TDG Banner

Unit Based Curriculum

In my mid 20s, I was reflecting on my education from primary school to university. I can see that I was held back from what I could truly accomplish in Grades 1 to 12. I probably could have handled calculus when I was 16 had the right academic path been carved for me. I began to see some serious flaws with what is known as the factory model of education.

In the factory model, students are put together on a conveyor belt and the belt moves the students through a grade and supposedly transforms them to be ready for another conveyor belt. All students are given the same transformation stimulus: it doesn’t matter whether you have high or low capacity for learning.

So I invented a system where all subjects would be divided into many small units rather than grades. Students would work independently on their units. Teachers would guides rather than the main presenter of education. Had I been allowed to “go free,” I would have moved much faster through primary school with my “unit based curriculum” (UBC). And I could see that I would have probably prospered at university with a UBC because I had lost respect for many of my university professors. A good textbook was more preferable teacher for me.

Twenty years later after my UBC idea, I find myself in adult education, helping adult learners recover from their poor high school experience. They want to move beyond their dead-end jobs, and education is the key. I am now on the other side of the factory model of education. I was starting to understand why factory education is the way it is. And I started seeing flaws with my UBC.

The main flaw is that even though many of my students have a life goal in mind and are driven to attain those goals, they still don’t have a natural desire to learn. Their main motive to go through math, English, chemistry, etc. is because that is the path they must follow: they don’t care about balancing chemical equations or analyzing Shakespeare. They just want a mark to move forward. 

Without natural learning drive, students need short-term deadlines, constant reminders from teachers, and threat or enactment of a failing grade. Most of my students would not have the self-discipline to self direct themselves through a UBC. The factory model offers the students a clear expectation for the semester to which the students can easily relate. It has lectures and textbooks and teachers and schedules, which the students have been trained to access. If we implement the UBC in my institution, I am sure there would be fewer upgrading graduates. Remember, these people were not at the top of their high school classes.

So I now see my UBC as only good for students who have a strong natural desire to learn. Unfortunately, these kinds of students are only a minority. And education programs are expected to produce results (i.e., graduates) for financial resources put into the school. In this regard, the factory model is more economically efficient than any UBC I can envision.

This essay is going to take an interesting turn. My philosophy on education was formed in my mid 20s with my UBC idea. I was convinced this was the way to go. Then I got some actual experience in education in my mid 40s, which then convinced me the factory model was not so bad after all—and preferable to my UBC. So I am a person who can change his mind when new information and perspectives are presented. My mind is about to change again.

I married late in life (to one of my former students) and an eight-year old boy came into my life. David is full of energy and enthusiasm and wonderful to call my son. David also has learning disabilities, and he really doesn’t like to read. Despite a home environment that is strong on education and offers time for home tutoring, David still hasn’t developed any love for learning. 

One saving grace has been the Grassland School System which recognizes the value of putting education into kids like David. There are more teacher aides to give him one-on-one time. For a while, they put him into a stream that emphasized a lot of physical activity, where he learned to control himself better. He has been put back in the main classroom, but he is on a modified program meaning he gets easier exams. He gets scores of 50% to 70% which helps his confidence. Add in the basketball and social connections, David loves going to junior high school despite being in the lower 10% of academic ability. We expect that when he reaches high school, he will be put into the lower academic stream with a lot of exposure to the trades. With his love for basketball, he will stay in high school and graduate with a diploma. I’m confident that he will be operating life with a Grade 9 level of literacy and numeracy—which is far better than quitting school at 16. While I see more ability inside David, he must decide to master his disability.

Grasslands School Division is still very much a factory model. But they have made modifications to the conveyor belt to help address the needs of kids like David. In essence, this school system is already embarking on a path towards a UBC. If UBC is going to our final destination, why not just make a deliberate attempt to get there?

So my mind has been changed back towards a UBC replacing the factory model.

In a UBC system, David would be trained to sit at a computer terminal (as opposed to being trained to watch a teacher from a desk). He would be given a choice of subjects he can work on, as opposed to working on the subjects chosen for him. He would be given small quizzes at the end of each unit. His score would be direct him to proceed to the next unit or take the same unit over again. 

Taking the exact same unit over again may not help David understand the content. So any UBC is going to require several approaches to teach the same content. David will eventually find the style of approach that works for him. He will then pass the unit and move on to a slightly higher level.

The best part is that David will see his own progress on a daily basis. Even if his classmates complete an average of eight units a day and David completes four, he is still moving forward. And he will still be around his peers for social contact—and given sufficient time to play basketball. He will be learning how to become an independent learner with the UBC—even if he never goes to university!

The software behind the UBC will be monitoring David’s progress. The software will direct David to take a balanced approach in all liberal arts subjects. For example, he could be at a Grade 6 level in math and a Grade 3 level in reading—and the software will encourage David more towards the reading. And the software will ensure that David gets lots of review of previous units to ensure David keeps up his skills on formerly mastered material.

The role of the teacher is going to change in a UBC. The classroom teacher is going to monitor the software looking for trouble spots in David’s education—and only intervening at those times, perhaps with some one-on-one time. The teacher will be watching David’s progress and figuring out where David really needs to be and making adjustments to David’s plan. And of course, the teacher will still be admonishing David for fooling around when he should be at the keyboard or touchscreen as well as holding him accountable to complete a few units each day (take away his basketball practice is my suggestion). For sure, the classroom presentations are going to be a thing of the past.

More teachers are going to be employed for developing and refining the curriculum. As alluded earlier, each learning concept should have four or five different approaches to teaching that concept. Teachers will be needed to identify those approaches and design the presentation for that approach. Lots of videos and quizzes will need to be developed. There will be a lot of experiments to find out what works in an online format. But eventually, the curriculum will be able to reach nearly all students.

For those students who have advanced academics, the factory model won’t be holding them back. If a student can learn calculus at 15, that is great for the student—and the rest of the world. Universities could very well pass their entry level courses to the high school level. And the universities should be developing their own UBC programs. If someone can finish a four-year bachelor’s degree in three years, let them do it. If someone needs to take a less stressful approach to academics, five years is OK to attain this education.

The biggest obstacle to a fully integrated UBC is money. It will not be cheap developing the software and multiple presentations for many learning concepts—and learning styles. The pedagogical flowcharts are going to be amazingly huge. But once a comprehensive and viable program is available, it will be hard to defend the factory model any more.

But the reward is that each child is going to be educated to the best of his or her ability. From my readings of the trends, we are already heading to a unit based curriculum. Why not make this a deliberate movement? 

Published on Writerbeat 2017

The TDG Essay

Building a Wiser Kinder Democracy