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The Debrief

The Power of Structured Choice: A vision for a 21st-century learning platform

Dan Cogan-Drew
Dec 21, 2020

As we’ve seen in recent months, high-quality curricula are needed to address opportunity gaps that prevent all students from spending sufficient time with knowledge-rich, grade-level materials. But it’s not enough simply to provide the curricula; they must be delivered in a way that overcomes barriers to effective adoption and usage by districts. And they must overcome the obstacles to student motivation and cognitive engagement. Deprived of choice and voice, teachers often withhold buy-in. Missing, too, are the supports for professional development to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to implement the curriculum effectively. Curriculum quality doesn’t matter if educators don’t embrace it, implement it with fidelity, and stick with it. 

The current solutions leave teachers in a gap between two extremes: 1) a solution that is overly prescriptive and deprives the teacher of agency; 2) a plethora of possible solutions, with little guidance on how to choose the right one. By way of analogy, imagine the teacher as chef, preparing a meal. At the one extreme, there isn’t a recipe or even a specific dish that’s been requested; there’s just a request for a meal, leaving every decision up to the chef. At the other extreme, the chef is handed the recipe, the ingredients are pre-selected, and all that remains is the assembly. Finding that just-right balance between unconstrained freedom and overly-narrow constraint is what leads the chef to assert pride of ownership over their craft. This dynamic of ownership is what behavioral economist Dan Ariely terms “the IKEA effect,” which comes from the value that the laborer gives to the product of their labors.

As humans, we want to invest ourselves in producing value, and — to a point — the more we feel able to invest ourselves, the more value we will attribute to our creations. This desire for work can vary based on the circumstance. If I’m a first-year teacher I might work all weekend to create a lesson — exerting a great deal of effort in the hopes of creating value — only to discover that my creation bombs in the hands of my students. Until I’m more capable of writing a lesson “from scratch,” I might much prefer to be handed a battle-tested lesson from my more venerable peers. But I might — like the home-chef who cracks an egg to make “home-made” cookies — want to add my own touch by selecting the particular piece of reading that my students will use within the lesson structure.

These kinds of scaffolds, which provide appropriate support through structure, enable teachers to customize and adapt their instruction within the guidance of an adopted curriculum. In this way, providing constraints of these sorts can actually increase the creativity of teachers who can focus on the aspects of the planning and pedagogy that are most within their control, ceding decision-making over other aspects (standards alignment, for example) to others. 

At the same time, administrators want to look out for the non-negotiables in the curriculum. Without this oversight, inequity may result. To name but one example, this is what happened to the teaching of the Civil War in Arkansas, prompting action by the state legislature in 2017. This same tension between global requirements and local decision-making plays out both at the state and national levels, and also in the classroom. With teacher-directed choice, students choose from amongst a collection of pre-selected alternatives. As a classroom engagement strategy, structured choice is a well-accepted pedagogical practice designed to foster a sense of ownership and control for the learner. 

We think this same approach, building on what is essentially a human desire to want to create value through effort while maintaining personal control, applies equally well to curricula. We often term this construct a “walled garden with no bad choices,” where the platform does the work to ensure qualified admission to only the highest-quality instructional materials and where users can experience a freedom of choice amongst equally strong alternatives.

We believe that structured choice should come in three forms: 

  1. The ability to choose from more than one comprehensive curriculum. Multiple, knowledge-rich comprehensive curricula for grades K-12, with grade-by-grade units and daily lessons on a single platform. Gone are the days when a decision the district thought was the right one three or four years ago has locked teachers and students into a curriculum for another three or four years. Administrators should have the ability to adapt to new research and changing social environments without being bound by the economics of the curriculum marketplace. And administrators should be able to pass this flexibility on to their teachers, setting rules that govern the balance of structure and choice. The answer to a more engaged teaching force will come through earned autonomy rather than enforced compliance. The right platform should enable school communities to set the terms of these conditions with mutual agreement.

  2. Rich instructional content that can be used to replace or complement content within the comprehensive curricula: a rich library of texts handpicked to meet the learning objectives of the units and daily lessons. This content should be regularly updated based on analysis of usage, diverse classroom conditions, and a changing world. By providing a lush, walled garden of safe, optimal choices, this rich instructional content has the power to significantly increase adoption by giving teachers a sense of choice and agency—without sacrificing cohesive, rigorous instruction.

  3. Robust tools to make it easy for teachers to modify curriculum without altering the structure, rigor, or alignment to standards of the provided units and lessons. Next-generation curriculum-editing and sharing capabilities, enabling educators and administrators to: 

  • Easily remix, modify, and bundle units, lessons, scaffolds, and professional learning modules into cohesive high-quality curricular offerings;

  • Edit instructions and modify activities to meet local needs while preserving the original source material; 

  • View and search content by Learning Standards to ensure comprehensive coverage of knowledge and skills;

  • Easily share and publish derivative works across the state;

  • Track usage of derivative works so that they can see what’s used most.

Just as the ingredients alone (however high quality) will not suffice to provide the meal, the chef also needs the proper high-performance tools to prepare the meal. What are these implements, and how do they contribute to the preparation? 

Here are a few of the key features of such a platform: 

  • Adaptive Reading Levels: Students begin at the level within their zone of proximal development and then “level up” after completing a simple text-dependent embedded formative assessment that provides them with feedback on their level of understanding. 

  • Active Reading As part of their reading experience, students annotate digitally, which enables research-based active reading strategies such as “notice-and-note signposts.” Teachers are able to publish notes to their students in order to promote more active reading. 

  • Accessibility: Newsela’s platform is WCAG 2.0 AA certified in addition to being 508 compliant. Accommodations include read-aloud and keyboard navigation. Everything is accessible offline via mobile phone, and content can be printed individually or in bulk. 

  • Embedded Formative Assessments: Every Newsela article comes with standards-aligned multiple-choice assessments at each of the five levels.

  • Integration: Full integration with Google Classroom, Canvas, and all LTI-compatible LMS’s, as well as embedded search enabling teachers to construct assignments entirely within the LMS.

  • Embedded Professional Learning: Just-in-time professional learning supports teachers in delivering high-quality instruction aligned to the curricula. Professional learning content sourced from high-quality providers and delivered in short video and written form. 

  • Insight into Adoption and Impact: Platform analytics, providing insight into usage of units, lessons, and content; student performance on formative assessments, and the creation and quality of derivative works. 

The picture we’re painting here is of a 21st-century platform built on the principles of learning science and motivation, in particular. Teachers new to teaching or a particular subject area should have support in creating value in their work, developing their abilities through a sense of control, while managing the cognitive demands of learning new knowledge and skills. Administrators should have the tools to facilitate this development in a sustainable, scalable way that charts an appropriate balance between structure and choice.

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