Note: This section synthesizes content and is drawn directly from The Implementation of Alternative Assessment Procedures and Washington State Reform (1998). Doctoral Dissertation, Seattle Pacific University, Dr. Duane B. Baker.
The traditional model of teaching and learning in the public schools is not adequate to prepare students for life in the 21st Century. This realization is the major catalyst for educational reforms we see today. Since the late 1980s, the American education system has been based on an approach that focuses on essential skills and knowledge. Standards are the fundamental abilities and understandings identified as necessary for successful adult citizens, and throughout the 1990s, standards became the basis for many school reform efforts. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind, mandating that all students be proficient in standards, and that proficiency be measured annually with standards-based assessments (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).
Annual assessments are not new. Before Standards, student achievement scores were distributed in a bell-shaped curve, with the 50th percentile being the acceptable standard. As our economy became more globalized, workers needed more skills and knowledge to remain competitive in the job market; the 50th percentile was no longer acceptable. Therefore, educational reform efforts moved away from academic proficiency being measured by norms (normal bell curve) to criteria standards that all students are expected to meet. Therefore, reform efforts demand that 100% of students be proficient, regardless of differences in ability or opportunity. For educators, this means the focus has to be on “student learning.” For all students to learn we cannot rely solely on curriculum and assessment alignment: Instruction must also be aligned with how students learn. In our new reform context, cognitive science and learning theory provide a foundation to maximize student learning.
Our work originates from primary research examining effective teaching and learning, generated over the last 15 years of standards-based, criterion-referenced, educational reform. A single variable, originally called the Constructivist Teaching Variable, correlated with student achievement and was the only variable that mitigated the effects of poverty (Abbott and Fouts, 2003). This powerful realization propelled development of the variable into a construct we call Powerful Teaching and Learning. When classroom practice manifested this construct, standardized test scores were higher, regardless of poverty (Baker, Gratama, Peterson, Thompson, 2010).
The books How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Research Council, 1999a) and How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (National Research Council, 1999b) provide a synthesis of the research behind Powerful Teaching and Learning. Extensive examination of developments in cognitive science over the last several decades indicates that students benefit most from instruction that manifests three constructs: active-inquiry, in-depth learning, and performance assessment. When teachers reported and were observed employing classroom practices aligned with these constructs, achievement improved for students (Abbott & Fouts, 2003).
Cognition mirrors information-processing systems. The mind, like a computer, stores information in neural networks that are activated and connected by thought processes. Teaching and learning aligned with cognitive theory effectively integrate new experiences with existing networks of knowledge. The more connections there are between networks, the deeper and more lasting learning becomes. This means that educators must facilitate experiences that allow students to discover new learning and must relate these experiences to each student’s existing knowledge base.
The switch (in the late 1980s through the early 1990s) from a norm-referenced education system to a criterion-referenced system based on standards called for a significant and fundamental shift in instructional philosophy. Its implications for teaching and learning cannot be over-emphasized. Hyerle (1996) discussed this fundamental change regarding theories of cognition. He called it a “cognitive revolution” (p. 13), and claimed that we began a slow institutional transformation away from rote behaviorism, closed definitions of intelligence, and the static structure of knowledge. The guiding term for this cognitive revolution in instructional philosophy is Constructivism. The current reform agenda calls for all students to learn, and so requires instructional theory that supports this goal. It is a commonly held belief that the quality of teacher instruction is central to reform goals (Marzano, Pickering & McTighe, 1993; McTighe & Ferrara, 1995; Shepard, 1995; Stiggins, 1988, 1992, 1995, 1996; Wiggins, 1990, 1993). The nature of contemporary, reform-like instruction is aligned with Post-Modern and Authentic approaches to instruction.
Post-Modern philosophy adapts Constructivist learning theories to instructional practice. From this perspective, all knowledge is constructed in the minds of individuals, and teaching embodies a set of values identified as “difference, particularity, and irregularity” (Elkind, 1997), recognizing a spectrum of learning needs. Post-Modern classrooms are student-centered and intentionally incorporate social learning, individual investigations, creative expression, and differentiated instruction.
