9. Curricular Precison: Tools and Skills in the New Learning Infrastructure

Designing down for the purpose of creating curriculum requires “chunking.” Breaking apart the mastery statements. Chunking starts with disassembling the district’s general mastery statement into mastery statements for each subject.

The word “chunking” is used instead of “deconstruct,” because that word was used in the days when national standards were popular. While external standards continue to have some value, they are NOT a starting place for the new learning infrastructure.

External subject area standards in their early days were a way for government to micromanage curriculum.

The new learning infrastructure considers external standards later in the developmental process, mostly as a “litmus test.” A check to see what might have been missed in the internal development of mastery statements and the curriculum they engender.

Proof of alignment in the new learning infrastructure involves thorough examination of words, phrases and even subliminal meanings and connotations. In other words, the study of science is not in a domain by itself. It crosses over into other intentions for student learning. And vice versa, because the study of science is dependent on language, social needs and wants, mathematical analysis, and other skills.

The district’s science mastery statement is chunked into course/grade level mastery statements. Like the one Mary Chapman had to create in her teacher education program. And then defend almost to the point of exasperation. As frustrating as that experience was at first, it taught Mary the importance of giving attention to detail.

Giving attention to detail is what curriculum development is about! And, in case you are wondering, it does not stop there. The curriculum for Mary’s course contains just three elements: (1) the course mastery statement, (2) unit outcomes that spell out in greater detail each element of the mastery statement, and (3) components that break down the unit outcome into teachable and learnable pieces established for each period of instruction.

A “period of instruction” can be one onsite class 55 minutes long, up to four or five such classes, or virtual contact with students via Zoom or another platform. The use of components communicates with students where that program of studies is heading and what is expected of them in terms of learning.

Unit outcomes and their components are the best evidence that a curriculum is precise, and are preeminent tools used by teachers to focus on measurable student knowledge areas and skills.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 7

After our professors taught us the intricacies of creating mastery statements at the district, subject area, and course levels, we were ready to try our hands at curriculum development. And their demands were just as stringent in accomplishing that task.

Because of the allegiance to the design down and deliver up principle, the mastery links looked like this:

 

My professors told us the next step in design down would be expanding on the course mastery statement in ways it can be taught piece by piece. Over the timespan allocated in course scheduling. The pieces were divided into unit outcomes and components.

At first, I did not understand the logic behind that process. Why couldn’t we just list the areas of learning indicated in the mastery statement and teach those elements one after the other?

The answer to that question took us back to Bloom’s Taxonomy. If the taxonomy is ignored, as it often is, our tendency as teachers would be to keep everything at the remembering and understanding levels. In other words, the first element of the course mastery statement that calls for students to “define” and “explain” could be covered and assessed in 30 minutes.  

As I learned when defending a portion of my course mastery statement, there is much more to the new learning infrastructure than “covering” basics like that. While verbs define and explain fall into the mere understanding level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the content fields are much more substantive.

The two content fields involve answering these two questions: Why should we think of science as a scholarly activity? Why is the use of the scientific method the best way to study?

In my curriculum the professors said the unit outcome should be written using as many categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy as possible. So here is what I developed:

UNIT OUTCOME # 1: Students will define science as a scholarly activity by describing its emphasis on acquiring background or contextual information, using that information to formulate reasonable theories, creating hypotheses based on those theories, and conducting experiments to either support or discard a hypothesis. Students will extrapolate from those techniques a way to study any subject, explain why it is effective, and create an example of how new information is better remembered when associated with past learning.

The unit outcome provides an overview of the complete intention for student learning. It connects all elements in ways that show they are contiguous and mutually necessary. Components align with the overview “unit outcome,” and are designed to ensure learning over time and a full understanding of the unit outcome’s goals. Once components are learned, the students are ready to be assessed formatively over the entire unit outcome.

COMPONENTS:

  • Identify and list types of background and contextual information useful in scholarly inquiry.
  • Explain and demonstrate how someone can use such information to create a theory.
  • Define “hypothesis” as something coming from a theory and give an example.
  • Demonstrate how a hypothesis can be tested using a simple scientific experiment.
  • Demonstrate how background knowledge, theory development, and hypothesis testing can be used in the study of any subject.
  • Explain how that activity can stimulate better retention of new learning using one or more examples.

After completing this exercise, our professors arranged an opportunity for us to work with teachers and classrooms in the local school district. I was assigned to a seventh-grade science classroom for an orientation conference and five 55-minute periods. The teacher, Mrs. Celia Johnson, and I discussed our collaboration ahead of time.

Insights from Mrs. Johnson

Mrs. Johnson had worked with my professors many times before and knew what to expect when I arrived in her classroom. We discussed my university professional development courses, and how they were different than most teacher education processes in the past. She understood the new learning infrastructure strategies and why they were important for the future of education.

Mrs. Johnson, who introduced herself as Celia, asked me how I felt about the process so far. I told her it was interesting but perplexing. The logic behind setting up mastery statements made sense, but sometimes seemed overdone. Also, coming up with a curriculum aligned with every nuance and possible dimension of a topic or subject seemed excessive. I admitted to sometimes wishing the whole thing could be more straightforward.

Celia understood my frustrations. She had experienced them herself. Both of us were young enough to become immersed in tweets, texting, emotionally charged entertainment, jargon filled conversation, the flood of acronyms, and media that offered simple answers to complex questions. The real world constituted a barrage on the senses, little of it meant to stimulate contemplation, reflection, or an exploration of meaning.

Both Celia and I knew much modern communication was a kind of trivial pursuit designed to make money and keep people happy enough to seek more products and entertainment. Neither of us put a moralistic or religious mantle on Twenty First Century life. But accepted the idea human beings deserve more. And can become more.

Devising unit outcomes and components that had depth and met criteria given us by Bloom’s Taxonomy was exhausting. Just writing Unit Outcome #1 took me two hours, and subsequent rewrites even more time. The same was true with preparing its components. Celia laughed because she had experienced the same thing!

Both of us also had a queasy feeling mastery statements were too abstract, and full of big words and run-on sentences for middle school kids to understand them. I really wanted to tone down the course mastery statement, unit outcome and component to simpler and more direct language. But my professor would not allow it.

Celia understood, as she had felt the same way I did. How in the world would a seventh-grade student, traversing from childhood to adulthood, get their heads around a word and practice like hypothesis?

As we talked, it became apparent that both of us as girls had mastered big words and complex ideas while in middle school. We became immersed in the Harry Potter books. And Celia’s mother was a big Lord of the Rings fan when she was in the upper elementary grades.

While many middle level boys did not read books like those, several of them were intrigued with technology, mechanics, and futuristic science. Full of big words and ideas.

Our memories also told us that in many ways we were bored in seventh and eighth grades. Classroom activities seemed more like repetitive indoctrination into basic stuff. Even a rehash of material already covered in grades kindergarten through six.

Maybe the new learning infrastructure made sense for improving 21st Century living. Celia had come to believe that. And I was starting to get the message.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: