I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been thinking and or reading about models of learning and designing for learning – it is a personal Pythonesque search for the educational holy grail – I am looking for a deeper logic or better understanding of the assumptions that sit underneath the models and processes we use in education – I can sense what I am after – but it remains tantalisingly out of my grasp.
I have been seeking connections by mapping intentional design processes across many contexts – I started with models for learning and learning outcomes (Biggs and Tang 2007) and “effective pedagogies” for teaching diverse students (Alton-Lee 2003), but more recently have explored the exhibit design process in museums (Houtgraaf and Vitali 2008), traffic calming or designing roads for pedestrian and vehicle safety, conversational design to maximise oncology patient understanding of treatment options, archaeological constructs for description and interpretation of objects with or without inscriptions (Gardin 1980), agile iterative design for software development to meet clients needs, government initiatives designed to drive citizenship, GANTT charts as design tools for project management of critical paths and logical dependencies in engineering and construction, and most recently checklists designed for the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery Saves Lives program (Gawande 2009)
Learners are complex, learning is complex and the processes that connect the two are exponentially more so. Designing the processes that connect learning with learners is high stake stuff. The costs of mistakes or inefficiencies in any of the above are socially, economically, politically and environmentally dire. For example, our current Minister of Education is promoting the implementation of National Standards a process designed to raise student achievement of numeracy and literacy skills.
This Government is ambitious for all our children and young people. We know that many of our students are among the most successful in the world, but we also know that too many are falling behind. Nearly one in five of our young people leave school without the skills and qualifications they need to succeed. This has to change.
That’s why lifting student achievement is a key priority. Students need good literacy and numeracy skills to participate in the curriculum, to stay engaged in learning, to leave school with good options, and ultimately to succeed in the workforce. Hon. Anne Tolley Minister of Education 2009 in National Standards Information for Schools.
When I look at learning in NZ schools there is a pedagogical tension between using “instrumental learning” processes where students are explicitly taught skills and strategies thought necessary for concept progression (more usually examination success in secondary schools) and using “relational learning” processes that build “I know what to do and why” understanding. It is a tension that is particularly evident in secondary schools where the second approach is represented as time hungry, uncertain and inefficient.
Many of those wanting to build relational understanding with students assume that spending time on rote procedural knowledge is an important precursor for developing deeper conceptual understanding. This seems like a common sense approach – a let’s keep a foot in both camps kind of approach. However, research findings in math education suggest otherwise (Pesek and Kirshner 2000). It seems more likely that, in maths education at least, time spent building prior instrumental understanding is an interference to, not an aid to, developing relational understanding.
Designing instructional experiences and national curricula to build relational understandings is challenging. It is easy to imagine why we feel more secure with designing learning experiences for rote procedural knowledge or skill acquisition. In fact, the only time I have been part of a dedicated approach to building teacher capability in designing learning experiences for relational knowledge was with the promise filled but ultimately of no consequence (aka now mostly forgotten) LISP (Learning in Science) projects in the 1970’s and 1980’s (Hipkins, R. et al. 2002)
The degree to which the LISP findings are reflected in the teachers' pedagogical practices and the students' received curriculum is less clear. Despite the pre-service programmes that include the LISP findings, and the in-service programmes run in some parts of the country as part of the 1993 science curriculum implementation work, the actual uptake and use of the LISP findings in classroom pedagogies and supporting resources is thought to be varied and has yet to be widely researched.
It seems classroom teachers at the time found the pedagogical approaches suggested by the LISP academics too challenging and the effective pedagogies for building science understandings failed to be implemented across classrooms in New Zealand.
There is no guarantee of success even when teachers are given the conceptual progressions for learning. We too often betray both the purpose and outcome of the progressions by turning them into teaching activities for instructional understanding. Given the conceptual understandings needed for solving linear equations (see below) we fragment the conceptual progressions and use/misuse them by teaching them as a sequence of memorisable facts/strategic routines rather than looking at them and designing learning experiences to build relational understanding of the I know what to do and why type.
Conceptual understandings needed for solving linear equations - NZC Level 5 Algebra (Petersen 2010)
1. notion of variable [generalisation] and isolating variable [Number knowledge concepts required]
2. notion of ‘equality’ [various meanings of ‘equals’ sign – not just ‘operate’ but equality]
3. notion and application of ‘inverse operations’ [retaining the ‘balance’ of the equation and links to part-whole / additive thinking from Number strategies and basic knowledge such as inverse operations/facts of addition/subtraction and multiplication/division]
4. notion of and operating with integers [Number knowledge and strategies to deal with operations with negative numbers]
5. notion of like terms and ability to operate on like terms
6. ability to understand and use the distributive principle [links to multiplicative thinking from Number strategies - generalisation]
7. notion of and ability to use simplification through strategies such as the distributive principle
8. ability to understand and have strategies to deal with multiple step/variable equations through the use of elimination and substitution
9. ability to understand and choose from available strategies to deal with simultaneous equations
I loved Gawande’s previous books “Better” and “Complications” but had been a little hesitant about purchasing his latest. I work in schools that use checklists in their planning and reporting and the teachers who use them often struggle to explain what learning experiences they have designed to meet the expectations within the checked box. Check listing seemed to me more often a form of pedagogical vacuity than anything else.
All of this is why I was surprised and undermined when I did succumb at the end of the summer break and order a copy of his latest book – “The checklist manifesto – How to get things right.”
Medicine like teaching is complex – Gawande’s description of how the WHO attempted to remedy surgical practice allows many parallels to be drawn with teaching. When I got to page 90 I hit this … try swapping teaching literacy/numeracy for surgery throughout.
“On the one hand, everyone firmly agreed: surgery is enormously valuable to people’s lives everywhere and should be made more broadly available. Even under the grimmest conditions, it is frequently lifesaving. And in much of the world, the serious complication rates seem acceptably low – in the 5 to 15 percent range for hospital operations.
On the other hand, the idea that such rates are “acceptable” was hard to swallow. Each percentage point, after all represented millions left disabled or dead. Studies in the United States alone had found that at least half of surgical complications were preventable. But the causes and contributors were of every possible variety. We needed to do something. What though wasn’t clear.” (Gawande 2009 p 90 and 91)
Gawande goes on to describe the suggestions for improving surgical practice; these ranged from more training programs, to incentive approaches such as the pay for performance schemes, to using ever advancing technologies, to “the most straight forward thing for the group to do” – “to formulate and publish under the WHO name a set of official standards for safe surgical care.”
Options that any educator who has sat around a table with others would be familiar with.
Eschewing these options (and I loved the reasoning used to reject them) Gawande goes looking for any examples of successful global public health interventions.
When he teases out the important ideas underneath the globally successful WHO interventions he finds that the essential requirements for success were that the intervention was "simple, measurable, and transmissible".
How Gawande settles on a strategy that involves “searching out the patterns of mistakes and failures and putting a few checks in place” is what makes the book a must read for educators. The solution seems such a simple thing and yet after many iterations and refinements it proves to be such a powerful strategy for improving the way surgical teams operate, for creating “the power for a group of people to work together.”
Gawande’s checklists are quite different from the ones I was familiar with in schools – these asked surgical teams to
Summarise and simplify what you do
Measure and provide feedback on outcomes.
Improve culture by building expectations of performance standards into work processes.
The Checklist Manifesto leaves me wondering if we might deal with the complexity of creating literate and numerate young people in a similar way.