Thursday, August 16, 2012

Capacity focus, 55c: Using the Vygotsky ZPD window of learning opportunity concept, a spiral curriculum structure and the Bloom two-sigma learning challenge to develop mastery learning based courses of study

(Two Sigma/Digital learning transformation series 
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 )

As I look at the heading for this post, I think: we are getting close to being seriously technical about curriculum development. 

I will have to watch that, and try to lay out the post in a way that we can all use it! 
(NB: This stuff is very important to us as educators, as parents, and as citizens and stakeholders of education in our communities; if we are to create viable alternatives to a "business as usual" path that seems headed for trouble, so I must try, do let me know how well I do . . . )
I think the Vygotsky concept of a zone of proximal development -- the window of opportunity for learning -- that we can access at a given time based on our current level of capacity and potential, is a good pivot for our thoughts. 

So, let's look at it again:

What this is telling us, is that we need to start where we are and make progress in gradual steps in any given period where we are trying to learn. It is also showing us that, with well-structured help from More Knowledgeable Others [MKO's] -- teachers, parents, mentors, books, web and multimedia resources, even fellow classmates etc -- we can learn significantly more than we can on our own. And, as we saw, mastery based approaches that emphasise finding and fixing gaps through diagnostic and development exercises step by step can make a significant difference.

Let us also remind ourselves about the way a mastery based curriculum is structured:

Taking in Jerome Bruner's concept of spiralling curricula, the point that a spiral goes round and round in circles but makes progress from loop to loop, and the concept that certain key themes form a cluster of anchor points that ground an effective body of knowledge and skills -- and dashing in a bit of inspiration from our friendly local spider's web --  we can then come to a version of the spiral-web as a basic structure (more strictly, architecture) for the curriculum:

The Spiral learning web curriculum architecture (cf. details here)
This model applies in general terms at several levels, e.g. from the layout of a six-week half-term unit of study to the design of a whole school level or degree programme across several years, depending on the interpretation of "Unit." 

However the main level we have in mind is the design of a definite semester-length or year-length course in a programme of study, and the related design and related development of the course web site and resources. It is also directly applicable to designing a six-week, half-term module of study that I believe should be the basis for high school curricula.

In key steps of thought:
1 --> The Vygotsky ZPD/window of learning opportunity picture of what can reasonably be learned in the given time available, in light of experience of how much an "average" student of a given intake level can absorb, gives us a yardstick for how much content should be put into a given course or module of study. (This is rather like saying that when we construct a family budget, it should start with experience of what things cost and how much we spend per week or month.)

2 --> The other constraint is of course, what level of knowledge and skills, and what key knowledge, principles, skills, techniques etc are required for effective performance in the world of work etc, in the given area. That will pretty much give us an idea of how many courses we will need to gain the required competence.

3 --> We can use the full-time course of study workload as a yardstick of how much students should be doing per week. About 45 hours total effort is a College yardstick, and in High School, the typical workday is six or so hours in class and an expected 2 - 3 hours average -- this includes that some of that would be done during the weekend -- when students get home. That comes up to the same about 45 hours.

4 --> This is in fact the basis for the Carnegie Unit of Credit, the mysterious "credit" that we so often see in College prospectuses. The idea is that students should do about 45 hours of effort per week, across a 15 - 17 week semester. (NB: I favour 17 week semesters, but that puts me in a distinct minority! The more typical 15 - 16 week semester will have about 11 - 12 weeks available for main class time with the extra time being used up in major assignments, presentations and exams to round out the semester.)

5 --> A good yardstick is that each Credit for such a semester is 45 hours of effort, often divided across 15 hours contact time in a lecture/seminar based course, with the other 30 hours being for associated student effort on study, reading, assignments etc. 

6 --> That boils down to saying that full time students do 15 credits worth of courses per semester (where labs etc have a pro-rated credit-hour loading, but that is a complication we need not go into here), which corresponds to a nominal weekly workload of 45 hours for the hypothetical average student. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to over-load courses.

7 --> To convert to a part-time basis, a good rule of thumb is to run at the equivalent of a semester per year, i.e. you go at half the rate, nominal. (Bye-bye, sleep, entertainment and hobbies . . . )

8 --> These can be adjusted to the 11 - 13 week term-based, 30 classroom hour per week  high school system, by reckoning with the implication that students have about 15 hours per week of expected homework, readings, study, assignment/project time etc. (That means, homework should be balanced, with a "fair" allocation being based on the number of periods per subject. In short, study, reading, home work etc for a subject, should on average use up about half the classroom contact time, per week. And, remember, typical students are probably reading at 300 words/minute, teachers speak at 100 - 150 words per minute, and students will write only a fraction of that. Maybe 20 - 30 or less in a class, and 15 or so under test conditions? [Try a test to see where your students are. Also see how many words fill a sheet of paper: letter size paper, single spaced at 12 point Times Roman, handwritten on a typical sheet of paper etc.  As a rough guess, for that now "standard" typescript, maybe 600 - 700, for reasonable handwriting, maybe 250 or 300. Cf wiki here. ] )

 9 --> I have taken time to focus these issues, because in the Caribbean, we do not tend to plan based on reasonable, empirically grounded estimates of amount of work required to do a job. So, we tend to overload students, in effect biasing the window of learning opportunity to the "brighter" students. (And BTW, this seems to go all the way to university and CXC curriculum levels.)

