Note: This is the second in our series on Revolutionizing Education. In the first article we looked at Sal Khan and the Khan Academy. Join us as we continue looking at revolutionizing education through curriculum development. In this article, we begin identifying the levers that can be used to revolutionize education and give ideas that can be implemented to help make changes. A special thanks is in order to Pollinate Ventures for identifying many of these levers.

Course Design ImageOne of the key ideas identified in our study with the Girard and Pollinate Foundations, was the idea of the coverage teaching model versus the performance teaching model. In the coverage model a student is presented with material that addresses the objectives. However, there is often a lack of precisely identified outcomes designed to demonstrate a student’s true mastery of the objectives and a truly coherent structure (goal) to the course. Movies and lectures provide valuable content, yet the high-level thinking that is necessary in a competitive global environment is largely ignored. In a similar fashion, role-playing, debates, and projects while offering more promise, often miss their intended mark. This typical planning, while well intentioned, rarely achieves meaningful success in student performance.

In contrast, the performance model focuses on identifying specific evidence of mastery. These specific outcomes are carefully chosen to demonstrate the student’s understanding of the major concepts. Once identified, the outcomes are clearly described in great detail and the means of measurement are constructed. The emphasis is upon the overall course connection rather than individual assignments. To ensure the necessary level of mastery, student assignments are designed to address these major outcomes. With clearly identified expectations, the instructor receives powerful information regarding a student’s achievement. The data created by the student, in these meaningful activities, establishes compelling evidence as to the best course of actions. When this data is combined with specific strategies to aid a student in improving their performance, a powerful systematic learning model is created.

While many of the tools used are the same in both methods, there are two key components lacking in the coverage model. The first is the ability to meaningfully apply data to shape learning outcomes. The second are clearly defined outcomes. These outcomes are necessary to develop the the data necessary for designing the best, next step for a particular student. The coverage model can often be described as an express train with no stops between destinations. Lacking an opportunity for the student to understand the material and improve their mastery.

If the term mastery seems familiar it should. Programs that exhibit the greatest success focus upon mastery. Holding students accountable to outcomes that are well documented provides a clear goal for the students, in addition to the instructor. This presumes that a student’s performance is used to prescribe a specific course of action when the desired goal is not met. Mastery, not the school year dictates a student’s progression.

Despite its unassumingly simple nature, mastery poses a major problem for most learning programs. Mastery simply doesn’t lend itself to the current educational model. School day schedules, support programs, and the necessary time for teacher planning often provide significant barriers to mastery of objectives. By their very nature, these barriers steer most instruction toward the coverage model.

A tool that many exceptional programs have found successful is Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design provides an easy to implement system for course design. Through its clear identification of big ideas and essential questions it provides a potent framework for the identification of desired outcomes. These outcomes are addressed through the thoughtful creation of supporting activities. Such activities are constructed to achieve not only the specific lesson objectives but also the course objectives. This framework lends itself to differentiation and a personalized learning experience.

Constructing a course based upon Understanding by Design should not be taken lightly. The time commitment and the effort required to design activities that clearly aid learners in achieving a specific learning outcome are significant. Expect to spend 30-50 hours on each course. However, any short term pain is well worth the effort. The time invested up-front in designing a course in this manner will provide significant dividends in course management and learner feedback. In addition it will help you implement the next tool in our discussion of Revolutionizing Education.

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