Monday, July 04, 2005

Principles of a Contemporary Curriculum

(Insights from brain research and application of these principles to our program)

Over the last decade, brain research has uncovered many key principles about the learning process that as educators we need to understand. These insights have been the foundation of contemporary curricular designs. These principles lead to the following conclusions regarding good curricular design:

1) What teachers "cover" is not as important as what students learn. Unfortunately, they’re not the same thing! It all comes down rather simply to these two questions: What were the trimester expectations of the course? Have students achieved these expectations? This has been the great “revolution” of the standards movement over the last decade. Traditionally, schools and teachers measured themselves by “input” variables—teacher: student ratios, certifications, per pupil costs. No more; results are what matters.

Implications for us: Our S.A.C.S. accreditation process now requires us to track results, or “output”—not only what our standardized tests show us, but also how well each of our students are meeting the course expectations we set for our classes. Teachers should therefore be absolutely clear what they expect students to do at the end of the course, and design the curriculum to get them to achieve it. Beginning in 2003-2004, at the end of the term in all core classes, a test is given which asks students to apply the essential knowledge and skills learned to a specific task. These tests are graded on a rubric and a summary of results is filed with the president, who tracks these results yearly.

2) The curriculum should encourage students to "construct" knowledge, literally, to "put what has been learned into wholes". A traditional curriculum often assumes that all the pieces of the whole must be laid out first before students do anything with it (thus the frequent complaint from students "What am I going use all this stuff for anyway?"). As such, new knowledge is inert, not reacting with anything, and easily forgotten. Brain research indicates it is essential to begin constructing and using knowledge, however limited, as the pieces are learned. It is analogous to learning a new computer program: Typically, we don’t read through the manual and try to learn everything before we touch the computer! Rather, we begin using the program even though we're not sure how everything works. As we use it, the depth of our understanding increases. The fact that students cannot yet do something "well" is not an argument for not doing it; sophistication improves with practice.

Implications for us: All through-out the year, as new material is introduced, we should ask students to use this new information, applying it as often as possible. The temptation for us is to “wait” on applications until we’ve laid down all the pieces first. But English teachers know, for example, that when they cover grammar, they must have students write, applying the grammar immediately for it to “take hold” in the students. And yes, the writing is “less” than it will be, but English teachers understand this and grade accordingly. Then, as they practice their writing, adding new grammatical knowledge along the way, their writing slowly improves. All of us should think like English teachers!

3) The curriculum should be arranged into "blocks" or "clumps" of knowledge as a means of helping students construct patterns within their minds. This helps students contextualize bits of new information. Brain research indicates that stronger learners can access stored information in their minds more easily because it has been "filed" into a "folder" or pattern which makes sense to them, whereas weaker students "file" new information randomly. Imagine trying to find a file on the computer hard disk without any folders, and it's easy to understand a weak student's difficulties. Our job is to help them create these "folders" or patterns.

Implications for us: Our course outlines should be divided into units or blocks of material, organized around a central idea for that unit. As new material within this unit is covered, it should be connected in as many ways as possible to this central idea. One pundit put it this way: good course design should be viewed like a person learning his or her way around a new city: by crisscrossing city streets from as many different directions as possible, he or she gradually begins to truly understand the landscape. New streets are learned by their relationship to known streets. We need to help students develop these “maps” in their head, so that when material is covered, it can be “catalogued” in their understanding according known maps.

4) The structure of classes should provide maximum flexibility for weak and strong students.

Implications for us: There are two facets to this equation: time and types of assignments. Regarding time, research indicates that often what weaker students need is more time to complete assignments, or more time from the teacher to grasp ideas, and NOT a lesser standard to achieve. This is the basic premise behind our tutorial program. When individual students are struggling, we cannot slow down the progress of the entire class for their sake. Rather, we should invite them to work with us after school, giving them the extra help they need to get up to speed. Or if we have a slow test taker, we should provide opportunities to allow them to finish after class (teachers must use due discretion here).

Regarding the types of assignments, there are two possible approaches which are consistent with the goal to provide flexibility for mixed abilities:

• Give "open ended" assessments, graded by a rubric, which then allow for a variety of degrees of performance. Brighter students can go as far as their efforts and intellect will take them, while weaker students can do the same assignments but to lesser degrees. A debate, for example, can provide for a variety of performance levels. By contrast, a “closed ended” traditional test (multiple question tests, each question requiring a single correct answer, typically given a grade by percentage correct) creates a dilemma for teachers: do they create a test which will challenge the brightest kids (at the expense of the slower) or vice-versa? Most teachers then aim toward the middle at the expense of both sides: bright kids, for example, are not asked to “play” with challenging material on a consistent basis.

• Give 2-tiered assignments. At the top level, give students a challenging test, paper or project which they can earn “up to an A”, whereas on the second tier, students are given a DIFFERENT test, paper or project in which they can earn “up to a B”. Students choose which of these two to pursue.

5) The curriculum should be sequenced in such a manner as to bring incremental, systematic growth in students in terms of their ability to construct knowledge into wholes, toward ever increasing open ended questions.

