WORKING under the assumption that students learn more when they study a subject in depth, a small but influential number of educators are trying to make ``depth'' a focus of school reform. The effort is aimed mainly at teachers - both new and old.
For several decades, they say, schools of education have not demanded that teachers think through and understand the fundamental questions in their disciplines - whether English or physics. Emphasis has been on method, not substance.
``In the '20s, '30s, and '40s teachers were taught how to think about their subjects, to develop a sense of scholarship,'' says Daniel Fallon, dean of liberal arts at Texas A&M. ``Now it's all technique. Yet if you want to teach kids about the development of empire, you have to be able to compare the Han Dynasty to the rise of Athens. You have to have thought in an interdisciplinary way - your teaching has to emerge from your subject, not vice versa.''
``We've heard in the press about today's kids who don't know the date of the Civil War,'' says Harold Kolb, a professor at the University of Virginia. ``But that's not the important issue. The way kids learn dates is through a greater understanding of and excitement about what the Civil War meant. That requires a teacher who knows the right questions.''
``Depth'' - perceiving and understanding the contours and dimensions of a problem or issue - is seen to be the heart of education. ``Jacques Maritain points out that we study arts and sciences, not in order just to know, but to discover meaning in the world,'' says Dr. Fallon.
Ironically, the issue of depth is coming to the fore only after five years of school reform - most of which has been bureaucratic and instrumental: teacher pay, back-to-basics, longer days, tougher standards.
``The thing is, once you get past the agreement that depth is important, actually doing it becomes pretty difficult,'' Fallon says.
Much of the lack of depth is due to the separation between schools of education and liberal arts departments on campus.
A number of new programs are trying to redress the balance. The Carnegie Corporation just gave $250,000 to Fallon and Frank Murray, education dean at the University of Delaware, to bring humanities and education departments together on 30 diverse campuses around the country.
Dr. Kolb runs the Center for the Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia - a program where 160 members of UVA's faculty give seminars for schoolteachers and even lecture in public schools on topics ranging from Daniel Boone to quarks. ``You wouldn't believe how bad in-service training is,'' says Kolb. Teachers say that they lack sufficient knowledge in their disciplines, but instead get ``silly'' workshops on community health and stress. ``One 12-year physics teacher complained that since she graduated from college, two of the major forces that hold nature together have been redefined, and she doesn't know what they are.''
At Stanford, education professor Lee Shulman is heading a major research project on ``discipline specific'' methods of teaching - how a deeper immersion in certain subjects calls forth different methods of teaching that subject. One brilliant new physics teacher thought he had a lesson on quantum mechanics nailed down cold, Dr. Shulman relates. But partway through the explanation, he went to the blackboard to give a quick explanation of vectors. At the end of the class, vectors were all the students remembered. Shulman's work identifies how not to make such mistakes, given the texture and scope of different subjects.
``Can Depth Replace Coverage in the High School Curriculum?'' is the questioning title of an article in the January Phi Delta Kappan, the most prestigious of the education journals. Author Fred Newmann of the University of Wisconsin argues that school reform has restored a quantity of knowledge to the classroom, but not quality.
Students of this era bring a hidden cultural hostility to sustained academic learning, Dr. Newmann says. Much of this is inculcated by television, which ``undermines intense and sustained concentration on a single topic. Teachers report that young people of the television generation have no patience for study in depth; they want quick, simple, unambiguous answers.''
Newmann says education schools must demand that teachers engage in the study and struggle required to master the complexities of a particular field. Currently, students majoring in education can get by with broad survey and introductory courses.
The late 1950s and early '60s were a time of intense curricular debate and innovation. Scholars and educators such as Harvard's James Bryant Conant held conferences on how public school curriculum could ask more challenging, structural questions in different subjects: What is the relationship of man to society? Can physics be introduced in junior high school?
In programs such as Jerome Bruner's ``Man: a Course of Study,'' fifth-graders took an anthropological look at human beings and their interaction with their environment by comparing the lives of gulls, baboons, and a traditional Eskimo community.
``Project Physics'' was designed for high school students by Dr. Jerrold Zacharias of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - a course that introduced 10th-graders to the latest work on the frontiers of theoretical physics.
``Powerful thinkers were working on ways of asking simple questions in profound ways,'' says Dr. Murray of Delaware. ``What has happened to that conversation? Those projects? They've left the public schools - but survive in some privates, and in Western Europe and the Soviet Union.''
Murray points out that in the middle and late '60s, any curriculum that attempted to ask high-grade academic questions in the arts and sciences was labeled ``elitist'' by educators seeking curricula more responsive to social problems. The push for ``relevance'' - a byproduct of the liberal spirit of the Great Society - became dogmatic: What did science have to do with people's suffering?
The irony, says Alden Dunham of the Carnegie Corporation, is that the kind of deeper grasp of issues taken up by 10 to 15 percent of the schools in the early 1960s is being recommended as ``what's best for all pupils. Today, everybody has to have the kind of education formerly reserved for the few.''
`I got to be a real expert'
A high school senior in Wisconsin comments on depth in the social studies curriculum.
I got totally immersed in a project when the teacher forced us to do a paper on some guy. We couldn't pick him, but we had to read at least four books and write at least 100 note cards - big cards - and develop at least a 10-page paper. I got Montaigne. It ended up real interesting. As Mr. Foster pointed out, it was kind of cool that I got to be a real expert and to know more than probably five million people in America about this guy. I'm not sure what made it so interesting - whether it was Montaigne's own works and life or just the fact that I got to know so much about him.
From ``Can Depth Replace Coverage in High School Curriculum,'' Phi Delta Kappan, January 1988.