Making Learning a Constant

In 1970, my wife and I were part-time instructors at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colorado, while I worked toward my doctorate. Mary was teaching Biology-related classes; I taught General Anthropology. At the beginning of the school year, we were fortunate to have two days of professional development under the direction of Donald Stewart, an educator who had become frustrated with “traditional” approaches to education and had carefully thought out a new direction to investigate with the intent of improving student learning.

He began with the observation that, in spite of knowing that children don’t all learn at the same rate, schools generally proceed on the administratively-convenient principle that  “Time of Learning is a Constant, Learning is a Variable”.  Children move through the grades together, guaranteeing that they will attain wide variations within their peer groups in terms of successful learning. This does, however, make it easy to schedule, to hire teachers trained for a narrow spectrum of curriculum, and to talk with parents who no doubt had come through the same experience themselves.

Stewart initiated a “radical” new approach; he reversed the principle on which schools were based and he said, “Let’s make Learning the Constant, and Time of Learning the Variable”. What an idea! But how was that to be accomplished? He gave some examples:

a)      There was a four-year nursing school in Wisconsin that was concerned that they were turning out some graduates who were not as well-prepared as would be desirable, yet they had met the usual requirements for grades and course credits. Grades were assigned on a percentage system, with 80% required to attain a “C” grade. The question arose, “As a patient, I would like to know which 20% the student did not learn—changing linens, giving injections, what?” A reasonable concern.

Under Stewart’s guidance, the faculty met in an extensive series of discussions, to determine exactly what it was that they wanted every (100%) graduate to know and be able to do. Once that task was completed, these “new requirements” were handed out at the beginning of a student’s entry into the program, and with the caveat, “you don’t graduate until you have mastered 100% of these, regardless of how long it takes!” This was heresy, it essentially was handing out the “final exam” on the first day! But consider this—that exam was as comprehensive as the faculty had wanted to make it, it specified exactly what the student needed to know, and took away a measure of the anxiety students experience when confronted by the unknowns to be included on “tomorrow’s exam”. When this was put into place, after several years it was noted that most of the students completed everything in four years; some did it in three, and some others took five years. But the one thing they had in common was that all of them had learned 100% of the skills and content necessary to be a competent nurse.

b)      Stewart applied the same principles in other settings, ranging from juvenile detention centers where this significantly reduced the recidivism rate (students were being released with the skills necessary to survive effectively in mainstream society), through elementary schools and high schools, to industry and business. He wrote a number of books, most now out of print, including “Behavioral Learning System—An Approach to Instruction” .

c)        In all settings, the basic idea was the same—-identify what it is that you want people to learn, and require them to learn all of it. During our workshop, he put this approach into action with the Biology Department.  There were several instructors, each of whom taught a section of Freshman General Biology. He directed them to individually make a list of everything that they thought was necessary for a student to have a good understanding of basic Biology; they then looked at all of the lists together and  “negotiated” a final list which was to be everything that was to be required, for all students. Each instructor was allowed to add some personal topics, as long as the consensus formed the main core.

d)      My wife and I decided to apply the principles to the classes we were teaching, and some of the results were terrific. She had 16 one-semester Biology students, she handed out the comprehensive final the first day of class. Three students finished before Christmas break, ten finished at the semester in mid-January, and the other three finished at various times during the second semester. Funny thing—all of them went on to major in some field related to Biology and, when asked why, “This is the first time I felt that I really understood a subject, and I liked it”.

For elementary schools, the general focus in the primary grades is on basic skill development, in order to provide students with the tools necessary to learn effectively in other areas. Using this approach, a school staff would

(1) first establish the sequence of skills learning units normally included in grades K-3, to guide student activity in a particular skill area such as Reading.

(2) Next, all the teachers for those grades, including Title I Reading, Special Education, and ESL, would divide up the K-3  learning units with the understanding that each teacher would be teaching a particular unit to students who were at that place in the curriculum, regardless of the students’ grade levels. It should be emphasized that students would only be “mixed” in this manner for skill development; for all other subject areas they would still be with their grade level peers.

(3) Students in grades K-3 would be administered a diagnostic test in order to be properly placed within the sequence of skills. There are a number of these assessments available, such as DIBELS, STAR, SRA, and others.

(4) Reading groups would not be permanent; there must be the opportunity for students to change groups as skills are mastered. Periodic assessments must be included in order to closely monitor student progress, and provide the avenues for upward movement as appropriate.

This approach might require additional personnel. That might be through part-time trained paraprofessionals; the fact that all students in the targeted grade levels would all be receiving instruction during the same time period makes scheduling the extra help relatively easy.

For middle schools, a somewhat different emphasis would be used. There is an assumption (sometimes erroneous) that by the time students reach the upper elementary and middle level grades, they have the basic skills to apply to other areas of the curriculum. Additionally, many middle schools follow some variation of  “x” number of class periods a day, with a student meeting with a number of different teachers throughout the school day. This would make it difficult to focus on skills in the same manner as described for the primary grades; however, as the skills identified would be quite different there are a number of options to providing the instruction. In my opinion, the focus should be on the so-called “Twenty-first Century Skills”, among them Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication are highlighted. These lend themselves to implementing activities, perhaps through Exploratory or Activity Classes, that take advantage of the strong tendency of children in this age group to want to “work with others”; an almost infinite number of possibilities immediately become appropriate.

This then, is a concept that emphasizes the identification of skills and knowledge that we want all students to master; then establishes a structure within which that learning can occur. If well-implemented, Learning can successfully become a Constant.

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