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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Structures for Standards

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Structures for Standards. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2000. www.KaganOnline.com

Imagine this: After hearing a lecture and reading events leading up to the civil war, students pair up. In each pair, one is assigned the role of a southern plantation owner, the other is a northern abolitionist. They play Paraphrase Passport in role for about five minutes. In the process they become more engaged with and later will retain more of the content. Further, they have become better able to articulate oral arguments, and they have strengthened their listening and communication skills. All of this occurred with no special lesson planning on the part of the teacher because the teacher is versed in Kagan structures. Paraphrase Passport just seemed like the appropriate structure to use in that teachable moment.

Later in the lesson, the students create a Team Mind Map of the events of the war. They retain more content (many students are visual learners) and obtain valuable information processing skills, learning to organize and chunk information and distinguish core concepts, main ideas, and supporting elements. Through the Kagan structures students surpass the standards: They go beyond the content and skills of the discipline because embedded in each structure are additional learning opportunities β€” a hidden curriculum. As the students use Team Mind Mapping they learn skills of taking turns, reaching consensus, and respecting ideas different from their own β€” all of which will serve them well in the job world of the twenty-first century which places at a premium teamwork and communication skills. By using Kagan structures teachers enhance dramatically their students' learning of the discipline content, skills of the discipline, and life skills.

Structures are powerful tools enabling teachers to reach the standards and reach beyond the standards.

Structures provide a remarkable, unique approach to reaching high standards. Intelligently applied, they allow educators to deliver the content and skills called for in the various standards documents without rewriting the curriculum. Further, the structures provide an added benefit β€” they foster life skills which are at the heart of curriculum reform.

Road Map

I. Powerful Visions: Curriculum Reform

II. Perplexing Problems: The Standards Movement

III. Simple Solutions: Structures for Standards

IV. Advantages of the Structural Approach

A Road Map

To fully understand the power of structures for the standards and beyond, it is helpful to understand the curriculum reform movement β€” the place from which the standards spring β€” and the problems associated with the standards movement. Thus this essay is divided into four parts: Visions of the Curriculum Reform Movement, Problems with the Standards Movement, the Solution Provided by the Structural Approach, and Advantages of the Structural Approach. We will see that the present curriculum reform movement has the potential to guide us toward the very best of curriculum and instruction, but that the standards movement is often implemented in ways which create the very worst of curriculum and instruction. Given the multiple abuses and problems associated with standardized testing and the standards movement, it is tempting to tar with the same mop everything associated with standards. This would be tragic because the curriculum reform movement springs from an inspired place and offers hope and direction for education. We must distinguish the visionary curriculum reform movement from the narrow minded and constricting use of standardized testing. With that background in place, we will examine how structures provide a unique solution to reaching standards β€” a solution which is easy to implement and which ensures the acquisition of discipline content, discipline skills, and life skills.

I. Powerful Visions: Curriculum Reform

The curriculum reform movement is nothing less than a foresighted response of educators in various disciplines to the need to align curriculum and instruction with the needs of students and society for the twenty-first century. The vision for education which is outlined by the curriculum reform movement is diametrically opposed to the abuses which standardized testing have wrought.

The curriculum reform movement has occurred because expert educators in all disciplines have for some time been reevaluating curriculum, asking how it must be restructured to meet the needs of students as they enter life in the twenty-first century. To prepare students for their work and lives in the twenty-first century, we must refocus our goals as educators, away from memorization and toward thinking; away from accumulating skills to be blindly applied to predetermined problems, toward the ability to re-conceptualize problems and create novel problem solving tactics.

There is a common understanding among forward-looking educators that in the face of the information and technology explosions and associated increases in complexity and interdependence in the workplace and in life, students must be prepared with thinking, teamwork and communication skills. Memorization of one more fact is of relatively little value when a host of new facts are being generated every moment. Ability to analyze, synthesize, and communicate information becomes increasingly important. We cannot predict what information our students will work with; but we can predict with confidence that they will need to have highly honed thinking and communication skills. The way students think, communicate, and work together becomes the primary curriculum. The content students think about becomes secondary. At the core of a curriculum for the twenty-first century are thinking skills and teamwork skills, including communication skills. These skills are at the heart of the curriculum reform movement.

Following this logic, eight major themes emerge from those attempting to align curriculum to twenty-first century life. Those themes are echoed in standards and curriculum guides published by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (nctm.org), National Science Teachers Association (nsta.org), National Council for the Social Studies (ncss.org/home2.html) and the National Council of Teachers of English (ncte.org).

In Box 1 are the eight common themes of the curriculum reform movement, themes which cross-cut the disciplines, expressed in different ways within each discipline. They represent an inspired vision for twenty-first century education and the standards by which we should measure educational practice.