10 --> This job loading question also extends to teaching staff. Overloaded teachers will cut corners and quality of learning for average-poor students will suffer. 
(And BTW, it should by now be clear that it is unreasonable to expect busy classroom teachers to do major curriculum development exercises in "spare" time. A sounder strategy is to have curriculum developers work with teachers and to give a class time load reduction corresponding to the effort to go into the development exercise. Failing this or something substantially equivalent, the curriculum development exercise will suffer. On this I recall being upbraided by a senior manager in front of my immediate managers once as being "lazy" while I was spending 12+ hours per day working, average, as a curriculum development project lead person on a programme that was a critical national strategic imperative. "On the cheap" does not work when the issue is that we as a region must now reshape the most critical strategic resource in our region: what we have between our ears.)
11 --> It is critical to profile three things to guide all else: where the students are at intake, where they can reasonably be on completing the period of study/course in the time available, and the key themes that define the knowledge, insights, and skills etc that are critical to success in the tasks that those who take the course will be expected to undertake. Which includes following periods of study.

12 --> This allows us to lay out the intake profile, the learning targets, and the pivotal points of content that define the key themes. 

13 --> Units of study then become the reasonable, experience based sequence of activities and content that moves from intake to outcome with high likelihood of success. 

14 --> As the mastery learning structure diagram shows, each unit will have to include in-unit diagnosis and remediation of gaps, as well as enrichment for the ones who are ahead of the game. 

15 --> A trick my mother used when she found herself teaching classes of 90 and more in primary school in the baby-boom 1960's was to use the high-achiever students as in effect tutoring assistants, in small groups. This has the effect of consolidating their achievement [if you want to really learn something try to teach it!], and develops all sorts of associated positive skills and attitudes. (And some students will get a taste for teaching, too.)

16 --> Such study groups multiply interactivity, give feedback and assistance with correcting gaps, i.e. they are capturing some of what the mastery learning research highlights as keys to instructional effectiveness.

17 --> Similarly, realistic student-chosen projects as major assignments are powerful motivators and help find and fix gaps in knowledge based on testing for performance. They also give confidence in the level of knowledge acquired, and in being able to perform in the real world.

18 --> Thus, we can see a pattern for learning activities that lead to success: a spiral path that starts where students are, responds to their needs, uses key case studies to frame what is needed by way of knowledge, skills, key principles, etc, and proceeds to systematically build up same.

19 --> the Assiniboine Community College (Canada) IDEAS model for instructional units has always appealed to me ever since I ran across it:
I -- INTRODUCTION that sets a context for the unit and brings out the key case study

D -- DETAILS are then examined and elaborated step by step (I love diagrams and short videos, multimedia slide shows, well structured readings, fill in the blanks summary recall exercises etc)

E -- EXERCISES & EXAMPLES help develop problem solving skills

A -- ASSIGNMENTS give realistic tasks and set projects thsat reinforce and show capacity developed

S -- SUMMARIES draw together the key substance in a way that promotes early, frequent review and retention
20 --> A portfolio of achievements then allows for realistic, reliable and credible certification of learning outcomes.

21 --> Such a course should then be embedded in a wider curriculum, which I think should, generally speaking, follow the Tee-model at secondary level (and a version of the same for college level programmes, but reflecting the career-based paraprofessional or professional specialisations that are being pursued at that level):
 22 --> Beyond the above, a curriculum should be integrated with national development long term needs and strategic priorities, conceptualised in a 20 year framework of thought. 

23 --> Onward, the issues of sustainability and national capacity development have to be factored in, if we are to have a sound base for progress.

24 --> Primary school level and early childhood programme development face some of the same factors, multiplied by the implications of the early stages of growth and development that are ongoing in children of the relevant ages. (The scope for that is beyond what can reasonably be dealt with in a blog post. Besides, this is the area that seems to have had the most effort put in across time in our region. What I would say is that it is reasonable to expect that at age 11 or so, students should be literate and numerate, should be able to write a well organised composition in sound English, and should have the rudiments of science, general knowledge, civics and digital literacy. On that basis, much can be done. Without it, frustration is sure to follow.)
In short, a High School level or college level curriculum development effort is a significant task, and requires a major, sustained, supported effort backed up by education managers who understand what is being undertaken. 

A syllabus is not a curriculum, and a classroom teacher's scheme of work to be done is not a curriculum. When courses are a part of a wider programme, they need to be co-ordinated to ensure that students are always in their windows of opportunity for learning, i.e. the scope, sequence and structure of the units across a programme have to be very carefully integrated for success. Curriculum is not a piecemeal ad hoc matter.

I could go on and on, giving war stories and more, but I think the above is enough to begin to guide planning and development.

What remains here is to highlight that the digital technology revolution transforms accessible learning resources and the possibility for capturing enough of the key mastery learning interventions to get much of the Bloom two-sigma effect

I am particularly impressed with the potential for the 7" Android Tablet in a folio with a keyboard, and hosting e-books, a version of the Open Office free office productivity suite, software development tools, and even Bible study software, etc:

 The question is, are we willing to make the effort?

And like unto it, what happens if we don't?

So, I again ask: Why not now, why not here, why not us? END