By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato
School administrators are often faced with complex decisions about curriculum, assessment, and the oversight of both. There is a myopic condition that can occur as conversations lead people into a spiral of good intentions full of false understanding. This condition is the belief that learning is a one-to-one relationship, and that content is related to a course or single field of study. The truth is learning, real learning, is a one-to-many relationship where content can connect to an unpredictable number of areas if it is allowed to develop organically and time as a constant is removed.
Understanding One-to-Many Relationships
A one-to-many relationship is often used in database development. It is normally defined as a situation where an element of A may be linked to many elements of B, but a member of B is linked to only one element of A. For instance, think of A as mothers, and B as children. A mother can have several children, but a child can have only one mother.
In terms of education and learning, a one-to-many relationship is created when something learned in one context becomes relevant in another context. For example, a student in a math course learns about sample size. Then when they are working on a psychology research paper they apply that concept to their survey initiatives. I used math and psychology as examples because I have often spoken with students who enjoy psychology, but claim they are not skilled in math. Flipping the relationship, if students studied sample size mathematics in psychology I wonder if they would feel the same about their computational abilities?
Unlike the database model, there is no real restriction on the relationships between knowledge. An idea (a child) can form new paths and ideas and become a parent.
Supporting the Unpredictable
As administrators debate, decide, and set policy they should consider that the best outcomes are often unpredictable. The history of invention has taught the human race this lesson, yet we seem to constantly try to create outcomes instead of observing what is happening without constant intervention.
The only true way for students to experience one-to-many relationships is to set guidelines for teachers that stress a continuum of learning around a single topic. Most topics have many layers, and as students spiral through the topic they can experience connections to other topics.
The concept of mastery becomes a single question: Have I gone as far as I can go?
Each time a student re-enters the topic they move closer and closer to the answer to that question. They may never reach the end, but they will reach a satisfactory point where they can justify saying, “For now, I am finished.”
Supporting this type of learning is difficult. It requires the administration to discourage small unit based learning and timed slices of activities. School leadership also has to set policies and procedures that allow students to constantly revise and revisit previous projects and topics for additional credit and potential accolades.
From the top level down to the classroom, many aspects of daily life must change to accommodate the organic nature of a continuum of learning. One barrier many students face is an appointed single subject resource. Textbooks, websites, and other pre-selected and filtered materials box students into silo of information. Inside of a silo, they may not see connections to other ideas, and students may dislike the format(s). Department leaders need to be required, not requested, to diversify the options to allow students some choice in the formal materials required to meet the curriculum requirements.
One might think the internet allows for unlimited access to learning. Unfortunately unstructured materials are just as bad as a limited materials. Teachers are subject experts, and they need to help students make smart choices. Having diversity in resources, does not omit the need for standards.
As a computer science teacher I would often have three to four textbooks students could use. I did not set units of work with books, I set projects that I knew could be supported with all the books. Each book was structured differently and had an appeal to different students. Never forget, the medium is the message.
Large scale change to improve learning does not require administrators to sit in a room and write dozens of standards. Developing core concepts that people can understand and support creates a mission everyone can support. And ‘people’, must include students.
When you push students towards an endless formative outcome, the stress and pressure are as real as preparing for an all encompassing summative assessment. The only difference is the student(s) will work until they find the end, and not stop because someone has told them the end is now.