Box 1: Eight Common Themes of the Standards Movement
1. Teach for Understanding; Thinking, not Rote Memorization Movement is away from memorization of spelling words, toward the analysis of author's intent Away from rote algorithms, toward problem solving using multiple approaches; Exploring thinking Away from products of science, toward the process of science Away from isolated factlets, toward inquiry; Balance breadth with depth

2. Cultivate Positive Attitudes, Engagement, Joy with the Curriculum
Positive language experiences Math explorations Positive attitudes; Cultivate wonder; Emphasize process over content Cultivate conditions for learning; Appropriate attitudes; Participatory classroom democracy
3. Foster a Process Orientation through Ongoing Learning Cycles Eight stage writing process; Into, through, and beyond literature Teach algorithms as a three step process (concrete, connecting, symbolic); Open-ended explorations Process science; Inquiry; Emphasis on ability to make new discoveries rather than ability to memorize details of past discoveries Investigation of social phenomena using a range of inquiry methods

4. Develop Communication Skills
Listening, speaking, reading, and writing as communicative competencies Write math; Talk through problems; Discuss thinking; Communicate problem-solving approaches and math understandings via teacher, whole-class, team, and pair discussions; Written communication should be nurtured Write Science; Emphasize alternative ways to display data Persuasive essays; Oral Reports; Debate
5. Broaden the Curriculum through Multiple Sources and Multiple Approaches Communicate via electronic media; Understanding and communication via a wide range of genre Variety of ways to compute; Mental math; Computer Math; Books, newspapers, World Wide Web as sources of data Internet sources; Investigations beyond the class and lab Gather data from variety of sources; Oral histories; Historical documents; Multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge
6. Integrate Instruction through Interdisciplinary Connections Reading and writing across the curriculum Math across the curriculum; Applied mathematics Scientific method applied within all disciplines Global connections; Integration from variety of fields within and across disciplines; Thematic connections across topics
7. Emphasize Environmental/Social/Civic Issues and Responsibilities Critical analysis and evaluation; Debate, critiques, written arguments The mathematics of social issues (population explosion; pollution and extinction rates; Emphasis on change rates, projections and predictions Design to satisfy human and environmental needs; Social implications of discoveries and technologies (cloning, gene therapy, nuclear energy); Valuing as integral to science; Animal and human subject rights Preparation for the office of citizen; Inclusion of valuing, decision making; Analysis of persistent issues and current dilemmas; Balance rights and responsibilities of individuals and society
8. Emphasize Technological Literacy Word processing; Computer Assisted Outline and Thought Organizers Data Base Manipulation; Spread Sheet Programing; Computer Assisted Graphing and Data Display Virtual Experiments; Virtual Labs; Web Explorations of space, earth, sea, plants, animals and the human body. Impact of technology on all aspects of society; Use of technology for gathering, analyzing, storing and reporting social science data

Eight Common Themes of the Standards Movement

1. Teach for Understanding; Thinking, not Rote Memorization
Knowing a fact is almost useless if we cannot understand, analyze, apply, evaluate, and synthesize it with other information. Thinking and imagining become more important than knowing. We cannot predict the types of problems our students will be called upon to solve in their lifetimes, but we can predict that problem-solving skills will serve them well.

2. Cultivate Positive Attitudes, Engagement, Joy with the Curriculum
Because the information and technology explosions are ongoing, we must prepare students to be life-long learners. If we cultivate joy in learning, today's students will become lifelong learners.

3. Foster a Process Orientation through Ongoing Learning Cycles
The process orientation reinforces thinking and positive attitudes, and better prepares students for dealing with new information, information we can today only very dimly imagine.

4. Develop Communication Skills
As we move into an increasingly high technology and interdependent workplace, teams become the norm. As such, communication skills become survival skills. There is a recognition that development of communication skills is preparation for the job world of the future, but also communication within content areas is one of the the most powerful tools we have to promote learning. Consider this quote from a standards document: "Students should become better at listening, paraphrasing, questioning, and interpreting other's ideas." It is found not in a language arts standards document; it is pulled from the latest standards document from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 2000, p. 61). It is recognized that advances in math and science will be made to the extent that today's youth acquire teamwork and communication skills.

5. Broaden the Curriculum through Multiple Sources and Multiple Approaches
The text as a source of knowledge will be replaced by multiple media sources. The internet is just a harbinger of the multiple ways in which information will be generated, stored, displayed and retrieved. Students who are taught to rely on single sources of information are not prepared for twenty-first century life.

6. Integrate Instruction through Interdisciplinary Connections
It is increasingly understood that instruction which is not interdisciplinary does not promote transferable skills. As stated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, "Opportunities to use strategies must be embedded naturally in the curriculum across the content areas.' (NCTM, 2000, p. 54). Major advances in all fields will occur with increasing frequency at the interface of the disciplines. Students need integrated instruction if they are to be prepared to work productively in a world in which state-of-the-art medical practice demands an understanding of molecular electronics and international finance depends on the study of culture. As educators for the future we simply cannot afford to treat the disciplines as isolated.

7. Emphasize Environmental/Social/Civic Issues and Responsibilities

In an interdependent world a company's decision to use a new chemical reduction process may impact on the global water supply of future generations; the decision to clear land for homes may lead to extinction of valuable species as well as irreversible changes in the planets ecology and possibly even the future habitability of earth.

8. Emphasize Technological Literacy
The technology explosion is pervasive and accelerating. A few years ago at workshops when I would ask teachers how many were up on E-mail, only a few hands would go up. Today almost all hands go up. Daily communication with others around the globe is common. Only a few years ago no one questioned the idea of mail as a medium of communication. Today it becomes increasingly archaic to think about actually licking a stamp, placing it on an envelope, carrying the envelope to a mail box, and then waiting days for a response. In the face of the accelerating technological explosion which is transforming all areas of work, communicating, recreation, and travel, a primary mission of schooling for the twenty-first curriculum is technological literary.

The eight components of the curriculum reform movement are visionary. If implemented they will ensure survival and prosperity as we enter a far more complex and interdependent world. It is no wonder that springing from curriculum reform comes a movement to measure how well schools are doing in aligning their outcomes with the best of curriculum. The standards movement springs from the rich and fertile ground prepared by the curriculum reform movement. Unfortunately, the form the standards movement has taken has brought problems. Ironically, in an attempt to implement the visionary goals of the curriculum reform movement, the standards movement has pressed education in directions diametrically opposed to the visionary goals. Instead of creating a twenty-first century curriculum, the standards movement is pushing us backward toward curriculum and instruction which at best was suited for a nineteenth-century world.

II. Perplexing Problems: The Standards Movement

1. Standardized Tests

Most of the problems associated with the standards movement spring from standardized testing. Well intended as it is, the attempt to test how well schools are producing outcomes aligned with the best of curriculum has for the most part been self-defeating. Instead of encouraging schools and districts to deliver a better curriculum, standardized tests put pressure on teachers to dilute the curriculum and ignore the very best of teaching. To fully outline the problems with standardized tests is beyond the scope of this article, but several points should be recognized by every concerned educator, including the failure of the tests to measure high standards and the failure of the tests to measure progress toward standards.

Failure to Measure Standards. Norm-based standardized tests are designed to discriminate students, to rank them from high to low. They are not designed to measure high educational standards. Imagine for a moment you have the opportunity to observe test designers in action as they select items for a norm-based standardized test. There are two possible test items the test designers are considering. One test question is very important and is an excellent measure of the extent to which students are learning a core concept. Lets call this question The Core Question. The other question is a trivial, non-essential bit of information we will call the Trivial Question. Now imagine further than most students either know the core concept and get the Core Question right, or do not know the Core Question and get the Core Question wrong. During test construction the Core Question will be tossed out because it does not discriminate among students. Because most students scored the same on the question it does not discriminate among students. Imagine further that about half the students get the Trivial Question right and about half get it wrong. The Trivial Question will be retained and included in the final version of the standardized test because it discriminates. From the point of view of norm-based standardized test construction, the trivial question is a "good" question even though it tests relatively meaningless information. Norm based standardized tests are not designed to measure high standards, only to discriminate among students. The tragedy: The resulting standardized tests, admittedly not designed to measure the most important curriculum, determine to a large extent what curriculum is taught.

We can conclude that every norm-based standardized test should be packaged with a product warning: Because of the way standardized tests are constructed, obtaining high scores on standardized tests does not necessarily mean obtaining high standards.

Failure to Measure Annual Development. When standardized tests are not administered at the beginning and end of the school year in each grade they do not measure development. Imagine for a moment there are two schools, one in a poor area and one in a wealthy area. At the end of the school year a standardized test is administered and the students in the wealthy school score on an average 85% and the students in the poor school score an average of 55%. The wealthy school is lauded as an excellent school and the poor school is seen as a failure. Had developmental data been available, we would realize the poor school is actually the far better school. The poor began the school year at 15% for a gain of 40%; the wealthy school began the school year at 85% and the students did not gain at all!

Thus we can conclude that every standardized test should be packaged with a second warning: Because of the way standardized tests are administered, a school which scores higher than another school is not necessarily producing more learning.

Failure to Measure Long-Term Development. Cohort administered standardized tests lead to another set of false interpretations. Students in a district score 45% in science in fourth grade and 75% in eighth grade. The district is applauded for its excellence in science instruction because it is posting great gains. Had developmental data rather than cohort data been available though, we would discover that that the eight graders scored 75% when they were in fourth grade, and have made no gains! It is invalid to assume that the eighth graders of today scored like the fourth graders of today four years ago when they were in fourth grade. They may simply be a strong (or weak) cohort. To make these comparisons even less valid note that different tests are administered to fourth and eighth graders and tests are changed over time so differences between groups might be due not to excellence or weakness of curriculum or instruction, but rather to differences in test difficulty.

Thus we can conclude that every standardized test should be packaged with yet a third warning: Because of the way standardized tests are administered, differences among cohorts should not be interpreted as developmental progress or lack of developmental progress.

Standardized tests lead many to confuse high scores with high standards. In fact, a deeper examination of the standards reveals that standardized tests do not measure what the curriculum reform movement holds to be best in education. In many cases they actually measure the opposite, focusing on breadth rather than depth, memorization rather than thinking, content over skills, and a very limited notion of what is important for students to learn. Standardized tests are too often an exercise in trivial pursuit; the curriculum reform movement would have us instead focus on acquisition of deep understanding and meaning.

2. Pressure on Teachers and Administrators
In the last few months there has been considerable national press regarding the standards. The articles have centered on the disclosures of cheating on the tests β€” cheating by school administrators and teachers!

β€’ Headline, editorial, USA Today, June 15, 2000: "Teachers fail ethical test"
β€’ Cover, Newsweek, June 19, 2000: "Why Schools Cheat"
β€’ Headline, lead article Newsweek, June 19, 2000: "When Teachers Are Cheaters"

Ironically, these headlines come at the very time when there is general support for character education in our public schools. An indispensable element in any approach to character development is the modeling of character virtues by adults in authority. How can we develop honesty among the youth of the nation if teachers and administrators are modeling and encouraging dishonesty? What possible meaning can "integrity" have when during the test the teacher posts the answer sheet above the pencil sharpener?

If the cheating on standardized tests by teachers and administrators was occurring in one or two isolated cases, it could be dismissed. But it is more widespread. See Box 2.

Box 2: Teachers and Administrators Cheating
Potomac, Maryland Teachers tap pencils on the desks of students during the exam to point out errors. The principal displays a map of the geographic area on which the students are being tested during a social studies exam. A teacher calls students to the front of the room to, as one student euphemistically put it, "fix or finish stuff." Students are given extra time on exams. After the exam the principal calls students into her office after exams to "review" items; she asks them to "look at this one again," to improve test scores.
Columbus, Ohio Students at an elementary school claim adult tutors told them correct answers during the test. (This is the same school that received praise from President Clinton because of raised test scores).
Austin, Texas The Austin Independent School District is indicted by the Texas grand jury on charges of criminal tampering. The charge: to raise scores, low scoring students were excluded from the test.
Fairfax County, Virginia A teacher is placed on leave while being investigated for giving students exam answers.
New York, New York About 50 teachers and administrators from 30 different schools are accused of urging their students to cheat on standardized tests. One teacher left the math exam answers posted by the pencil sharpener. A second teacher changed her tone of voice while reading a test passage to focus students on the critical parts. A third teacher, after discovering the test essay topic, gave students a "special lecture" on the topic.

1. Abuses Predictable. Stories about teachers cheating on tests grab attention β€” they produce "Man Bites Dog" type headlines. Upon reflection, however, we should not be too surprised by revelations of teachers and administrators fudging on tests. The teachers and administrators have been placed in a classic conflict of interest situation: They are asked to administer and proctor exams the outcomes of which will determine financial rewards and recognition for their schools, real estate values for their neighborhoods, and, for themselves: personal status, wages, and, in the case of principals, future employability. Would we feel comfortable having a judge sit judgement on a case involving a family member? Would we allow a mother to score the driver licensing exam of her child? Why then do we place teachers and administrators in the position of administering and proctoring standardized tests the outcomes of which will be interpreted as a measure of their own competency?

2. Cheating Not the Problem. Contrary to the impressions conveyed by the headlines, almost all teachers and administrators are honest and would not dream of fudging on the tests. But the pressure on them to have their students score well creates subtle abuses, often undermining good instruction. There is pressure on teachers to teach to the standardized test, even if the test does not cover the most important information. This can trivialize the curriculum. How many teachers are willing to say, "I know this information will not be on the test, but it is very important, so I will spend a great deal of class time on it to make sure my students understand this core concept?" How many are willing to say, "I know this information will be on the test, but it is trivial. I will cover instead core concepts not on the test, but more important for my students to learn?"

3. View and Treatment of Students
If the measure of success in an educational system is how many correct answers a student can produce on a standardized test, then there is pressure to view schooling as a long-term assembly line, with the students passing along the line each year, receiving information and skills. The student is viewed as an empty vessel to be filled. What we know, however, is that to the extent we treat students as clever, intelligent problem solvers, they become clever, intelligent problem solvers. The view of students we adopt influences the curriculum and instruction we adopt and becomes a meta-communication to students which impacts profoundly on their self-concept, self-esteem, and willingness to fully engage in the learning process. Do we want to communicate to students that their worth is measured by the sometimes trivial items on a standardized test, rather than by their learning, improvement, and engagement with the curriculum?

4. Ignoring Individual Differences
Because standardized tests view all skills through the filter of the verbal-linguistic and mathematical intelligences, if every student is to be assessed on the same content in the same way, we create a strong bias in favor of students strong in the academic intelligences and against students strong in other intelligences. But not all students learn or express themselves in the same way; they have different patterns of intelligences (Kagan & Kagan, 1999). Students who are weak in the verbal-linguistic and/or mathematical intelligences blossom when given alternative ways to acquire and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Bruce Campbell tells the case study of a student who was not mastering her multiplication facts. She had practiced extensively, but the facts eluded her. The student was very strong in artistic talents. Bruce asked her to simply draw pictures on flash cards which had on them her most often missed multiplication facts. After drawing the pictures the girl simply knew the facts, and retained them years later.

Unfortunately, when teachers are under pressure to cover the curriculum likely to be on a standardized test, they feel less freedom to take the time to respond to individual differences in learning styles or intelligences.

5. Pressure on Students

Students are anxious before the standardized exams. They internalize the notion that the exam score is a measure of their worth as a student and, in some sub-cultures, even their worth as a person. The anxiety and pressure on students is transferred to the learning situation, constricting learning and the desire to continue education.

6. Trivialization of Curriculum
Because tests, by virtue of their construction, usually weigh assessment of knowledge more heavily than thinking skills, there is pressure on teachers to "cover the curriculum." Knowing that test scores will reflect knowledge of facts, information, and rote skills more than depth of understanding, teachers feel pressure to sacrifice depth in favor of breadth. The result: a curriculum which is, as often lamented, an inch deep and a mile wide.

The pressure to cover the curriculum narrows the vision and creativity of teachers; they do not feel free to respond to the unique needs of their class or of individual students β€” they have the curriculum to cover. Teachers do not feel the luxury to go in depth in areas of their own personal interest, the very stuff of which good teaching is made. With teachers feeling less free to follow their own passions, they lose the ability to become inspired role models for students. Rather than creators of dynamic learning experiences, teachers are increasingly relegated to feeling like (and becoming) one more station in a continuous predetermined assembly line.

