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Designing Classrooms That Work: Conception and Pilot Study
Almost universally, America's teachers have been trained to teach
curricula that are school-based and subject-specific. However, federal
legislation and school reformers are urging that teachers develop and teach
curricula that focus on "generic" skills, such as problem solving and
teamwork; integrate vocational and academic education; and emphasize
"real-world" applications, especially applications found in the workplace.
Unfortunately, most teachers are being asked to change their practice
without the requisite knowledge or the means for doing so. To make use of
the workplace as a context for learning, teachers need (1) knowledge of
work and work practice; (2) an appropriate model for classroom design and
instruction; and (3) the opportunity to learn and apply both.
In response to this need we developed a six-week "mini-sabbatical"
for high school teachers and teacher-trainers. The mini-sabbatical proposed
to give teachers the tools they need to gain knowledge that is necessary
for defining curriculum and instruction in many school-to-career programs.
Put another way, it is intended to help teachers answer three questions:
(1) What to teach? (2) How to teach it? and (3) How to assess what students
The mini-sabbatical was a six-week (four days per week) course,
with six to eight hours of training per day. We identified four explicit
goals that we wanted teachers to achieve:
The mini-sabbatical activities were organized around three phases.
The first phase addressed the first learning goal by linking teachers to
the workplace. It involved a week of preparation for teachers to learn how
to carry out structured observations at work sites. In Week 2, teachers
visited worksites, completed fieldnotes on their work observations and
conducted interviews. The second phase of the mini-sabbatical, Weeks 3 and
4, focused on classroom design, including developing authentic assessments
and curriculum development. This phase incorporated direct teaching by
mini-sabbatical staff, activities to promote curriculum development, and
group discussions and feedback. It also emphasized the Classrooms that Work
(CTW) model for designing instruction, which the study team had previously
developed. In the final phase of the mini-sabbatical, Weeks 5 and 6,
teachers taught their curriculum units to a small group of students. During
the teaching phase, teachers received feedback on their teaching from
mini-sabbatical staff and through videotape playback of selected lessons.
- Increase teacher knowledge of work practice and the authentic
applications of domain knowledge (e.g., math, science, and English) in work.
- Create high-quality, integrated curricula that incorporates
domain-specific and generic skills.
- Adopt teaching roles to support authentic learning.
- Develop alternative assessments that provide meaningful feedback to
students and the teacher.
The mini-sabbatical was structured to reflect conceptions of adult
learning and learning to teach. Specifically, it incorporated the following
design characteristics: active learning; focus on a concrete task (the
curriculum design); opportunities for inquiry, experimentation, and
reflection; and collaboration in a learning community.
Although the mini-sabbatical provides an intensive learning
experience, it falls short of an ideal model because it is not directly
tied to a long-term school reform or professional development strategy. The
mini-sabbatical curriculum addressed issues about implementing change in
the existing school context, but teachers were left to implement what they
learned when they returned to their home schools. Follow-up conversations
with teachers during the school year indicated that they had some success
in sustaining changes in their teaching practice or in disseminating
lessons from the mini-sabbatical to other teachers or school personnel.
Pilot Study Design
During the summer of 1996, we implemented the mini-sabbatical as a
pilot test. The purpose of the pilot study was to assess the feasibility of
implementing the six-week mini-sabbatical and to determine whether the
curriculum and process would achieve the goals discussed above. We
recruited seven teachers and one teacher-trainer as participants from four
schools in the Los Angeles area. The participants, five men and three
women, had diverse experience and backgrounds. Five teachers taught in a
transportation career academy program at two different high school
campuses. Two taught at a medical magnet high school. The final
participant, a teacher-trainer, was responsible for curriculum and staff
development at a new math, science, and technology magnet high school.
Their teaching areas included English, life science, mathematics,
computer-aided design (CAD), architectural drafting, and mechanical
We recruited student participants through the counselors and
schoolwide announcements at the high school that agreed to provide
classrooms for the teaching phase of the mini-sabbatical. Each teacher was
assigned from six to seven students.
The pilot test design incorporated multiple assessment instruments
and other sources of data to assess the mini-sabbatical's overall
effectiveness and success in achieving each of the main goals outlined
above, including journal writing (for teachers and students), written
evaluations, teacher survey, curriculum designs, and a focus group.
Pilot Study Findings
Overall, we determined that the implementation is feasible,
although somewhat time-consuming to organize, and that teachers were able
to learn key concepts and incorporate them into the design and delivery of
their curriculum units. The teacher participants were highly enthusiastic
about the value of the mini-sabbatical with respect to the knowledge they
gained as well as the opportunity it provided for changing teaching
practice. Most participating teachers showed and expressed fairly
substantial changes over the course of the mini-sabbatical that appeared to
continue when they returned to their home schools.
Goal 1: Increase Teacher Knowledge of Work Practice
For most teachers, the activities designed to increase their
knowledge of the world of work, as related to their specific discipline,
were very successful and meaningful. Teachers were introduced to the skills
they needed to perform, analyze, and document worksite observations.
