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Teaching for Uncoverage rather than Coverage

A Deep HoleI recently suggested on ProfHacker that we should design our courses around “enduring understanding,” which means, as I put it, focusing on what we want our students to understand, rather than what we want them to read.

An anonymous commenter to that article wondered whether these two goals were as different as I made them out to be. Especially in a discipline such as literature, isn’t the whole point to read a set of books that more or less cohere in some chronological or thematic way? By reading a selection of deliberately-chosen texts, aren’t we implicitly delineating what it is we want our students to understand?

My answer is—regardless of your discipline—no. And I want to use the distinction between coverage and uncoverage to help explain why.

Once again, I’ll turn to Wiggins and McTighe’s book Understanding by Design, from which I’ve borrowed the notion of enduring understanding. Wiggins and McTighe devote an entire chapter to “uncoverage,” which they contrast with the more familiar concept of coverage. In terms of course design, coverage refers to the amount of information covered by a class, usually measured in the humanities by time, distance, or theme, or in the sciences by scientific principles. A survey course exemplifies the idea of coverage. “The British Novel of the 19th Century” or “American History Since 1945″ spells out what will be covered in these classes; however, the course names, the syllabi, or even the weeks spent in the classes themselves may not actually reveal what it is about the Victorian novel or post-war American history that is worth “enduring understanding.”

To highlight the pitfall of coverage as the default model of course design, Wiggins and McTighe recall a more “ominous” definition of the verb cover: “to protect or conceal, to hide from view” (106). They suggest that in the race to cover more ground—more history, more literature, more formulas, more physics—we can end up actually covering or hiding the underlying principles that make those subjects important in the first place. Uncoverage, in contrast, emphasizes revealing assumptions, facts, principles, and experiences that would otherwise remain obscured. Uncoverage is uncovering in order to learn something new. Uncoverage is digging down.

Wiggins and McTighe outline five steps toward discovering depth in whatever material you’re teaching (and your students are learning):

  1. Unearth it
  2. Analyze it
  3. Question it
  4. Prove it
  5. Generalize it

Because steps two through five proceed from it, “unearthing” is a critical first step. Wiggins and McTighe offer a concise explanation of what they mean by “unearth it”:

Bring to the surface and bring to light the misunderstood, the subtle, the nonobvious, the problematic, the controversial, the obscure, the missing, and the lost. (102)

Given the spatial metaphor of uncoverage as digging (unearthing) and coverage as moving across, it’s tempting to characterize uncoverage as “depth” and coverage as “breadth.” But Wiggins and McTighe caution that depth and breadth should not be pitted against each other. In fact, breadth is a key component of uncoverage, the weft to the warp of understanding. Breadth means connecting disparate ideas, finding news ways to represent what is uncovered, and extending one’s conceptual reach to the implications of the material.

Taken together, depth and breadth mean moving away from the prepackaged observations and readily digestible interpretations that go hand-in-hand with coverage. This is not to say that a class on the 19th century British novel forecloses the possibility of uncoverage, or that a post-War American history class can’t involve true discovery and the formation of atypical connections. Or—to go back to the anonymous comment—that basing your syllabus on a bunch of books you want to teach will inevitably shortchange your students’ enduring understanding. But it is more difficult. It is not automatic. It takes planning and an attentiveness to what it is you want your students to learn, really learn, in your class.

How do you determine what you want to uncover in your courses? Can you speak to the difference between coverage and uncoverage? And how do these concepts play out in your own discipline?

[Digging Myself into a Deeper Hole photo courtesy of Flickr user coljay72 / Creative Commons Licensed]

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