Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Exposing Our Students to Less Should Help Them Learn More

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Exposing Our Students to Less Should Help Them Learn More

Article excerpt

Mr. Dempster urges educators to take a close look at the composition of each instructional unit with an eye to separating the wheat from the chaff, so that they can get on with the serious business of effectively teaching the essentials.

Curricular change is hardly a newcomer to discussions of education reform in the U.S. However, only recently have concerns about the sheer size of the implemented curriculum threatened to move to center stage. Reform-minded scholars and educators have argued that decreasing the size of the curriculum will benefit students. Exposing students to less material but in more depth will, they contend, lead to greater learning than the current practice of exposing students to a large amount of often disconnected information.(1) So far, though, this claim has not received the rigorous scrutiny that an item on the national agenda with such far-reaching implications deserves. Teachers, administrators, policy makers, and others who seek to make such drastic changes in the curriculum will face difficult problems and will have to overcome many obstacles, including the nagging suspicion that students exposed to less will simply learn less, not more.

In this article I review relevant research on learning and discuss its implications for proposals to reduce the size of the curriculum. At the very least, these "lessons from learning research" illustrate the kinds of data on which curriculum decisions might be based. The results of this research arguably provide strong support for those who have adopted the old Bauhaus motto, "Less is more."(2) They lead to the conclusion that our students are exposed to too much material and that this practice is antithetical to what is known about effective learning.

The curriculum that now predominates in American schools seems to be based on three beliefs about human learning. First, curriculum decisions appear to be informed by the conviction that "more is better" and that just about anything that "enriches the meaning" of a lesson will assist learning. Second, there appears to be a pervasive belief among educators that exposing students to information contains little or no risk, that knowledge can't hurt. Third, the curriculum has been shaped according to the dual assumption that most students can learn most things quickly and that, once a student has satisfactorily demonstrated such learning, further practice is unnecessary. As the research presented below shows, each of these beliefs is false.


There is mounting evidence that students in a variety of curricular domains, including science, mathematics, and social studies, are receiving fleeting exposure to a vast amount of material.[3] The instructional medium most responsible for this state of affairs is the textbook. National surveys report that many classroom teachers look to textbooks for guidance in deciding what to teach, and the textbook to a great extent defines the content of what is taught in U.S. schools.[4] The textbook is both a subject-matter authority and a pedagogical guide. However, most textbooks present an abundance of material and encourage teachers to address a wide range of topics. According to one study, "The table of contents of most precollege texts reads like a course catalog for a four-year college. . . . The new vocabulary in a one-week science unit often exceeds that for a one-week unit in a foreign language.[5]

Cross-cultural comparisons, as well as historical studies, make a similar point, indicating that textbooks currently in use in the U.S. are unrivaled in size and amount of information covered.(6) U.S. science texts, for example, are considerably larger than their counterparts in Japan and Singapore, where students tend to have higher achievement test scores than American students. The difference in the size of the texts seems to reflect the quantity of facts about each topic rather than the number of topics and key concepts covered. …

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