Curriculum Development Questions/Reflections

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The purpose of this section is to pose questions and offer reflections on any and all matters related to curriculum. This area has obvious linkages with many other of the ALE Wiki topic areas, but here we will highlight matters specifically related to curriculum, defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as (1) "All of the courses of study offered by a school." (2) "A particular course of study." Notwithstanding the partial validity of these definitions, as this area develops, I expect that we will be extending and "complexifying" these definitions a great deal.

This area will include a strong focus on the nature of adult literacy curriculum. It will also include curriculum issues related to adult education, and education, more broadly, given their important framing role in the shaping of adult literacy pedagogy. More fundamentally, the matter of foundations and philosophical premises will be explored and examined here, given their underlying role in shaping that which becomes legitimized, and any and all areas of education that help to flesh these out will be subject to our examination.

As an experimental medium perhaps questions and reflections can begin in this section and stay here as long as useful, but in their more finalized form then get shifted in the Discussion section. Thus, this Question/Reflection section can function as a format for onging discourse, then through editing/revision either be placed in the Discussion section or anywhere else that may seem appropriate.

I have been absorbed with curriculum for a long time in no small part as a result of my daily work as a basic literacy program manager at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford. This is undoubtedly where part of my curiosity springs -- a large part, in fact. More fundamentally, I think it has to do with my own passion for learning and the attempt to get a handle on my own learning process as well as that of others. Thus, such questions arise for me: What drives learning? What makes it possible? What are the barriers? Where are the breakthroughs? From whence do these breakthroughs arise? What role do materials play? What about that of a supportive instructor? To what extent and in what ways (definitely both/and rather than either/or)does collaborative learning faciliate or hinder the process? What about the nature of the educational institution itself, its stated and more opaque purposes? Where do they come from? Who shapes them?

While these questions extend beyond issues related exclusively to curriculum, its meaning and definition are clearly shaped both directly and subtly by all of these matters and undoubtedly more. Thus, however one defines curriculum it is contextually shaped by a broad range of factors which have to be firmly grasped if clear understanding is to emerge. I maintain that much rides, in terms of effective practice, too, on how these issues, which can seem highly abstract and theoretical, are resolved by particular bodies of students, educators, administrators, policy makers, and rsearchers.

First set of questions:

1. What is the definition of the term curriculum?

2. What is the relationship between the curriculum and learning? And teaching? And instructional materials? And education?

3. From whence and from whom is its legitmacy derived?

George Demetrion February 1, 2006

I have worked as an adult literacy program director for over 14 years and have given a great deal of thought to the role of materials in instruction and to the formation of a viable curriculum. Blending aspects of the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS), the Equipped for the Future (EFF) project, and student centered pedagogy, in recent years I have put together various iterations of collections of instructional materials. These have been organized in the areas of basic skills, employment, family education, civics, money management, health literacy, ands human interest stories, organized in three-ring binders. This has resulted in common curricula in small group tutoring contexts based on different reading levels. I came to the conclsion early on that the effort at curriculum development, at least within the context of which I am familar would be best served by concentrating on providing user-ready materials which embeded the pedagogical principles that I wanted to emphasize. I've also done a fair amount of training. What follows first is a brief overview of the development of the binder concept and some very basic principles upon which the binder concept is based. What follows then are five core principles that further flesh out the underlying pedagogy on which I have sought to construct curriculum. I place this work in this section to raise issues about curriculum that might evoke discussion and further reflection.

Second set of questions:

1. Does the very notion of a curriculum make sense in an adult literacy context? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?

2. How does one square the notion of a common curriculum with a student-centered instructional focus? Are these two objectives inherently contradictory, or at the very least, exceedingly problematic?

3. What are some ways of effectively grappling with the tensions between these objectives? What examples can you give?

4. How have those drawing on CASAS, EFF, or a student-centered philosophy manageed these tensions? To what extent have you been successful? To what extent do you remain perplexed?