In the press to make sure they cover the curriculum teachers lose the ability to respond creatively to the teachable moment. They are pressured away from allowing students to discover and construct meaning. They are pressured toward becoming a dispenser of facts and information. Understanding an algorithm becomes secondary to being able to carry out its steps. But a skill without understanding is a dead end. Students can not advance in math, or any other subject, without understanding.

Even more frightening is the extent to which the standardized tests are driving classroom practices. In many Texas high schools, course work is put on hold for the whole month of January. January is devoted to test preparation. Group projects are cut in favor of more direct instruction. Art and music classes are cut in favor of "academic rigor." (Scherer, 2000). In preparation for a test which will contain the question "Circle 1/3 of three umbrellas," teachers have students practice circling 1/3 of three ice cream cones. Precious class time which could help students understand the concept of fractions and the meaning of 1/3 is instead spent in rote practice of responses β€” responses not understood, and, following the test, soon to be forgotten. In the words of a student commenting on the impact of standardized tests, "Γ‰I worry that teachers are being less creative because of the SOL tests and that their teaching has become less exciting... I wish they would be concerned about students understanding β€” not just memorizing β€” facts." (Ernst, 2000, p. 77)

III. Simple Solutions: Structures for Standards

We have on the one hand powerful visions for curriculum reform springing from the curriculum reform movement. We have on the other hand perplexing problems springing from the standards movement. Can we realize the visions while side-stepping the problems? Structures provide a simple solution.

Structures are uniquely suited to realize the foresighted visions of the curriculum reform movement without falling into the traps associated with the standards movement. To fully understand the power of structures for standards we need to first do a component analysis of the standards and to distinguish curricular and instructional approaches to the standards.

A. Component Analysis of the Standards
To foster the highest aspirations of the standards movement we need to be analytic. That is, we need to analyze the standards. It turns out that standards call for students to learn the content of the discipline and the skills of the discipline. Often one standard calls for both. For example, a mathematics standard calls for students to use numbers in a variety of equivalent forms. The content component of the standard includes knowing the parts of a fraction and what they signify (declarative knowledge). The skill component of the standard includes knowing how to manipulate fractions and convert them to decimal form (procedural knowledge).

Whether we focus on the content or the skill component of the standard determines to an important extent our approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It also determines the extent to which we will realize our mission as educators for the twenty-first century. If we focus relatively exclusively on teaching and testing the content component to the detriment of the skills component, we will fail to deliver a curriculum which will best prepare our students for the twenty-first century.

Box 3: Content and Skill Components of Sample Standards
Subject Standard Discipline Content Discipline and Life Skills
Compare and synthesize information about an author from two sources. Author's Background Compare/Contrast; Synthesis; Weighing Information Depending on the Source
Use numbers in a variety of equivalent forms including fraction, decimal, and percent. Equivalent numerical expressions
Compare/Contrast; Analysis; Evaluation

Explain daily, monthly, and seasonal weather changes on earth. Weather patterns Gathering data; Recognizing patterns; Applying prior knowledge; Positing explanations; Testing alternative hypotheses; Evaluating alternative explanations; Presenting data and conclusions
Explore the meaning of American culture by identifying the key ideas, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and traditions that help define it. American Culture Identify key ideas; Find Patterns; Relate items to a central concept

Examine sample standards broken into their content and skill components (Box 3). In each case the content component may or may not be of use to a student in their twenty-first century jobs, but in every case the skill components will be. As we teach a history lesson, what is more important, that the students memorize the dates and locations of the battles of the war, or that they acquire skills in analyzing, comparing and contrasting, synthesizing, and communicating information? If we see our primary goal in the history lesson as to have students master facts and information, to better master the declarative content, we are teaching with an outdated approach. What is more likely to serve our students over the course of their lifetime β€” the facts of history or the skills and procedural knowledge (including information processing skills) which are obtained in the context of a good history lesson? The skills of reasoning, understanding points of view different from one's own, processing and communicating information in many ways are certain to serve our students well throughout their lives. Thus if we are teaching for the twenty-first century we see the history content as an opportunity for students to acquire essential skills. In this view the study of history is to a great extent the means, the end of education is a more thoughtful, intelligent citizen.

The same argument holds in every discipline. If we see our job as getting students to master types and patterns of weather, we will have them memorize facts β€” facts which are of relatively little present interest and questionable future utility. If we see our job as fostering ability to approach data in a scientific way, we are providing our students skills for a lifetime. Clearly both the content and the skills are important, but content without skill is an empty curriculum.

Analyzing the standards into their content and skill components casts the problems of standardized tests into clearer perspective. The tests emphasize the content, driving teachers to "cover the curriculum." We cannot neglect the content, but we must emphasize the skills β€” they are the heart of the curriculum for the future. The content should be acquired in the context of engagement, in the context of skill acquisition. If we realign teaching to emphasize the skills component of the standards we provide students tools for a lifetime. If we realign our testing programs tests to emphasize skills over facts, we will accomplish three things: we create a meaningful context in which content can be learned and retained, we drive curriculum in an intelligent direction, and we end much of the testing abuse because teachers will orient toward teaching for understanding and teaching for essential skills, not memorization of information, information to be memorized for a test and soon forgotten.

B. Curricular vs. Instructional Approaches to the Standards

In preparing to reach any standard an educator must answer questions regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, in preparing to teach the unit on explaining daily, monthly, and seasonal weather changes, the teacher must ask what is essential for students to know, how that content is best taught, and how learning will be assessed.

Curriculum Questions: Is it essential for students to know types of clouds, water cycle, impact of melting of polar ice caps, states of water, weather patterns over centuries, El Nino, difference and lack of difference between hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes; fog and clouds, etc? Is it more important for students to be acquainted with many facts or some basic principles in depth?

Instruction Questions: What percent of time should be spent on lecture, reading, individual worksheets, group projects, individual projects, cooperative structures? Should students report to, teach, and tutor each other? What sources of information should students have inside and outside of class? How much should there be student choice vs. teacher determination of topics for study, sources of information?

Assessment Questions: Should students be allowed to choose a mode of demonstrating knowledge? Should we design tests to measure what percent of predetermined information is acquired, or provide opportunities for each student to demonstrate his/her unique acquired understanding?

Content vs. Skills β€” Our Focus Drives Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Focusing on the content aspects of the standard drives educators toward very different answers to these three sets of questions than does focus on the skill components. If as a teacher I am primarily concerned with content, I might be more likely to choose breadth over depth in curriculum, direct instruction over team projects, and standardized tests. If on the other hand I am more concerned with skills, I might conclude that quantity of coverage is not as important as developing inquiry skills; that instruction which allows hands-on investigation might better lead me to my goals than would lecture, readings and worksheets. Also I might lean toward performance evaluation and/or portfolios rather than standardized tests to allow each student to demonstrate in a unique way his/her own skill acquisition.

To the extent we are aligned with the best of the curriculum reform movement, we move away from an exclusive or even primary focus on content and instead emphasize skill acquisition. We move away from broad coverage of curriculum with little depth, exclusive use of teacher selected and disseminated information, and exclusive use of uniform assessment techniques which assume all students can best express their learnings in the same way. The curriculum reform movement encourages us to move toward depth of understanding, accommodation of individual differences in learning preferences and styles, and a range of instructional strategies and assessment approaches.

C. The Structural Approach to Standards

The structures are a unique approach to realizing the best of the curriculum reform movement: They empower us to align learning with the goals of curricular reform without falling into the traps associated with the standards movement. Structures emphasize the skills of the discipline while delivering the content of the discipline.

As students do a Team Statement on the meaning of democracy, they are reviewing the content of the discipline in a meaningful context, but they are doing so much more. Because of the curriculum embedded in the Team Statement structure the students are practicing democratic decision making and developing teamwork skills. As students do a Pairs Compare on the advantages and disadvantages of two ways of structuring a paragraph, they are learning about the importance of topic sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences. But at the same time they are developing their communication skills, evaluative skills, and skill at compare/contrast thinking. As students do a Same-Different comparing a frog and a toad they are acquiring discipline content but at the same time acquiring analytic thinking, one of the core skills of science. They are obtaining life skills as well, including understanding points of view different from their own, communication skills, and developing the visual/spatial intelligence.

While delivering both the content and skills of the discipline, the structures provide an added bonus β€” they develop a range of life skills. For example, as we have students work on equivalent fractions in the structural approach we often have them working in cooperative teams. In the process they learn to communicate their thinking, understand points of view different from their own, praise one another, and develop teamwork skills, communication skills, and relationship skills.

The structural approach recognizes skills are best acquired not as a separate, add-on curriculum, but rather via the instructional strategies used daily in the classroom β€” it takes an instructional rather than curricular approach to the standards which allows acquisition of curricular skills and life skills without creating separate lessons on those skills. By intelligent choice of structures the teacher delivers all three components of the standards without creating separate lessons for each.

Once a teacher knows a range of structures and their domain of usefulness, the teacher can easily include structures so that students obtain the skills of each standard without treating those skills as separate content or curriculum. The skills are a hidden curriculum, embedded in the structures. For example, when students do a Pairs Compare on any content, they acquire compare/contrast skills. When they do Paraphrase Passport, regardless of the content, they acquire core communicative competencies. When they do a Team Statement they acquire diversity skills and synthesis skills. When they do Team Mind Mapping or Categorizing they acquire information processing skills, including ability to chunk and categorize information in a variety of ways.

In the structural approach reaching the skills component of the standards becomes easy. All a teacher needs to do is deliver the content with an appropriate range of structures, structures selected to foster the desired skills.

Let's re-examine the standards using the structural approach.

Language Arts
β€’ Standard: Compare and synthesize information about an author from two sources.
β€’ Content: Author's Background
β€’ Skills: Compare/Contrast; Synthesis; Evaluate Sources

The teacher knows that Pairs Compare is an excellent structure to foster compare/contrast skills and Team Statements foster synthesis. So in structuring for the skills of this standard the teacher includes Pairs Compare and Team Statements, first having the students do a Pairs Compare on two sources, and later do a Team Statement to synthesize their knowledge. In the process students weigh information according to its source, a life skill.


