I began writing standards in the summer of 2011; I took the provincially mandated curriculum and re-wrote learning outcomes into ‘I can’ statements to describe what students should be able to do. For example, for the Cell Unit in Biology 12, the standards I created were:
|Core||A1. I can recognize and explain the function of cell organelles.|
|Core||A2. I can write, work with, and explain the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.|
|Advanced||A3. I can relate the role of organelles to the specialization of cells in various organs of the body|
|Advanced||A4. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products.|
For comparison purposes the original learning outcomes for this unit are included at the end this blog. As I began to work with standards I have to admit I had a number of long-standing assumptions about student learning.
Some of my OLD assumptions were:
1. Curriculum as ladder. The curriculum was a ladder that students needed to climb and only some would make it to the top. The bottom rungs were the knowledge pieces that needed to be mastered to reach the top rungs, which were the application, synthesis and creation ones. And if you ask just about any high school content teacher they will generally tell you: students must master ALL the knowledge pieces BEFORE attempting higher order understanding and application. Others have considered the implications of this point of view, see Scott McLeod’s Do students need to learn lower-level factual and procedural knowledge before they can do higher-order thinking?
2. Penalty for slow start. Early lack of success in the course was a reliable predictor for student’s overall ability to challenge the course (The course was like a ladder as well; if the student did not start climbing early and do so continuously, the student could not make it to the top).
3. All standards must be in play. Students needed to master every single standard; all standards had value and relevance to the overall fabric of the course.
4. Only goals related to the individual mattered. Success or lack thereof was all about student’s capabilities as an individual.
Over the last 4 semesters (2 years), standards have produced pointed conversations, observations and reflections for both students and me around the process of learning. These opportunities revealed trends that did not match my original assumptions.
Observations that contradicted my long-held assumptions were:
1. Mastery of knowledge pieces not needed for creating big picture understandings.
This is not to say knowledge is not important or unnecessary!
When presented with a big picture that had relevance and significance, students on their own, reached for relevant knowledge pieces when and where appropriate. For example, students were asked to consider different organs of the body and relate the cell structures to the function of that organ; they had to create ‘stories’ about the organs’ life. When students built story like schema they independently selected and placed relevant knowledge pieces into their schema. The act of weaving the knowledge into a larger schema gave roots to the knowledge pieces; the pieces were imbedded into a vibrant medium, not lying inert in a useless heap in short-term memory. The creating of big schema created questions (empty spaces) that were meaningful and held by the student which allowed them to place content pieces into the empty spots.
In the cell unit mentioned above, I would traditionally begin with mastery of the functions for all the organelles (Standard A1 in the table above) and THEN progress onto understanding how the organelles worked together as a team to make products inside of cells. By the time student had waded through all the minutiae, many had already lost sight of the big picture (why are we studying cells? how are cells relevant to the study of the human body? how do cells work as a unit?). The student might master PLO A1 but the cognitive load of doing so was so great that when they tried to apply this knowledge the student was trapped in a maze of unrelated trivia. Moreover none of these individual pieces had relevance to the student (unless the student had significant prior knowledge).
2. Learning not a linear process for all students.
Early lack of success did not predict lack of success in the course. Some students experienced long periods of no apparent growth or learning (I call it ‘flat line’ learning). Based on test results, conversations and observations, it looked like the student was not being successful in the course. However, all of a sudden (and sometimes months into the course) these students would have a breakthrough and master large amounts of the course all at once (I call it ‘all at once’ learning). In fact for some students it was the entire course in the last week of the semester, after several months of ‘flat line’ learning.
3. Prior knowledge and personal interests gives students different perspectives and working knowledge. All students do not need to know the exact same knowledge pieces to become experts.
When students acquired knowledge where interests and personal perspective took them, they would dig deeper into a specific topic. Rather than knowing many unrelated facts (example know every single organelle function) they discovered interconnected knowledge around their area of expertise and interest.
4. Individual learning did impact the success of the overall group; learning could benefit both the individual and the community.
When students worked as a collaborative group each member was able to offer their knowledge pieces to the group and allow for overall success of the group. That individual growth significantly and positively impacted the class community and as such should be recognized and made evident. As opposed to breeding a culture of ‘every human for themselves’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, collaboration needs to be embraced as a viable and important way to succeed. Just as pieces of knowledge are inert when amassed in a random pile, students, their ideas and thoughts, are not inert vessels to be kept in isolation from one another. The culture of the room needs to encourage constant and consistent cross-pollination of ideas, thoughts and understandings.
When students worked as an interconnected team to co-construct meaningful schema around a topic, each learner brought their expertise and perspective to the table; individual success advantaged the group and vice-versa. The learning is enriched and extended because of the interactions that occur. Each learner does not need to know all the specific knowledge pieces to work collaboratively on solving a larger problem. Groups that were diverse were able to generate creative and unique schema over groups that were more homogeneous. Learning is then viewed as a process that occurs as collaboration occurs.
Based on these observations I decided to tinker with standards and their application once more to:
- Fold smaller (Googlable) knowledge standards into the larger, power standards (knowledge pieces would be implied by the power standard) and reduce the overall number of standards presented to students even more. (For example in Unit A I reduced the standards to the 2 advanced ones).
- Work with students to develop re-occurring schemas (big pictures or ‘stories’) for the course. Extend the curriculum to make it relevant to the student.
- Let go of students knowing the same knowledge pieces and encourage specific knowledge to vary from student to student.
- Encourage public collaboration at all points in the learning process.
- Circle back through course several times (more than 5 times) and in several ways to activate and allow for multiple entry points for flat line learners.
- Summative assessment at the end of course that allows students to show what they know and advantages their overall mark (any units that show improvement could completely replace old outdated evidence).
- Provide daily opportunities for shared experiences that invite active participation and are low risk (no summative assessment, for ‘fun’). Exploration, creation and personal connection are upfront.
- Daily and consistent focus (in terms of conversation, activities and fewer summative assessments) on the process of learning over and above the products.
Without educational alternatives that expand and diversify meaningful life options and pathways available to young people, we risk reinforcing an educational system that only serves the interests of elites, breeding a culture of competition for scarce opportunities.
Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design
Original PLO’s – (Source www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/pdfs/sciences/2006biology1112.pdf)
Describe the following cell structures and their functions: cell membrane, cell wall, chloroplast, cytoskeleton, cytoplasm, Golgi bodies, lysosomes, mitochondria, nucleus (including nuclear pore, nucleolus, chromatin, nuclear envelope and chromosomes), ribosomes (polysomes), smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles and vesicles
State the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.
Describe how the following organelles function to compartmentalize the cell and move materials through it: rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, vesicles, Golgi bodies, cell membrane
Identify cell structures depicted in diagrams and electron micrograph.