George Demetrion February 13, 2006

Brief History Leading to the Binder Concept and the Formation of a Common Curriculum at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford

I began working on the binder concept when I was the Executive Director of LVA-CRE in the late 1990s. In my original rendition, I focused on instructional principles and only included sample materials. As I kept working with the binder concept, I’ve shifted the focus exclusively to materials on the assumption that that’s what most tutors most readily desired. Through the past 5 years I’ve refined the collection of materials that we made available to students at different levels. I was always amazed at the wide range of materials available for BL instruction, and wanted to figure out how to capture a sufficient sample of them, which could be incorporated into our instructional program.

When I ran the community-based program at LVGH from 2000-2004, we followed the traditional LVA model in which the tutors selected the materials with input from students. That has the important advantage of leaving to those who are most directly involved in the tutoring total discretion in selecting the materials. Its disadvantage is that on a program-wide basis, there may be much unevenness in quality of selection, sometimes based more on what tutors and students are most readily comfortable with, but not necessarily on what may be of most valuable to students in moving learning forward. This decentralized approach also inhibits the development of a program-wide curriculum focus, which can be more readily fostered in a centralized, staff-supported site than when individual student-tutor pairs are meeting in diverse locations throughout the affiliate’s region.

The binder concept allows considerable choice in the selection of materials. It also provides a structure in the broad content areas chosen, which corresponds to what is widely accepted as the main general topics in which adult literacy students are most interested. In the community-based programs, between 2000-2004, I provided binders for tutors at all the respective group levels. Given the prevailing decentralized instructional philosophy that the program was operating on, tutors could decide whether to work with these materials or not. The result was that they were unevenly used. That prevented us from assessing their value on a program-wide basis for the broader purpose of constructing a curriculum on the best thinking that was shaping the field of adult literacy. It is this building of a common, but flexible research-based curriculum, which underlies the broader intent of the binder concept of providing a wide collection of interesting, useful instructional materials, based on levels and important topic areas.

During this same time period, the Reading Center had shifted to a common curriculum. Most of the tutors liked that structure, as long as there was some flexibility in what they could use. When I became the BL director of the RC last year, I began to put the two concepts, the binders and the common curriculum, together. We used content-based binders for our Level 1, 2 and 4 groups and continued with the Reading for Today text with level 3. For the upcoming year (2005-2006) we’re utilizing the binders in all of our groups and have consulted with tutors and students to identify relevant topics. Based on feedback from students and tutors as well as my own knowledge of the field, we came up with an initial topical list for each of the four groups, which I then used as a framework to organize the binders. In addition to the topics, as a broad guide, I also drew on the specific materials that appealed to the tutors who reviewed materials as we were putting the binders together. In the manual masters that now exist I made a choice of expediency in only utilizing materials that we could access from our Center. These materials are quite extensive, in any event, given the large volume of resources in our affiliate library, which we have been collecting since 1990.

Sample completed student binders will be available for you to consult in September. You’re free to follow them as closely as you like or to draw on any of the materials in the larger binders. Your students will be given 3 ring binders with tabbed and labeled folders. All materials that they use should be placed in the binders within the appropriate folders. This provides an easy and excellent organization for the students, which will help them in session and in studying at home. There are many advantages to this format. If you do incorporate supplemental materials beyond the large binders we ask that you gave a copy to Nancy and she will begin a new binder. A certain degree of flexibility in selection of materials is fine. However, we would ask you to make every effort to work with the materials in the large binders. A lot of care went into their selection, which included significant tutor input.

Third set of questions:

1. What has been your experience in using a given curriculum? Please describe the curriculum as well as something of your experience. How successful was the curriculum? What problems remained pervasive? conclusions do you draw about the nature of adult literacy education?

2. What has been your experience in creating a curriculum? How did you generate your ideas? What resources did you draw upon? What problems were you attempting to resolve? How successful were you in your efforts and what problems remained? What conclusions do you draw about the nature of adult literacy education?