As the new standards-based movement was launched across the nation, Newmann and Wehlage (1993) established five standards of Authentic Instruction, including:
All of these require a fundamentally different approach to instruction in the classroom. For example, teaching methods related to authentic instruction include using manipulatives and real-life learning opportunities relevant to students’ prior experiences. Authentic education’s goal is to develop thinking skills for lifelong self-directed learning.
Cognitive research suggests that meaningful learning is reflective, constructive, and self-regulated (Bransford & Vye, 1989; Davis & Maher, 1990; Marzano, Brandt, Hughes, Jones, Presseisen, Rankin & Suhor, 1988; ). Studies in cognitive psychology consistently show that students learn better from hands-on, holistic learning experiences (Dietel, Herman & Knuth, 1991). Rote exercises such as structured drills are not effective if the goal is to move students toward higher-level, analytic ways of thinking. Researchers propose that “to know” something does not mean that a student simply receives the knowledge; it means the student is able to interpret it and relate it to other knowledge. As a result of educational reform efforts, hands-on, performance-based testing flourished in the early 1990s (Peterson & Knapp, 1993). The problem is: Although assessment modalities changed, instructional practice was not necessarily altered (Baker, Gratama & Bachtler, 2002; Baker, Gratama & Bachtler, 2003).
Constructivist theory proposes that humans construct their own understandings through a cycle of experience and reflection. This cycle is dependent upon the application of cognitive science as new experiences are accommodated by reflection upon their relationships to existing structures. Learners need meaning, conceptual understanding, and real-world connections, not just facts. Constructivist philosophy impacts curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Curriculum must fit each student’s individual knowledge base and developmental needs (Sutherland, 1992), and build or accommodate new learning with a hands-on, problem-solving approach. Instruction must incorporate higher-order thought questions to help students make connections, and social dialogue to enable metacognition and analysis of learning. Assessment must be student-centered and offer an array of authentic options. Assessments of student learning that are homogeneous and result in a norm-referenced grading system are not consistent with constructivist learning.
Neuropsychological research has confirmed that multiple, complex, and concrete experiences are essential for meaningful teaching and learning. In their book, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, Caine and Caine (1991) examine in detail the way the brain learns. The authors suggest that in order to learn, the brain must be involved with “active processing” (p. 147). Caine and Caine describe active processing as “the consolidation and internalization of information, by the learner, in a way that is both personally meaningful and conceptually coherent. It is the path to understanding rather than to simple memory” (p. 147). Active processing assumes a person asks reflective questions about a learning experience: “What did I do?” “Why did I do it?” or “What did I learn?”
Cognitive theories of learning promoted a shift in educational philosophy and promoted the standards-based reforms that dictate all aspects of contemporary education in America. Lorrie Shepard (1989) summarized this shift in cognitive theory:
The notion that learning comes about by the accretion of little bits is outmoded learning theory. Current models of learning based on cognitive psychology contend that learners gain understanding when they construct their own knowledge and develop their own cognitive maps of the interactions among facts and concepts [...]. Real learning cannot be spoon-fed one skill at a time. (p. 5)
Put simply, Shepard argues that if we want students to be able to solve open-ended problems and work cooperatively in groups, we should allow students to do so as part of their routine. According to Michaels (1988), “The clear message of reform is that we need to examine our basic philosophical beliefs about teaching, learning, the nature of human beings, and the kinds of environments that maximize growth for teachers and students alike” (p. 3).
Although Newmann and Wehlage (1993) developed their five standards of Authentic Instruction, they also pointed out that research at the time was not definitive about whether or not Authentic Instruction improves student learning more than traditional forms of instruction. They recommended that additional research be conducted to determine whether Authentic Instruction produces notable performance effects. Three studies in Washington State did just that, and have indeed found the links to academic achievement hypothesized by Newmann and Wehlage a decade earlier (Fouts, Brown & Thieman., 2002; Abbott & Fouts, 2003; Brown & Fouts, 2003).
Several studies (Baker, Gratama, Peterson, Thompson, 2010; Fouts, Brown & Thieman., 2002; Abbott & Fouts, 2003; Brown & Fouts, 2003) have revealed strong correlations between student achievement and the presence of Powerful Teaching and Learning in schools. These studies involved more than 15,000 classroom observations over an eight-year period. Powerful Teaching and Learning pulls together all of the theory and practice that aligns with an education system that seeks to educate all students. The purpose of the Facilitator Guide is to help teachers put the research into practice.
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