Earlier this year I committed a very common history teacher error: I overstuffed a lesson. I was teaching my French Revolution unit, and I had assigned students to look for evidence of Locke and Rousseau’s ideas in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. I figured I’d just “go over it quickly” before moving on to the next activity. Because I wanted to move quickly, I found myself telling students what I wanted them to notice in the document instead of coaching them to do their own noticing, and the telling took longer than I had imagined it would. As a result, the lesson ended up feeling both rushed and boring. I talked a lot, and the students dutifully tried to look like they understood what I was talking about.

The whole point of the Four Question Method is to give students repeated practice at the historical thinking skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Overstuffing units and lessons makes it impossible for us to give students real practice at these skills, because real student thinking takes real classroom time. If we overstuff our lessons and units with too much content or too many ideas the content crowds out the skills. And it always ends up being a bad bargain, because when the unit is overstuffed most kids can’t actually learn all the content we’re “teaching.” Unfortunately, we history teachers often overstuff our units and lesson. We tend to do it because of two basic impulses: Love and Fear.

Overstuffing from Love

Sometimes we overstuff a unit or a lesson because we just love this stuff! We have read so much, learned so much, and gotten so excited by a topic that we feel an overpowering need to share our deep love of it with students. In college I was really interested in early feudalism and the Carolingians, and I’ve got a half dozen books on my shelf about the Frankish kingdoms of the fourth through sixth centuries. How much of that belongs in my ninth grade world history course? Pretty much none of it. Breaks my heart, but my granular knowledge of Charlemagne’s family tree is just not very important to teaching a lean and coherent ninth-grade narrative of the middle ages. Adding it in is just overstuffing. I once had a colleague who for a few years seemed incapable of reading an article about anything he was teaching without immediately running off copies of it for his classes. He set a school record for photocopies because he just loved history so much that he felt compelled to share all of it with his students.

Another way teacher love of content leads to overstuffing is with ever-further backwards stepping explanations: we know so much background about a topic that we keep pushing back the start of the unit. For example, we think that “you can’t really understand government in the American colonies without understanding government in England, and you can’t understand government in England without understanding the Glorious Revolution, and you can’t understand the Glorious Revolution without understanding the English Civil War…” Pretty soon you’re back at the Magna Carta or the neolithic revolution, and you’ve convinced yourself that your students need to know all of it if they’re really going to understand the unit.

Overstuffing From Fear

Sometimes we overstuff a unit or a lesson because of fear: we’re afraid to leave out something important. That’s what happened to me with my French Revolution unit. I was not originally planning to assign students to read the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but then I read somewhere on the internet that it’s considered one of the most important statements of human rights ever created, and I figured, “Golly – if it’s really that important I should have them read it!” I was frightened into assigning it.

New teachers are often afraid to leave something out because they simply don’t know yet what content really is important, and they fear being caught out by an assessment, an administrator, or an angry student or parent: “You mean you skipped [insert allegedly crucial content here]?!?”

Don’t Overstuff!

Of course overstuffing for whatever reason ends up harming student learning. Our rush to “cover” all the content or concepts we’ve jammed into the lesson leaves students without time for real thinking and real learning. My plan to “quickly go over” the Declaration of the Rights of Man, for example, sent students the message that I don’t really want them to read challenging documents. If we want students to really grapple with a text like that, we need to give it the time it deserves. In any given unit there’s a finite number of times we can do that — so we have to choose our challenging documents wisely. In any given unit there’s a finite amount of narrative students can comprehend — so we have to choose our story wisely.

The right thing to do, of course, is to craft a lean story of the unit and commit to teaching what we do choose well. We need to include only enough content for the story of the unit to make sense, while also building in time for students to regularly practice narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment.

My original idea was in fact the correct one: I should have skipped the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I had other hard documents that I wanted kids to interpret that were more important to my unit story. I let my fear get the best of me that time, and the result was entirely predictable. If we are able to keep both our love of history and our fear of leaving out important material in check, some of our students might actually come to love this stuff as much as we do.