3. Would it be better to forget about curriculum or models of instruction and simply teach?


George Demetrion February 13, 2006

Underlying Philosophy of Adult Literacy

The instructional philosophy that undergirds the binder concept is premised on the assumption that learning to read and using print based texts to gain relevant knowledge and information in one’s life outside the program, are interrelated. To use the language of K-12 education, the object is to teach reading across the curriculum to help adult literacy students apply what they are learning in as many contexts of their lives as possible. This overarching objective contains four supportive premises

1. Functional context theory, which maintains that interest and motivation play a crucial role in a student’s ability to read and comprehend a text, is one underlying concept. Drawing from CASAS and EFF frameworks as well as my own experience, the binders contain a wide array of materials in the areas of work, family education (especially parenting), health, civic awareness, money management, and human-interest stories. Many of these materials have been field tested and shown to be of interest to students. For that reason, they are a good resource through which to develop basic reading and writing skills as well as content-based knowledge. All else being equal, students will be able to read more complex texts that are of interest to them than those that are not, and in any event, will be more engaged in the topic matter.

2. Also incorporated into the binder concept is the balanced theory of reading, which is based on the assumption that working on such language skills as phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension, and focusing on broad content areas of interest are mutually reinforcing. Each of the manuals contains a basic skills section, which focuses on core skill development develop rather than content. We recommend that you spend about a quarter to a third of your time in the basic skills section. The remainder of the manuals contain content-based materials in such areas as work, family issues, health, civic awareness, human interest stories, and money management, which are designed both to enhance reading and writing development and content knowledge of various topics of interest and importance to students. Moving back and forth from broad-based content to highly specific reading skills is an underlying assumption, which grounds the manuals.

3. The Equipped for the Future Four Purposes are also incorporated to the binder concept. Regardless of specific topic matter, the materials are designed to tap into one or more of the EFF Four Purposes, which are:

• Learning for Access and Orientation. From reading maps to knowing how institutions work—knowing what’s going on in the world and accessing such information for one’s purposes. • Learning for Voice –presenting oneself to the world in written and oral communication. Communicating one’s own ideas and be taken seriously. • Learning for Independent Action—capacity to make informed decisions, doing things on one’s own, and to rely less on others, whether achieving economic self-sufficiency, supporting one’s family, or fulfilling responsibilities in the community. • Learning as Bridge to the Future—learning how to learn, educating and assuring the quality education of one’s children, and entering job training and educational programs.

Keep in mind that even if the focus is basic skill mastery, such work is contributing to the student’s ultimate independent mastery. Keeping attuned to how the lessons contribute to one or more of these Four Purposes can help students find increasing relevance in what they study. The materials were selected in part, with these Four Purposes in mind, which will be more evident in some of the selections than others.

4. The final assumption that undergirds the binders is the symbolic nature of the materials in their role of tapping into student and tutor imagination. What is important is not always the literal focus of the materials, but what they mean to students and tutors who use them. I discuss this symbolic understanding in the handout, Moving Back and Forth from Instructional Materials to Highly Significant Learning. The search is for “the learning that matters,” as defined both by students and tutors. While this search may seem overly subjective, its partial fulfillment is experienced whenever a “learning/teaching moment” is achieved. In whatever shape it takes it is the subtle learning connection that we experience when learning is most alive that drives what we are after in adult literacy education. Instructional materials play an important symbolic role in facilitating this learning. They are a means to this broader an end.

What works for one tutor or one group may not necessarily have the same impact with another. In the words of one educator, materials are “middlemen” in the process of learning. They are a resource that will depend on how they are used. The materials included in the binders were selected for their potential in stimulating highly significant materials. Other materials might do as well, but on our judgment, this was the best collection we could put together based on our experience and available texts. The tutor plays a critical role in making the materials come alive to students for the purpose of stimulating the learning that matters. So does the quality of the group interaction in engagement with the materials and the broader topic matter stimulated by the materials. Regardless as to materials used, a stimulating learning experience taps into the imagination and motivational drives of students. This is what we are seeking to accomplish the best we can with the best sources we have available.

George Demetrion February 13, 2006

Literacy for Life: Life Application Curriculum Framework: Five Guiding Principles

Current research on literacy states that language development is most fully acquired when it is applied in living contexts that people identify as important. This is the foundation for LVA’s student-centered approach. This core assumption is at the heart of the five principles upon which I have based Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford’s: Life Application Curriculum Framework.

