ACHIEVING ACADEMIC STANDARDS –
THROUGH STUDENT-CENTERED LEARNING GROUPS
By Jeanne Gibbs
Building a culture for standards-based reform means
uprooting many old assumptions about learning –
to make way for new beliefs about
how students “become smart.” 1
Today after more than forty years of debate on how to lift the nation’s schools from mediocrity to a new level of educational excellence the national consensus is that a rigorous focus on standards-based reform, curriculum content and assessment, is the solution. As compelling as the mandate is, there is little guarantee in research or practice that achieving higher content standards will be successful unless the culture of the school and teaching practices are congruent with the wealth of studies on the conditions and methods that support cognitive learning (Fullen 1997, Wheelock 1998, Pert 1999, Noddings1995, Darling-Hammond 1997, Comer 1997, Goodlad 1997, Bruner 1996, Johnson & Johnson 1989, Gardner 1983, Caine 1991).2 Although the mantra that “all students can learn” may be reassuring to school communities, legislators and politicians, more likely than not, how to move the phrase into any semblance of reality is brushed off.
It is not the intended scope of this paper to discuss all that it may take for the standards-based reform efforts in any school or district to be successful. Hundreds of articles, books and conferences are highlighting hopeful practices. My purpose is to link three well-researched practices that do increase academic achievement. Namely, they are:
- establishing a positive and safe learning culture
- understanding how the human brain processes information
- using student-centered learning groups.
There is no doubt that school reform, especially standards-based reform, requires knowledgeable leadership on the part every adult in a school. All must become on-going learners, leaders and teachers within collegial teams that first take Ann Wheelock’s advice to uproot “old assumptions about learning and make way for new beliefs about how students ‘become smart’.”
Establishing a Positive and Safe Learning Culture
Walk into any school or classroom and you will know that each has a culture of its own. Some are caring and friendly, others harsh and dispassionate. All have impact on student and teacher motivation, behavior and ability to learn. Culture is the climate, the environment and spirit in a school that permeates everything that goes on within the classrooms, the staff and other groups. Culture is shaped out of the historical patterns that include the unspoken norms, values, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, traditions and myths underlying how people think and how they act. The elements of a school’s culture are seldom recognized or discussed though they affect everything that happens in the school. Respected researcher John Goodlad warns: “It is difficult to think of a reform initiative of significance that can proceed successfully without understanding and attention to the culture of individual schools.” 3
Establishing or renewing a positive school culture makes it safe enough for students to ask questions, to speak up in a group, to voice opinions, to ask for help, to assume leadership, to make independent decisions and solve problems with peers. The title of Ann Wheelock’s fine book on building a culture for standards-based reform states it well: A caring culture makes it “safe to be smart.”
No longer is there any mystery on what the ideal learning culture should be. Jerome Bruner, respected cognitive and developmental psychologist from Harvard, Oxford and New York University states,
“On the basis of what we have learned in recent years about human learning – it (the culture) is best when it is participatory, proactive, communal, collaborative and given over to constructive meanings rather than receiving them. We do even better at teaching science, math, and languages in such schools than in more traditional ones.” 4
Those of you who already are familiar with the process of Tribes, will recognize that the Tribes Learning Community (TLC®) process incorporates the recommended components well. 5
Understanding How the Brain Processes Information
The second necessary building block for standards-based reform is to arrange for all teachers, school leaders, and even students, to gain a basic understanding of how the human brain takes in information and concepts. What determines how much can be remembered? What makes learning impossible at different times? The following is a (very small) bird’s eye view to convey why a positive learning culture and student-centered learning groups are essential.
The main function of our wonderful triune brains is to sort out and catalogue patterns of information. However, the thinking part (the cerebrum) of the brain cannot perform that function when a condition of stress, threat, fear or other strong feeling persists. The thinking part of the brain “downshifts” into its feeling (limbic) system where strong feelings such as anger, love, concern, hatred, fear, excitement, sadness, jealousy, etc. are processed. A student’s ability to think constructively or problem solve then is lost. Being excluded, put-down by peers, or criticized by a teacher results in defensive or retreating behavior and makes learning academic content impossible. Under strong threat or stress, a student’s thinking ability will trigger further into a survival mode of the brain stem where fight or flight instincts take over. While there the person can remain without language. Details become clouded – recall is likely to be lost. The student sitting quietly may not be there at all. He may have “downshifted” into a survival mode – perhaps just hoping the bell will ring. Where we want our students to be while at school is in the cerebrum, so that higher order thinking and rational thought is maximized. Conclusion: Students will not be able to achieve high standards of learning unless the climate of the classroom is non-threatening, safe and caring!
As educators longing for students to meet district standards, we also need to know that neurophysiological data suggests that the nervous system is not capable of taking in everything, but can only scan for material it is prepared to find by virtue of its own past experiences and internal patterns.6 As with computers, the human brain can enter newly discovered meaningful information easily into previously created files. Given this fact, how can we imagine that any sizeable amount of unrelated academic material conveyed by direct instruction (teacher-talk) will be totally down-loaded and later recalled for a test? Learning is not the result of will power or skills. Learning is the result of raising questions, generating across experiences, defining an hypothesis, discussing with peers, making real-world applications and reflecting on results. The human brain laps up and organizes knowledge it considers meaningful to the learner.7 It discards what seems irrelevant.
Conclusion: Higher test scores depend upon the recall of content that students have come to own – through their own experiences, interests and application. The teaching/learning process needs to be student-centered, inquiry-based, participatory and linked to real-world situations.
Using Student-centered Learning Groups
“Group learning? I tried that once and it didn’t work!” says a teacher who read a book or article and had kids mix it up in group arrangements for a few days. There are only two alternatives for this teacher: (1) to continue traditional direct instruction, contrary to all that has been learned about learning; or (2) to become well-trained in teaching through student-centered groups. Yes, learning how to develop Tribes Learning Communities is the best place to start.
The question whether cooperative group learning promotes academic achievement is no longer debatable. More than a thousand studies by respected research groups verify the impact that group learning can have when facilitated by well-trained knowledgeable teachers.8 Cooperative learning, Tribes Learning Communities, investigative inquiry, research and constructivism groups vary in methodology, but have a common philosophy: namely, that all students learn best through active collaboration with peers on learning tasks. These group approaches are student-centered rather than teacher-dominated.
The process of Tribes assures teachers’ success in using group learning. It is a process that is brain compatible because it establishes a positive and safe learning environment. It enables all students to enjoy inclusion and on-going membership in a learning group or “tribe.” All feel of value to others, a sense of belonging and the spirit of community prevails. The caring environment is assured by four agreements which students honor and monitor. The agreements that are practiced are: listening attentively, appreciation/no put-downs, the right to pass and mutual respect. Students also learn twelve communication/social skills so that they can manage group tasks well.
This year CenterSource Systems is introducing or strengthening the use of the constructivist teaching approach within hundreds of Tribe schools and districts towards the achievement of new academic standards. The research on the components of an ideal learning culture, cognitive learning, cooperative learning and constructivism is solid and comprehensive. 9 It gives schools a research-based way to help teachers help students meet the higher standards that are steering educational reform in every State.
Conclusion: District standards are what needs to be achieved. How to do it just takes a synthesis of what already is known about learning.
“The inquiry method is not designed to do
what older environments try to do.
It works you over in entirely different ways.
It activates different senses, attitudes,
It generates a different, bolder
and more potent kind of intelligence….
It will cause everything about education…
-Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
Notes and References
1. Wheelock, Ann. (1998). Safe To Be Smart, Building a Culture for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, p.101
2. References cited:
Fullen, Michael. (1994). Coordinating Top-Down and Bottom-Up Strategies for Educational Reform. The Governance of Curriculum, 1994 ASCD Yearbook. Alexandria. VA: American Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Wheelock, Ann (1998)
Pert, Candace. (1999). Molecules of Emotion. New York: Simon and Schuster
Noddings, Nel. (1995). A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century. Phi Delta Kappan, 1/95, p.366
Darling-Hammond, Linda. (1997). Creating Standards Without Standardization. In: The Right to Learn, A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, p.233.
Comer, James. (1997) Maintaining a Focus on Child Development. Phi Delta Kappan Magazine, 3/97, p.559
Goodlad, John (1997) In Praise of Education. New York & London: Teacher’s College Press, Columbia University
Bruner, Jerome. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University
Johnson, David and Johnson, Roger. (1989) Cooperation and Competition, Theory and Research. Edina, MN.: Interaction Book Company
Gardner, Howard. (1983) Frames of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Caine, Geoffrey and Renate. (1991) Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
3. Goodlad (1997)
4. Bruner (1996)
5. How the process of Tribes TLC® activates the components of an ideal learning culture. In: Gibbs, J. (1998) Guiding Your School Community To Live A Culture of Caring and Learning. Sausalito, CA: CenterSource Systems, p.28.
Ideal Learning Culture
The Process of Tribes
builds inclusion for all
uses cooperative learning
transfers responsibility to groups
promotes caring and sharing
celebrates community learning
reaches all students through
uses interactive strategies
encourages peer leadership
uses positive agreements to assure a caring culture
reaches students of multiple intelligences, abilities and cultures
trains teachers to use brain compatible methods and communication
uses consensus strategies
promotes teacher collegiality
involves students in research and teaching
content of interest
uses student planning groups
6. Pert (1999), p.147
7. Fosnot, Catherine Twomey. (1996). Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, p.29
8. Johnson, D.& Johnson, R.
(1979). “Type of Task and Student Achievement and Attitudes in Interpersonal Cooperation, Competition, and Individualization.” Journal of Social Psychology, 108:37-48.
(1994). Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning (4th edition). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
9. Fosnot, Catherine Twomey. (1996)
Marlowe, Bruce & Page, Marilyn. (1998). Creating and Sustaining the Constructivist Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Brooks, Jacqueline Grennon & Brooks, Martin. (1993). The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.