Depth of Understanding
Mastery implies more than the acquisition of surface-level knowledge. When a student achieves mastery, he or she retains the newly acquired knowledge or skill long after instruction has ended and is capable of applying it in new or more complex situations. In high-performing urban schools, many lessons are designed to generate such a depth of understanding. Students are expected to analyze, explain, discuss, and apply the content or skills they have learned in ways that exhibit mastery.
Arguably, teaching with a focus on mastery may take more time than pursuing the recall of facts. Teachers may perceive that they do not have sufficient time to teach for depth of understanding. In very successful urban schools, we found it common for principals to encourage teachers to pursue depth even if it meant covering fewer topics. Grade-level or content-area teachers worked together to identify the critical standards students needed to master by the end of the year or course. Teachers collaboratively unpacked each standard, developing a shared understanding of what students must know and/or be able to do and creating lesson objectives that specified how students would demonstrate mastery. Accordingly, lessons were organized, planned, and presented in ways that were clearly intended to ensure that students would be able to demonstrate the depth of knowledge expected. For example, if the objective stated that students would be able to model a concept, lesson activities and materials were structured in a way that required students to model – and allowed the teachers to determine if students could, in fact, model – the concept. Teachers did not merely present information and hope that students would attain the desired depth of understanding.
Example 1: While many elementary school students may be expected to learn general facts about slavery and the Civil War, students in a social studies class in one high-performing urban school we studied were expected to assume the role of Abraham Lincoln’s speechwriter. They worked in groups to write speeches that offered arguments against slavery, building from Lincoln’s personal experiences. These students acquired a much greater understanding of both the personal history of Lincoln and the impact of slavery on human lives.
Example 2: In mathematics instruction in high-performing urban schools, we found depth reflected in teaching that required students to answer “Why?” For example, students were not simply asked to “solve for X.” They were also asked to explain why each step made sense. They were asked to explain what solving for X meant. They were asked to explain why their errors did not make sense. They were asked to apply their knowledge to real situations.