Presentations by mini-sabbatical trainers addressed several topics: (1)
authentic practice, work context, and the rationale for worksite
observations; (2) understanding work from workers' perspectives;
(3) techniques for observing and documenting work; (4) types of tasks
suitable for the design of high-quality learning experiences; and (5) the
logistics of the workplace observation scheduled for Week 2 (e.g., assigned
mentor, schedule, and so on).
Teachers spent a week at assigned workplaces to observe work
practice, take fieldnotes, and interview their mentor. We attempted to
match teachers to worksites and mentors based on the teachers' disciplines,
their school programs' industry focus, and the teachers' initial ideas
about the curriculum unit that they were going to develop.
After only two days of observation, several important themes
emerged from discussions, journal entries, and fieldnotes which suggest
that teachers were learning valuable lessons and new information about work
practices. They discussed the importance of interpersonal relations at
work, and the need to work with different types of people to build
consensus. They noted differences in types of workplace communications,
teamwork, and management styles. From these and other insights, they began
to identify authentic work problems that can animate the design of
project-based work in the classroom.
Goal 2: Create High-Quality, Integrated Curricula
Curriculum development activities (Weeks 3 and 4) first included an
exercise to help teachers move from worksite observation to instructional
design-that is, from job tasks to authentic problems. Mini-sabbatical
trainers led a discussion about authentic practice, then asked teachers to
discuss and write a summary of their own job study.
Teachers read and discussed alternative approaches to developing
integrated curricula, and reviewed the CTW model. Teachers were asked to
build their new curricula around a project or investigation based on
authentic practice and solving authentic problems. We provided an
instructional design template for teachers to specify several elements of
their design: (1) summary of student product, (2) instructional goals
(generic, domain, attitudes, or dispositions), (3) design (e.g., culture of
practice, teacher role, assessment, classroom set-up), (4) teaching
methods, (5) resources required, and (6) organizational supports (e.g.,
coaching by mini-sabbatical trainers or peers, preparation time). In
subsequent sessions, teachers had opportunities to modify this "baseline"
design and provide a rationale for any changes they made.
We assessed teachers' progress in curriculum development by
comparing the types of lessons and units they initially proposed, prior to
being selected as mini-sabbatical participants, with the projects and
topics they began to refine during Week 3. This comparison reveals some
significant changes. One clear difference was the emphasis on group work
over individual learning assignments. Final projects were much more
"authentic" in their connection to real work settings. Another significant
change was the integration of academic skills, generic skills, and specific
competencies needed to carry out a project. Although their initial projects
were often interdisciplinary or explicitly connected to other classes in
the school program, they did not typically emphasize or articulate
work-related skills. Teachers were also very inventive in defining their
teaching roles and in creating a culture of practice in the classroom.
Goal 3: Adopt Teaching Roles To Support Authentic Learning
Teachers were introduced to the CTW model during the first week of
the mini-sabbatical through a set of briefings, readings, and journal
writing exercises. Concepts were reinforced in Week 3, when teachers began
to develop their curriculum. Teacher evaluations indicated that the
curriculum materials and processes were very useful for developing
teachers' understanding of the CTW model. Journal entries emphasized
developing teaching goals, re-defining teacher and student roles, thinking
of students as responsible learners and problem-solvers, and working
collaboratively with other teachers on curriculum and practice issues.
The CTW model defines several specific techniques that teachers
should adopt to enhance student-centered learning such as coaching,
scaffolding, and fading. Adopting these techniques requires fairly
significant changes on the part of teachers because they must give more
responsibility to students for their own learning and not always take
center stage. While teachers supported such pedagogical techniques in
principle, they found it much harder to put them into practice. Some
indicated that changing this aspect of their teaching practice was the most
difficult and challenging part of the mini-sabbatical. In particular,
teachers struggled with relinquishing "power" and control, and trusting the
student groups to succeed with less intervention on their part.
Overall, while teachers were generally familiar with the concepts
of student-centered learning and cooperative learning, they had not been
introduced to a comprehensive model that outlined specific teaching
practices or design principles for implementing such concepts. Nor had
teachers had an opportunity to participate in professional development that
allowed them to systematically explore and reflect on the implications of
the model for practice.
Goal 4: Develop Alternative Assessments
Of all the mini-sabbatical goals, this one seemed to have been the
most challenging for teachers. During Week 3, teachers participated in a
presentation and discussion of alternative assessment, covering purpose;
types of assessment; and the concepts of reliability, validity, and
feasibility. Even experienced teachers had difficulty thinking about how to
assess students' performance in ways that aligned with all of their
In the final analysis, the mini-sabbatical was successful in
getting teachers to think explicitly about assessments, even though they
did not really develop formal assessment procedures. Rather, teachers
tended to informally monitor student performance on a day-to-day basis.
Conclusions and Lessons Learned
Our assessment suggests that the mini-sabbatical met with success
in achieving most of the goals we set out. However, we note some possible
improvements to the mini-sabbatical curriculum and some observations about
the process that might inform future staff development efforts of this type.
Teachers Need More Assistance in Developing Assessments
Teachers did not fully develop assessments to accompany their
curriculum. This is partly due to the situation-teachers taught an
experimental class where students were paid for their participation.