Implications for us: Each of the units (described in #3 above) should be built around a central theme or idea; the sequencing of these sets of ideas should then aim at the central course goals. These course goals are then measured in the final assessment (described in #1 above). In this way, each course has a kind of “architecture” which helps students put the ideas together into a whole, one brick at a time.

6) The curriculum should be designed to allow teachers to OBSERVE students' thinking, rather than merely the products of their thinking. Helping students refine their thinking is an important curricular goal and should be an important component in evaluation.

Implications for us: We should set up many "one on one", or "one and small group" interactions with students as a means to observe and shape their thinking. Group work, for example, allows the teachers to visit each group and interact with them in a way that truly allows the teacher to “observe” thinking in a manner far beyond what’s possible in whole class instruction. In Math, sending kids to the board is a time honored technique that accomplishes the same purpose. We should give many “diagnostic” quizzes, which don’t really “count” for anything, but allow the teacher to gauge how well students understand the material. Giving students the opportunity to re-write papers or insisting they turn in rough drafts first, gives the teacher a chance to gently challenge ideas and shape thought vs. students only being allowed a “one time shot”. We should think of
assessment as diagnostic more often than as summative, final judgments.

7) The curriculum should train students in "meta-cognitive" skills; it should encourage students to think about their thinking and improve it. Strong students, for example, often ask themselves as they read a passage "What was the main point of what I just read? How would I summarize it?" whereas weak students never ask themselves these crucial questions; their eyes may move across the page and they think they've now 'read it', but are surprised when they do poorly on the ensuing quiz. We should help students analyze for themselves what they know and don't know.

Implications for us: There are basic techniques in which students should become proficient: taking notes, for example, and out-lining what they read. As high school teachers, we often wrongly assume these skills. Our courses should insist on these skills by checking notebooks, showing kids how to outline, and then insisting some work is completed in outline form. Helping students develop them helps them develop selfdiagnostic skills that are important to development as learners. Using “graphic organizers” or templates also help students develop metacognitive skills and organize their thinking. Montgomery Catholic has collected a series of graphic organizers available to our teachers here

8) Evaluation should be understood as a diagnostic tool to improve learning and teaching, not merely as a summative judgment. Diagnosis leads to prescription. Re-tests, re-writes of essays or paragraphs, re-trying things done poorly is important to helping students learn. It should not be regarded as an unusual “gift” from the teacher to the student, but built into the very structure of the curriculum.

Implications for us: For example, students in our freshman Composition I must write 12 “perfect” paragraphs in order to receive a passing grade. The first 10 paragraphs are graded either “acceptable” or “unacceptable”. If unacceptable, they must re-write the entire paragraph over, staple to the old paragraph, and resubmit. Only after students have had 10 acceptable paragraphs are they allowed to submit the final 2 paragraphs, each of which is given a letter grade. The grades on these last two are their grades for the first six weeks. In this way, Mrs. Ortega is able to work with students’ writing deficiencies through-out those weeks without them accumulating a series of poor grades if she had simply given each of the earlier paragraphs a letter grade. This kind of design is what we should strive for. Students are accountable through-out, but at the same time, the teacher practices with the student, helping him or her improve in areas that need correction or refinement. Another pundit once said that teachers should rethink their role as one of a “coach”. Good coaches never assume just because they’ve sketched out a play, that this play will now work on Friday night. Rather, they break the skill into small parts which they drill and practice on all week, leading up to the big game. Teachers should set up their courses where they can do similarly, helping students improve long before the big assessment is given.

9) The curriculum should build on successes. Research indicates success is a powerful motivator for future success.

Implications for us: Oftentimes as teachers we are tempted to take the opposite tact: We are excessively hard as the class begins in order to "teach" kids they will need to take our classes seriously. As a result; however, many conclude the A/B work is beyond them and begin to settle for minimal performance. Help students first build confidence, and then push harder as their confidence grows. Furthermore, we ought to make students' improvement and successes apparent to them. For example, teachers should keep portfolios of students’ writing and then have them compare their writing at the beginning of the year to the middle or end of the year. Seeing their own improvement encourages more growth.

10) Classes should be engaging and interesting. Class work and evaluations should encourage students not only to acquire new knowledge, but to extend it and use it in meaningful ways.

Implications for us: As a general rule of thumb, in a typical 72 minute class period, there should be no fewer than THREE distinct activities in class. Otherwise, students will drift off and become unproductive. To the extent possible, these activities should be very different: lecture, film, group work, oral presentations, library research, writing, assessment, skits or play-acting, problem solving, working with a partner, board work, etc. It is helpful (for discipline, as much as anything) that one of these activities might allow for students to interact with each other productively, rather than always working in silence. When we prepare classes, most of us are already familiar with the material. Our preparation time should be spent designing the multiple TYPES of activities that will help students accomplish the unit goals.

To the extent we incorporate these ten ideas into our classes, we can make the best of what brain research is telling us about being a good teacher. Let's do it!

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