Principle #1 Adult literacy learning is best stimulated by a student-centered focus. As put by Elsa Auerbach: “People learn best when learning starts with what they already know, builds on their strengths, engages them in the learning process, and enables them to accomplish something they want to accomplish.” Learning best takes place when students identify their own questions and gaps in knowledge as well as their own interests and work out of their own sources of strength. The Literacy for Life: Life Application Curriculum Framework is designed to facilitate such a discovery process.

Principle #2 Adult literacy learners are multidimensional in their interests, experience, and knowledge. As Juliet Merrifield and her colleagues put it, “Adults with limited literacy skills should be credited with the skills and knowledge they do have. Educators should start to build on and extend the knowledge and skills of students, based on their needs, desires, and interests, rather than dwelling on measuring how ‘functional’ a learner is or needs to become according to standardized tests.” Adult literacy students seek to enhance their learning in various areas that may not always seem immediately practical as well as to gain important useful knowledge to help them find employment or do better in their jobs and to help them with their family responsibilities. As adult literacy researcher Susan Lytle put it:

Some [students] come with a desire to learn more about a particular subject, for example, Mrican-American history, parenting, or health. Many seek ways to deal with their own children's literacy and schooling, whereas others wish to participate or assume new roles and responsibilities in their families, workplaces, or communities. Some are looking for community in the literacy program itself. Some seek economic improvements in their lives through new jobs or promotions, or by dealing more competently with personal finances and/or their encounter with ‘the bureaucracy.’ For many, the program offers the possibility of taking more control and ownership of their own learning. For most adult learners who come to the programs, the desire for enhanced self-esteem is implicit in many of their stated and unstated goals.

Principle #3 Literacy and conversational English are developed while in and through application. One does not learn to read, write, speak and comprehend English first through decontextualized exercises and then apply such skills to relevant contexts only once basic language mastery is attained. Rather, the Literacy for Life: Life Application Curriculum Framework utilizes authentic content from the inception of instruction even among those students whose basic skills are least developed. Basic skill work is not ignored, but incorporates authentic language and content. Literacy Volunteer of America supports this contextual approach to language development in the 7th edition of Tutor and the 4th edition of I Speak English.

Principle #4 TheLiteracy for Life: LifeApplication Curriculum Framework is premised on basic principles of adult learning theory such as the following:

• Education is lifelong learning and helps individuals prepare for changing needs and interests in the present and for the future. As one study puts it, "Students do not necessarily have a concrete goal in mind, an instrumental view of literacy tied to some specific task or aspiration. More than anything, they want to feel that there are possibilities for the future, that there are choices and potential for change."

• Adult education focuses on what adults want and need to know and to be able to do to succeed as parents, citizens, community members, workers, consumers, and in other important social roles and contexts. It integrates basic skills with expanding competency in communication, decision-making, and interpersonal relationships, across specific contexts and roles.

• Adult education is driven by what adults say they need and want to know in order to meet self-defined life-plans. It provides resources for individuals in meeting personal as well as social goals.

• Progress is measured by the capacity of adults to progressively organize experience and perform real-world tasks. It is outcome-driven rather than based on standardized tests.

• Adult education is developmental as well as cognitive. It integrates emotional and social growth with cognitive capacity in the development of persons as individuals and as social actors within a variety of community contexts.

• Adult education helps students to learn how to learn-to expand their ability to explore new knowledge.

Principle #5 Mastery of specific language and learning contexts of the social environments in which students are or would like to be engaged is critical to their success, what literacy researcher Thomas Sticht refers to as functional context education.

The curriculum framework draws on such contexts in setting the instructional program in order to help students progressively master the range of social environments that are important to their lives. While emphasizing the significance of the external setting, the Literacy for Life: Life Application Curriculum Framework is responsive to current student development and fosters an interactive relationship between what students currently know about such environments and what they need and want to learn through supportive mentoring instruction. The instructor, other students, or other persons or certain activities assist students to progressively master the language and learning demands of particular social contexts critical to their self-defined objectives. Simultaneously, the challenges embedded within the social environments students seek to master, if tapped in a manner that builds on and extends current student knowledge, is a powerful stimulus to learning that matters for life.

George Demetrion February 14, 2006


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