic need broad experience with many different kinds of cars, customers, and diagnostic tools. “

The implication for teaching is that we have to enable students to make bridges between related topics, to “connect the dots” across a wider range of texts and learning experiences.

This balancing act (depth- breadth) involves choices and compromises and that is where the teacher as a “designer” has a great responsibility – What is worth knowing? What can sustain scrutiny through the 6 facets of understanding? What is relevant?  What will trigger enduring, conceptual understanding?

Below is the framework for “uncovering” as Wiggins presents it:


Unearth it

– Make assumptions explicit

– Make points of view clear

– Bring to the surface the misunderstood, the subtle, the nonobvious, the problematic, the controversial, the missing.

Analyze it

– Inspect and examine

– Dissect, refine, qualify

Question it

– Test

– Challenge

– Doubt

– Critique

Prove it

– Argue

– Support

– Verify

– Justify

Generalize it

– Subsume under a more encompassing idea

– Compare and contrast


Connect it  – Link discrete and diverse ideas, facts, and experiences

Picture it – Represent or model the idea in different ways

Extend it

– Go beyond the given to implications

– Imagine “What if…?”

Wiggins gives many examples of how this framework can be applied in the classroom even to the most “boring”, apparently non-controversial paragraphs in a history textbook. It is a fascinating read as many of us would take certain statements as “obvious” truths.

I am concluding this series with a quote from Frank Lyman (1992) that briefly embeds the true nature of education:

“Education should be an itch, not a scratch.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: