Learning – it’s a piece of (layer) cake!

After reading and thinking about mastery learning, I came across another technique that I’d never heard of: Dr. Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum®. I’m assuming it’s not really that blogged/tweeted about because it is actually a registered trademark!

How does it work?

Layered Curriculum® is something you can incorporate with mastery learning (or it can be its own stand alone thing). It is a way to use Bloom’s taxonomy to group learning activities and assess student progress. It involves creating several learning opportunities for one concept/topic/unit and “layering” them into different levels. The “C” level includes tasks that involve basic facts, skills or vocabulary. The “B” level includes tasks that allow students to apply their knowledge and skills from the C level. Finally the “A” level includes tasks that ask students to critically analyze a real-world issue that is related to the topic using their learning from the B and C levels. Assessment occurs at all levels in the form of an oral defence. A student’s grade in the unit depends on what “layer” they are successful at. For example, if they ONLY successfully complete C layer activities, the maximum grade they can achieve is at the C level.

Point: Layered Curriculum® allows for more valid and reliable grades. I think the feature I like the best about this method is that a student’s grade in the course will be more reflective of the level of learning they have actually engaged in. For example, we all have students that can achieve really high marks in a course because they are good at “playing school.” They can get by because typically assessments like tests/quizzes/exams, which make up the greatest proportion of a grade, rely on memorization and regurgitation (at least in biology anyways). I know I was like that in high school and my first year of university. These students, however, in this type of setting, would only be able to get a “C” level in the class. They have only achieved a level of learning at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding. Therefore, if you are still stuck in a system that uses percentages on report cards (like I am), and you give a student a 90% it means they are able to recall facts, apply their knowledge of these facts in unfamiliar situations and critically evaluate an issue that relates to those facts. I think that is valuable. It also makes grades more reliable. It removes the subjectivity of grading between teachers. Getting an “A” in my biology class, would mean the same thing as getting an “A” in another teacher’s class if we were both using this method. It means that students who achieved “A” levels would have always demonstrated a level of learning that is higher than those who achieved “C” levels. Dr. Nunley puts it like this. If a student achieves a:

C – student has added to their bank of knowledge at an acceptable level.
B – student has added to their bank of knowledge AND can apply said knowledge in different situations; student can use and manipulate new knowledge and skills
A – student has added to their bank of knowledge AND can apply said knowledge in different situations AND can critically evaluate an issue in the real-world which required an ability to combine their knowledge with ethics, values, morality and global responsibility.

Grades are now defined by which particular thought process a student has been required to use.

Counterpoint: My students are going to HATE this…at first. I know my kids. I know my school. There will be resistance. My students are high achievers. They want good grades. They say things like “Oh I got an 85% – ASIAN FAIL.” They are motivated by marks and they want the highest numbers with the least amount of work possible – i.e. read – memorize – regurgitate. They want to be spoon fed. Again, I can relate – this was me in high school. And I have been catering to their desires for the past three years (see post on Downward Spiral of Shame). However, the point of this blog is that I am trying to be a more responsible teacher. Just because a kid wants to eat chocolate for dinner, doesn’t mean you should give it to them. That would be bad parenting. Just because a student wants me to tell them the answer so they can memorize it for a test, doesn’t mean I should give it to them. That would be bad teaching. I also think that now that we have fully embraced the MYP, the students coming into grade 11 biology next year will be more used to being independent learners. I think. I hope. I should talk to the grade 10 teachers….

Point: This adds a new “layer” to mastery learning. With mastery learning you could fall into the trap of defining “mastery” simply at the remembering/understanding level. A student could still achieve mastery in a course by doing well on quizzes and tests and never creating, analysing etc…This way you are forced to create learning opportunities that assess higher order thinking skills, ensuring that students only move on to the next when they have mastered each layer.

Counterpoint: In Dr. Nunley’s model, students spend the most amount of time in the “C” layer. While I think remembering and understanding is extremely important and necessary for applying, analysing etc…I think there should be more emphasis on the “A” layer. I think the least amount of class time should be based on “C” types of activities and more time should be spent on “B” and “A” layer activities. I understand that the “C” layer should have LOTS of choice to meet the needs of all types of learners, but I don’t think this is where students should spend the most time. Valuable class time with the teacher should be spent working on activities that require the highest level of thinking so that students can receive support and mentorship. I also think it might be interesting to try a couple of different things at the “A” layer:
(a) Get the students to design their own “A” layer activity. Now that they have learned about the concepts and applied them in teacher designed activities, where do they want to take that learning? If you are layering the cells unit, allow the student to choose what aspect of cells they are interested in pursuing further. Maybe not every student wants to critically evaluate the use of embryonic stem cells!
(b) Introduce the “A” layer activity first. If you are doing Project Based Learning – this is how you could incorporate Layered Curriculum®. I do a project based unit in grade 12 biology where I set up a crime that students have to solve using forensics. If I were to “layer” this project, I would introduce the “A” layer first – the final crime report. The students would quickly realize that they have to do the “C” layer activities first (ex. learning about PCR, DNA replication etc…) then they could apply that knowledge at the “B” layer (ex. do the gel electrophoresis lab) and finally they could put that together to create their report (evaluate their methods, relate it to real-world forensics etc..). Their grade would be based on which layer of activities they successfully accomplished.

Point: Like mastery, it gives students choice and it is student centred. The “C” layer allows for a wide variety of activities to meet every learner’s needs. There can be activities that engage visual, auditory, and tactile learners. You can create assignments for students with special needs, for those who are gifted, for ESL students.

Counterpoint: My favourite quotation from Dr. Nunley: “Unless you have a room of students fresh out of the neighborhood Montessori school, most students have no idea how to operate in a student-centered classroom.” I love this because I went to a Montessori school so I know exactly what she is talking about! There will be a bit of a learning curve with this one. Dr. Nunley suggests easing students into it. Create short units. Limit the number of choices at first. I think students will get the hang of it pretty quickly and will end up appreciating the fact that they are in control of their learning.

Summary: I think there is value here and it is an idea that I can incorporate into my classroom. The great thing about it is that it is is adaptable. If I’m going to use mastery learning and give students “guided” choice, I will make sure that the required activities in a unit are coming from each layer. This way I can ensure that the top level students are those who are demonstrating higher order thinking skills and thus will make it impossible for students to just “get by” in my class.

Is there anyone out there that has tried this model in biology?  Thoughts/concerns/feedback appreciated!

Here is an excellent research paper that I read with evidence of how Layered Curriculum® can improve student experiences and attitudes towards learning: Effects of Layered Curriculum in a High School

Here is the disclaimer I have to put: “Layered Curriculum is a registerd trademark developed by and registered to Kathie F. Nunley. Additional information is available at http//help4teachers.com.”

Image URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pound_layer_cake.jpg


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