Learning Environments Consortium International

The Systemic Design Components

James W. Keefe and Eugene R. Howard

As the design team collects and interprets data from the CASE-IMS and the literature search (Step D), several threads of agreement will become apparent. Design team members, for example, may find multiple references, both in the literature search and in the CASE-IMS interventions bank, on topics such as interdisciplinary teaching or block of time scheduling.

A thread of agreement consistent with the basic components becomes a candidate for consideration as a specification for one or more of the systemic components of the design. Many such threads will emerge as the design team conducts the What If analysis, considers interventions targets suggested by the CASE-IMS, and conducts its own literature search. By the time the design team formally begins its specifications-writing task, many of these threads of agreement will have become apparent.

Let us suppose, for example, that the design team has three abstracts recommending “cooperative team learning” as a specification for its new design statement.

1. One abstract summarizes an article by Robert Slavin in Educational Leadership— “Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning” (1981). In this article, Slavin reported on research showing that achievement gains in cooperative learning groups were higher than in traditionally taught groups, and that cooperative learning resulted in improved relations among members of diverse ethnic groups.

2. A second abstract summarizes Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom by Johnson and Johnson (1984). In this book, the Johnsons and their colleagues summarized 98 studies and concluded that “achievement will be higher when learning situations are structured cooperatively rather than competitively or individualistically.” The studies showed that cooperative learning experiences, as compared with competitive or individualized learning experiences, promote greater interpersonal interactions among students.

3. The design team also has an abstract of a recent issue of Horace, the newsletter of the Coalition of Essential Schools, in which a “cooperative learning focus” is one of several restructuring practices that is “positively associated with gains in student engagement and achievement” (Cushman, 1995).

The design team knows that further support for the cooperative learning approach comes from the work of Elizabeth Cohen of Stanford’s Center for Educational Research, who reported that her study of the “multi-ability classroom” concept in 23 Bay Area classrooms showed that “the use of small groups and multi-ability activities had a dramatic effect of increasing the academic participation rates of poor readers, many of whom were black” (1980).

At this point the principal asks for volunteers to serve on two small research teams (two persons on each team). One is asked to do an ERIC search and to scan the Internet for other potential literature on cooperative learning. The other team is asked to research the CASE-IMS interventions bank for the extent to which cooperative team learning is a recommended intervention. The ERIC team reports that its CD-ROM ERIC search located 2,146 cooperative learning entries. There were 188 entries just for 1994, of which 96 were linked to the key words “elementary,” “secondary,” and “high school.” An ERIC search via the Internet to the ERIC homepage allowed the team to do a search on the key words “Cooperative Learning.” The team selected those entries that seemed most promising.

Other sources contacted were the Northwest Regional Laboratory, (available through America Online as well as through the Internet) and the Educational Research List (ERL-L) available through Bitnet and CompuServe. From these and other similar sources the inquiry team requested 20 citations. The entries reviewed included the following:

1. A paper by Martin Nystrand, Adam Gamoran, and Mary J Heck (1992) from the Center on the Organization and Restructuring of Schools entitled, Small Groups in English: When Do They Help Students? This study, summarized by the Mid-continent Regional Laboratory, linked higher literature test scores to additional autonomous group work.

2. “Cooperative Learning and Student Motivation,” a research report by Joe D. Nichols and Raymond B. Miller (1994), which reported on a study of 62 high school algebra students assigned to cooperative or to traditional learning groups. Greater gains were reported in achievement, efficacy, valuing of algebra, and learning goal orientation for the cooperative learning group.

3. “Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning,” an Educational Leadership article by Robert E. Slavin (1991), which confirmed findings of the earlier article abstracted by the design team.

The inquiry team assigned the task of reviewing the CASE-IMS interventions bank reported that cooperative team learning was suggested as a potential intervention for improving six CASE IMS variables:

• Teacher Climate—(Instructional Management and Student Peer Relationships)
• Student satisfaction (schoolwork and discipline)
• Percentage of students passing all courses
• Student self-efficacy
• Percentage of students completing the school year (not dropping out)
• Total achievement.