Students were not working for grades, and teachers were not required to
turn them in.
In addition, we found that most of the teachers were unfamiliar
with the concepts and approach toward developing assessments presented in
the mini-sabbatical curriculum. As a result of limitations in teachers'
knowledge about assessment design, the staff did not press teachers to
Future implementations of the mini-sabbatical can be modified to
accommodate teachers' level of expertise or comfort with their assessment
development skills. The schedule could be modified by extending class time
to permit more time for discussion and practice, to explicitly require
teachers to develop assessments for their particular curricular units, or
to identify assessment or evaluation practices used at the worksites.
Teachers Had Difficulty Relinquishing Control Over Learning
Our observations and teachers' discussions and journals indicate
that giving up control of the classroom processes was a significant
challenge for most of the teachers. The CTW model instructs teachers to
adopt teaching techniques that place more responsibility for learning on
students. The teachers' role is to provide coaching or scaffolding to
assist students as needed to enable them to make progress, but then to
"fade"-to let the students proceed on their own. The teacher's primary role
is as a guide or coach, not as a source of the answers. This shift in
behavior requires teachers to trust that students can do the work and to
permit them to proceed on their own, and also to sometimes fail.
Teachers initially expressed their conflict as resulting from
doubts about the students' abilities or their level of preparation. As time
went on, teachers explicitly discussed this issue as a matter of giving up
power and control. And many continued to struggle throughout their
Teacher Collaboration Is an Important Catalyst for Learning
An important design aspect of the mini-sabbatical was to establish
a learning community by having teachers work as a collaborative group and
use each other as resources, critics, inspiration, and so on, as they
developed their curriculum. Teachers typically have little time for
collaboration and are used to working in isolation. By having teachers
establish their own "community of practice," we hoped to provide a model
for collaboration that they could take back to their home schools and,
ideally, establish as part of their everyday practice. In addition, their
own group work and interaction might give them insights about how to design
and support collaborative work for their students.
Staff Development Should Support the Reflective Practice
The mini-sabbatical supported teachers' reflection on their own
learning and practice through journal writing, videotaping, and adopting an
action research approach to teaching. These methods were not uniformly
successful, as some teachers did not write journals regularly or action
research did not appeal as a strategy for teachers to systematically
understand and monitor their own practice. We conclude that the group
collaboration was most valuable for promoting reflective practice, since it
did not depend on teachers also taking the time to write in their journals.
The value of collaboration through shared planning time or other means has
been corroborated in many other studies of teaching.
Industry Experience Is Not Sufficient for Developing Work-Related Curricula
Research on approaches for integrating academic and vocational
education often suggests that academic and vocational teachers should
collaborate because each brings different expertise to the curriculum
development process-the academic teacher brings subject-matter expertise,
while the vocational teacher contributes work-related knowledge and
experience. Although this characterization is undoubtedly true at some
level, it does not necessarily mean that academic or vocational teachers'
past experience prepares them to create project-based curriculum that
reflects authentic work practice. Even teachers with relevant work
experience may need assistance in translating that experience to first
identify authentic problems and then to transform those problems into a
curriculum that meets a complex set of learning goals for students.
The workplace observation phase of the mini-sabbatical proved very
successful in helping even experienced teachers think about the workplace
as a source of information for designing curriculum projects that both
engaged students and taught subject-specific knowledge. The approach
enabled teachers to learn about the social nature of work-for example,
whether projects are carried out by groups or individuals, how teams are
comprised and managed, and how supervisors motivate staff-as well as the
knowledge and skills that individuals need to carry out a particular job.
Understanding the social aspect of work is important for classroom design
under the CTW model because it helps reveal problems and projects that can
be simulated in the classroom. Learning about these non-technical skill
requirements may require vocational teachers to modify the usual way they
look at work requirements.
Work-Based Learning Requires Different Teacher Planning
An important challenge for teachers developing integrated curricula
is the need to incorporate work context into their instructional planning.
This requirement necessarily broadens teachers' instructional goals to
include goals related to learning generic skills and work-related attitudes
in addition to the basic subject matter. It also challenges teachers to
incorporate relevant aspects of work practice into classroom design in
order to replicate the social context of work-for example, teachers may
need to organize team activities where students adopt different roles. When
students are given more control over the learning process, as in
problem-oriented, project-based assignments, classroom activities may be
more fluid and unpredictable-teams may proceed at different paces or
require different amounts of guidance. Thus, teachers may be called on to
improvise more often and to frequently make use of opportunistic moments
for advancing their instructional goals.
The mini-sabbatical began with a premise about what teachers needed
to know in order to teach in school-to-career programs-knowledge about work
and knowledge about designing classrooms and assessing students. It also
began with the premise that any staff development process for teachers
should adopt an adult teaching model, including such features as
opportunity for reflection, collaboration, and active learning. Our pilot
test indicates that the mini-sabbatical content and process, with some
small modifications, is an effective approach for changing teaching
practice. We believe that our approach is a useful starting point for
developing both inservice and preservice programs for teachers,
particularly those involved in school-to-career programs.
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