Disclaimer: The following “Water Cooler Test” is not mine, and I wish I could remember where I read it, but I can’t. So if you came up with this idea, and you happen to stumble across this blog post, feel free to lay claim to it. Also, lest the reader misunderstand what I am about to write, and think I am suggesting a watered down approach to education, please see this post as well as this one.
I don’t know about you, but as a history teacher, I sometimes feel like the sheer amount of content there is to cover in a single academic year is crazy. It can feel like a mad dash from start to finish. When you attach an outside test to the course like an AP examination, it can be even worse. You feel like you are sacrificing “depth” for “breadth.” You would love to spend more time on this or that unit, the students would love to spend more time on this or that unit, but you have to “cover” the curriculum. (It’s almost AP test time, so I’m particularly feeling this way now.)
There’s plenty being written on the “breadth” vs. “depth” debate. Google “inquiry-based learning” or “problem-based learning” and you’ll find more than you need to read on this issue, so I won’t go into all the details here. But what I think is worth considering is the “Water Cooler Test.”
The “Water Cooler Test” is simple and can apply to any discipline. Imagine you are standing around the water cooler at work one day chatting with a respected, educated colleague from a different discipline than yours. You say to the colleague, “Can you believe my students didn’t know about X?” And say your colleague a) looks at you like you are crazy, b) looks at you like a deer caught in the headlights ashamed of his apparent ignorance, c) says that he doesn’t know anything about X either and has done okay in his life thus far, or d) all of the above. If any of the above reactions occur, you may want to really examine why you are teaching X. Is it really a necessary component for your students to lead productive lives, is it something that they will need in future courses in order to do well, or is it something that enriches their lives as human beings? If so, then by all means please, please keep it in the curriculum. But if not, is it simply because you inherited it from a curriculum that you didn’t write, or is it because it’s in the textbook, a textbook written by a company that seeks to make a profit? If so, what if you took it out of the curriculum? Could you spend more time on something that’s more useful, meaningful, and enriching?
I’ll give a few examples. My colleagues who teach World History I and II have made a conscious decision in the last several years to spend less time on some units of study on periods of history and areas of the world that do not fundamentally contribute to their students’ understanding of the world around them. They did this so that they could spend more time on the historical eras and geographical locations that more fundamentally shape the lives that their students live in now and will live in in the future. Another example comes from an English teacher that is currently trying to figure out whether to teach 6 novels in a year with less depth or move to 5 novels a year and be able to dig deeper with each one. I like going with 5 and digging deep.
It is the digging deep that matters because it is in the depths that students learn how to think critically about the material. We all love our content areas and want to share all that we know about our subject with our students, but the reality is that much of the detailed content will need to be refreshed from time to time. Once you teach a student to think analytically, however, they will take that skill with them into whatever subject they study in the future, whether it is yours, mine, or something entirely their own.