On the basis of the information from the abstracts and the two inquiry teams, the principal asks the design team to designate cooperative team learning as a high priority specification. The design team supports the recommendation. The principal then organizes small (two or three-member) writing teams, one for each of the systemic components to which this specification relates: instructional techniques, staffing and staff development, and school structure. Membership on these writing teams will be expanded and additional writing teams will be organized as additional specifications emerge as priorities.

Translating Data into Design Specifications

Data CollectionThe CASE-IMS Interventions BankLiterature Search
and Interpretation—What If?
(Design Team)—Intervention Targets
(Writing Team
and Design Team)
Specifications for
Eight Systemic Components

The Design Function

The process that writing teams follow in translating data into design specifications is illustrated in Figure 8.1. Four to eight small (5 to 7-member) specification-writing teams should be formed to process the eight systemic components. Initially each of these writing groups will assume responsibility for writing five to seven specifications, using as an information base the CASE-IMS interventions bank and the abstracts, articles, and books identified by the literature search.

The regular design team meetings will become sharing and critiquing sessions as the writing teams share the progress of their work. The writing teams may wish to consult the sample statements in the next section of this chapter, the examples included in the sample design specification sheet (Appendix B), and specific intervention suggestions from the CASE-IMS interventions bank.

Successful specification statements exhibit the following characteristics:

1. Related specifications share the same or a very similar title (in this case Cooperative Team Learning) but descriptions vary depending on the systemic component to which they relate. For example, the specification sheet in Appendix B for “course credit” is written differently for the Instructional Techniques component and the Evaluation Plan component.

2. Each specification defined by the writing team is consistent with the design’s three basic components (mission and vision statements, culture and climate statements, and student outcomes).

3. Each specification’s description is sufficiently specific, detailed, and comprehensive to guide action planning.

4. Each specification’s definition is stated clearly enough that, when used as an item on a survey form, respondents can judge the extent to which the specification is already operating in the school (What Is) and the extent to which it should become a characteristic of the school (What Should Be).

We have two additional suggestions:

a. In some specification statements you may wish to use examples to enhance the clarity of the definition. See example B-2-5 below on Experiential Learning for a definition that uses examples effectively.

b. Avoid writing specifications that describe what is currently happening in your school. Specifications should define the desired state, not the actual state.

Draft I and Draft II of the Systems Components

Coordination of effort is crucial as work on the first draft of the design statement proceeds within each writing team. The responsibility for coordinating the writing effort is shared by the principal and the writing team leaders. Suppose, for example, that a specification emerges that calls for a continuous progress approach to curriculum to accommodate individual differences among learners. In support of this concept, the writing team on instructional techniques would include in its description specific techniques to facilitate individualized progress (diagnosis, prescription, advisement, etc.). Similarly, the curriculum and program writing team would specify that the curriculum be organized into units of instruction with various alternative learning activities. The writing team on school resources, physical plant, and equipment would call for resource areas and learning laboratories and a computerized pupil progress system that would generate individualized reports and transcripts. The staffing and staff development writing team would describe the program to train teachers in the new approach. The specification sheet for continuous progress would clearly portray, in terms of these four systemic components, what was needed to implement the concept.

As the writing progresses, coordination is achieved in two ways:

1. At the regular meetings of the design team, writing team leaders make progress reports, submitting copies of their draft specification statements. Through dialogue, suggestions emerge for strengthening individual statements and relating them to others on the same topic.

2. Individual writing teams periodically hold joint meetings with other teams working on the same specifications. Alternatively, a writing team might invite representatives of other writing teams to attend their meetings and participate in their writing efforts. The format for writing specifications of the systems components is the same as for the basic components. This format enables the design team to use the design statement both as a guide to planning and as a survey instrument.

Upon completion of Draft I of the systems components, the design team should hold another workshop similar to that suggested for the basic components in Chapter 7. Input from this work shop would be used by the writing teams and the design team to prepare Draft II of the systems components. Draft II would then be administered as a second survey to obtain baseline data about the extent to which the agreed-upon design is in operation in the school and the extent to which support exists for moving ahead with action planning.