β€’ Standard: Use numbers in a variety of equivalent forms including fraction, decimal, and percent.
β€’ Content: Equivalent numerical expressions.
β€’ Skills: Compare/Contrast; Analysis; Evaluation

The teacher knows that Mix-N-Match is designed to help students find things which match, so might use a three-way Mix-N-Match activity in which students find fraction, decimal and percent equivalents. To cement learnings about equivalency, the teacher might have students work on converting fractions to decimals and percents using RallyCoach or Pairs Check. To foster compare/contrast, analysis, and evaluation the teacher might use RoundTable with each student in turn making entries to a three-way Venn Diagram to compare/contrast, analyze, and evaluate the three forms of expressing ratios. Life skills are obtained as well because embedded in the Pairs Check structure is an opportunity to learn to praise, tutor, and receive help. Embedded in the RoundTable structure are opportunities for students to learn to take turns and respect the contributions of others. RallyCoaching reinforces turn taking but also fosters listening, helping, and praising skills.

β€’ Standard: Explain daily, monthly, and seasonal changes on earth.
β€’ Content: Weather patterns
β€’ Skills:
Gathering data, Recognizing patterns, Applying prior knowledge, Posting explanations, Testing alternative hypotheses, Evaluating alternative explanations.

This standard lends itself to a cooperative project in which students gather data, plot it, analyze it, interpret it, and test alternative hypotheses. Co-op Co-op weather projects would allow acquisition of all of these skills. Students learn the facts about weather in a meaningful context. In the process of the lesson the teacher might use Find My Rule to hone inductive reasoning and Find the Fiction to foster evaluative thinking. Co-op Co-op has a powerful embedded curriculum: Students learn the power of interdependence, and synergy β€” that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Social Studies
β€’ Standard: Explore the meaning of American culture by identifying the key ideas, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and traditions that help define it.
β€’ Content: American Culture
β€’ Skills: Identify key ideas; Find patterns; Relate items to a central concept

As part of this lesson the teacher might first use 4S Brainstorming to have students generate beliefs, behaviors, and traditions. Once the items had been generated, the teacher might have the student use Categorizing to group them. Team Mind Mapping would be a natural follow-up because it is excellent to foster the skills of identifying key ideas and grasping how ideas relate to a central concept. In the process of using these structures students learn information generation and processing skills β€” essential skills for a future marked by an information explosion.

Notice, by teaching with a range of structures the teacher fosters both the content and the skill components of each standard: The skills are acquired as a function of the instructional strategies selected and the content is acquired within a meaningful context. In addition, there is a powerful embedded curriculum associated with the structures β€” a life skills curriculum.

The structural approach breaks the traditional distinction between curriculum and instruction. It recognizes there is a curriculum embedded in instruction. How we teach determines to a tremendous extent what is learned. As the students do Categorizing and Team Mind Maps they learn cognitive skills for a lifetime, skills which will serve them well in the information age. Over the course of their lives, the skills students have learned as a function of the structures will serve them more than the content they acquire. Their content will shift many times; the skills they bring to that content is the new constant.

IV. Advantages of the Structural Approach

The structural approach is but one approach to realizing the visions which emanate from the curriculum reform movement. But it represents a powerful alternative to exclusive focus on content on one hand, or inspired but impractical skills programs on the other. Teachers who would ignore skills and try to "cover the curriculum," leave their students ill prepared for the world they will encounter. Teachers who develop or use complex skills programs find themselves without enough time to implement those programs while dealing with the demanding scope and sequence of curriculum. Further, special skills programs have a half-life. Almost all teachers and administrators can resonate to the following scenario: "Last year we worked on conflict resolution, the year before that it was higher-level thinking skills β€” one complex program replacing another."

Because the structural approach delivers the skills as part of the instructional system rather than as a separate curriculum, it does not run the risk of being replaced by next year's new curriculum β€” it is embedded in the structure of daily life in a classroom.

There is much which can be said in favor of the structural approach to standards. Among the most important points are the following:

10 Advantages of the Structural Approach
1. Proven Achievement
2. Skills Aligned with Standards
3. Resolving the Learning Paradox
4. Side-Stepping the Transference Gap
5. Redundancy
6. Preparation Time
7. Teacher Reactions
8. Student Reactions
9. Not Test Driven
10. Breaking the Replacement Cycle

1. Proven Achievement
The Kagan structures are designed to embody the very most demanding of the principles of cooperative learning and so produce the gains of cooperative learning. Cooperative learning has been extensively researched and found to produce academic achievement gains across the range of subject matter, grades, and student populations (Johnson, 1981 Sharan, 1994; Sharan,1984; Slavin, 1983a; Slavin, 1983b; Slavin, 1985).

2. Skills Aligned with Standards
As students engage in the structures, they acquire a range of skills: thinking skills, communication skills, teamwork skills, and diversity skills. The structures broaden the curriculum making group process and peer input sources of thought and information. Further, the structures foster engagement and a positive attitude toward learning and the curriculum. Thus the structures directly address most of the eight common themes of the curriculum movement.

3. Resolving the Learning Paradox
There is a paradox I call the learning paradox: Attempting to memorize information usually leads to less memory than involvement with the content with no attempt to memorize. When we ask students to memorize the dates and events of an historical period, they retain that information, at best, for the test, but soon forget it. If, instead, they spend time doing a project on that time period, without special effort they retain a great deal of information, including dates and events. The learning paradox: Trying to commit something directly to memory leads to less memory than producing engagement with the content. The paradox is easy to resolve. When we produce engagement, we generate multiple connections to the content making storage and retrieval more likely. When we work directly on memory, the facts remain isolated, decreasing the probability of long-term memory and retrieval. When interactive structures are used, the brain is far more engaged in far more ways, dramatically increasing memory compared to methods directly attempting to increase memory.