Sample Components and Specifications for Exemplary Design Statements

In the following section, sample specification statements are presented for the systems components of the school design statement. The sources of these statements are design statements prepared by sources cited in Chapter 7. (The same codes are used to identify the sources.) A complete list of districts, schools, and administrators contributing samples may be found in Appendix C. Again, the design statement is formatted as a survey instrument so it can be field tested with key faculty members, community and parent leaders, and students. (The rating scale is found in Figure 7.1.)

All the specifications that follow meet the four criteria of effectiveness defined earlier in this chapter. A few of these specifications are outstanding, meriting your close attention. See especially the following:

• B-l-2 Teaching Thinking Skills
• B-l-5 Course Structure
• B-2-3 Role of the Teachers
• B-4-l Broad Involvement in Planning and Decision Making
• B-5-2 Individualized Staff Development Process
• B-7-2 Instructional Areas
• B-8-3 Graduation and Promotion to the Next Educational Level by Exhibition

Sample Systems Components:

Systems components are those organizational elements of the school that must be present for the school to fulfill its mission, vision, and shared beliefs. Effective functioning of these interdependent components supports comprehensive school improvement and enhanced student outcomes.


Descriptions of the kinds of curriculum content and learning opportunities that will be offered. Content is consistent with the assumptions and the student outcomes statements.