4. Side-Stepping the Transference Gap

When we teach thinking skills as a separate program, students may learn the skills but fail to apply them in new contexts because they were acquired only within the context of the thinking skills program. Lawyers all take a course in ethics, but it is a separate course, not integrated with the other courses. The meta-communication: Ethics is interesting but not really part of what we need to think about on a daily basis as a lawyer. Separate curricula lead to encapsulated thinking which fails to be applied in new contexts. When we teach conflict resolution skills as separate content, students pass the test on the topic, but fail to apply the conflict resolution methods to resolve conflicts when they leave the classroom and encounter a conflict on the playground. Whenever the situation of acquisition is too discrepant from the situation of performance, a transference gap is created. The students learn about the skill, but they do not acquire the skill. It does not become part of them. They do not transfer it to new contexts. The structures represent an opportunity to acquire the skills called for in the standards and to practice them in a broad range of content areas and contexts, so the transference gap is reduced greatly.

5. Redundancy
The structures represent an embedded curriculum β€” a curriculum embedded in instruction. Because of this there is a great deal of redundancy and practice which ensures acquisition of skills. Students, for example, might do Mind Mapping in Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science. Through Mind Mapping important thinking skills are acquired, but they are practiced on a daily basis. Because those skills are not taught just one time in just one content area, they are not memorized for a test, soon to be forgotten. The skills acquired through repeated use of the structures become part of the student, skills for a lifetime.

6. Preparation Time
Because the structures do not involve special materials or even special lesson planning, they dramatically cut down preparation time. A teacher experienced with the structural approach uses the structures as part of any lesson β€” the structures become part of what it is to be a teacher. This means the structures are implemented on a regular basis, not just when the teacher has time to prepare a special lesson.

7. Teacher Reactions
Teachers do not resist the structural approach to standards. Rather than one more program to be layered on, the structures are viewed as tools which make the teacher's job easier. Because the structures are simple and presented in a step-by-step format, they are easy to learn and easy to use, so the typical teacher resistance to new and complex programs is strikingly absent in the structural approach.

8. Student Reactions

Students love the structures. They enjoy the interaction, movement, and variety. Most observers looking for the first time at a classroom in which a range of structures are used are struck by the intense level of engagement among all students. The structures are designed to hold every student accountable, accounting for engagement and learning for all.

9. Not Test Driven
To a large extent, what is tested is what is taught. Imagine for a moment a teacher who knows a relatively unimportant fact will be on a standardized test but an important concept will not. What will be emphasized in class? The wonderful thing about structures is that they deliver the skills component of the standards no matter what content is taught. Structures insure that important skills will not be dropped, even if not tested.

10. Breaking the Replacement Cycle
The structures are an integrated approach to instruction. That is, they are used as part of any lesson. In the structural approach, we tell teachers, "Don't teach a cooperative learning lesson. Make cooperative learning part of every lesson by using cooperative learning structures." "Don't teach a multiple intelligence lesson. Make multiple intelligences part of every lesson through structures." "Don't teach separate lessons on character development and thinking skills. Make character development and thinking skills part of every lesson by choice of structures." Through this integrated approach, we break the education replacement cycle. When complex special programs are designed to implement new approaches to education, we devote two years on a new thinking skills program and then replace that program with two years on character development, only to in turn replace the character development program with the next year's new thing. Because the structures are used to deliver the thinking skills program, the character development program, and any new program which comes down the education pike, they break the replacement cycle, ensuring that students will acquire a twenty-first century curriculum regardless of the present program thrust of a school or district.

In Sum

Education suffers when we engage in either-or thinking. The question should not be content vs. skills, curriculum approaches vs. instructional approaches, or standards vs. no standards. The structural approach provides a way to break the either-or thinking that leads to destructive pendulum swings. The structural approach focuses on content and skills, delivering a curriculum via instruction. The structural approach offers one way to reach the highest visions of the curriculum reform movement without falling into the traps of the standards movement. Most importantly, students and teachers find the structural approach easy to implement because it is based on simple structures which are easy to learn, fun to use, and powerful in their ability to reach, nay, surpass the standards.



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Johnson, D.W., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D. & Skon, L. Effects of cooperative, competitive and individualist goal structures on achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 1981, 89, 47-62.

Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. Multiple Intelligences. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 1999.

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Sharan, S. (Ed.) Handbook of cooperative learning methods. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Sharan, S., Kussell, P., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Bejarano, Y., Raviv, S., Sharan, Y. Cooperative learning in the classroom: Research in desegregated schools. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984.

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R. Slavin, S. Sharan, S. Kagan, R., Hertz-Lazarowitz, C. Webb, & R. Schmuck (Eds.) Learning to cooperate, cooperating to learn. New York: Plenum, 1985.

Web Links
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (http://www.nctm.org)

National Science Teachers Association (http://www.nsta.org)

National Council for the Social Studies (http://www.ncss.org/)

National Council of Teachers of English (http://www.ncte.org)