What Is:What Should Be:
______B-1-1 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS (CONCEPT-CENTERED CUR RICULA): The curriculum is designed around “essential questions”—thought-provoking questions or unifying concepts that help students understand the significance of a topic. Learning to master skills (reading, writing, computing, etc.) is related to understanding the meaning and significance of a topic. (CS)*______
______B-1-1 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS (CONCEPT-CENTERED CURRICULA): The curriculum is designed around “essential questions”—thought-provoking questions or unifying concepts that help students understand the significance of a topic. Learning to master skills (reading, writing, computing, etc.) is related to understanding the meaning and significance of a topic. (CS)*______
*Code for Identifying Sources: B = Blue Valley; CS = Colorado Springs; H = High Plains; L = Littleton; M = Maple Ridge; W = Westminster.
______B-1-2 TEACHING THINKING SKILLS: Teachers provide students with direct instruction in thinking skills and learning opportunities for applying those skills. Types of skills emphasized include:
• Inquiry (teaching students to ask questions)
• Organizing information
• Drawing conclusions or forming opinions based on information or observations
• Creating/inventing/imaging
• Information gathering
• Problem solving
• Reasoning (i.e., logical thinking)
The curriculum is organized to permit individual pacing and independent learning. Each course is divided into units and “Learning Guides.” Five learning guides are written for each unit. (M)
Definitions of those teaching techniques chosen by the school because they have been demonstrated to be successful in accomplishing the desired student outcomes.
What is:What Should Be
______B-2-3 ROLE OF THE TEACHER (IN PERSONALIZED LEARNING): Teachers act as subject-matter coaches and “markers” for stu-
dents and as teacher advisers to approximately 18 students. Teachers
supervise students in independent study, provide tutorial help, offer
preview seminars, follow up cooperative learning groups, and teach
traditional classes at the eighth grade level. A variety of learning
activities are offered for each learning guide objective to accom-
modate individual student learning styles and individual capabilities.
Testing is also conducted individually when students are ready. (M)
______B-2-5 Experiential Learning Students are provided opportunities to learn through “hands-on” activities, interacting with “pieces of reality” or participating in learning games or simulations. Examples: use of manipulative materials (pulleys, kits, machines), outdoor education activities (e.g., nature walks, the school’s
weather station), and intense project work (e.g., science fair projects). (L)
Descriptors of how the school will be structured to achieve its objectives and organized to facilitate learning.
What isWhat Should Be
______B-3-3 STRUCTURE FOR INNOVATIVE TEACHING: The school structure of the future will provide for more flexible scheduling, blocks of time for planning, seminar-sized classes where appropriate, real teams working with a core group of
students, and more aides and staff. (W)
______B-3-4 SMALLER COMMUNITIES OF LEARNING: The structure should provide for smaller communities of learning that:
• Form teachers and students into learning teams
• Provide an adult adviser for each student
• Create smaller learning climates
• Provide for different learning styles and preferences (B)
Descriptors specifying how the school’s planning, decision-making, and budgeting processes will be managed.
What isWhat Should Be
______B-4-1 BROAD INVOLVEMENT IN PLANNING AND DECISION MAKING: We believe that staff, parents, and students, to the greatest extent possible, should be involved in the planning of school improvement activities and in the making of decisions that directly concern them. Therefore: Pupil-parent-staff task forces will engage in school improvement activities and provision will be made for serious consideration by decision-making groups and individuals of constructive dissent. (L)______
______B-4-3 DECENTRALIZED DECISION-MAKING: Decisions about details of the courses of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time, and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies are delegated to the principal and to the teachers. (CS)______
Specifications that address the primary staffing roles, the teacher workplace, teacher hiring and induction policies, and staff development priorities that are essential to a learning organization.
What IsWhat Should Be
______B-5-2 INDIVIDUALIZED STAFF DEVELOPMENT PROCESS: The long-term objective is that each teacher develop and implement an individualized professional growth plan. Each plan defines growth objectives and activities and ways of measuring progress toward each objective. (M)______
Specifications for the school’s internal and external communication linkages and those organizational relationships that facilitate positive working relationships with organiza tions external to the school.
What IsWhat Should Be
We advocate school/community partnership efforts that will benefit the entire school community by (partial list) enhancing attitudes and support of public education, application of health care service, private sector partnerships at building and district levels, engaging students and “giving back” to the community,
and service on governance boards. (B)
______B-6-2 THE TEACHER WORKSPACE: All teachers have access
to private offices and telephones for student and parent conferences. (M)
Descriptors of the characteristics of the physical plant, the equipment needed to support the envisioned curricular design, and the coordination of school and community resources, human and fiscal.
What IsWhat Should Be
______B-7-1 SPACE FOR PERSONALIZING LEARNING: The school provides organizational arrangements and appropriate space to facilitate personalized learning:
• Team learning laboratories designed for experiential learning and
maximum use of technology
• Places designed especially for reading, study, and thinking
• Seminar rooms
• Places to accommodate performing, demonstrating, and “exhibiting”
• Schools within schools
• Team learning areas
• Places for building things. (CS)
______B-7-2 INSTRUCTIONAL AREAS: Instructional areas will be carefully designed to accommodate personalized education, student advisement, continuous progress learning, and outcome-based education. A schoolwide computer network will facilitate management by the faculty of student progress information. Multimedia
will be readily available for integrating technology into instruction. (M)
Specifications for evaluation and reporting systems to in form all members of the school community about existing school and student characteristics and about the extent to which the design is being implemented and the desired student outcomes are being accomplished.
What IsWhat Should Be
• Provision for graduation from each level of schooling and
entrance into the next level on the basis of demonstrated
• Provision for periodic graduation ceremonies to honor all
who have graduated
• Provision for graduation and promotion at any time, not just
at the end of the year. (CS)
______B-8-4 TRANSCRIPTS: A computer-based record of a student’s accomplishments will be maintained by the teacher. The record will include the title of the work plan, a list of performance object- tives accomplished, a summary of concomitant (unanticipated) outcomes, and the grade (good or excellent). (CS)______

It is important that data summarizing responses to the Draft II survey be available and usable by action planning task forces in the next phase of the improvement process. Figure 8.2 suggests a format for reporting stakeholders’ perceptions of the extent to which the design’s specifications are already characteristic of the school (the “What is” response); and the extent to which stake- holders support each specification as a characteristic of the redesigned school (the “What Should Be” response). This figure uses sample data to illustrate how responses from two components, B- 1, Curriculum and Instruction, and B-2, Instructional Techniques might be reported.

To make the best use of these data, design team members might focus on three types of specifications: “big gap” items, those with low “what is” scores and high “what should be” scores; “success” items, those with high “what is” and “what should be” scores; and “Hold” items, those with low “what should be” scores. It may also be useful to identify role group differences in perceptions—teacher perceptions compared with parent perceptions, and so on.
Text from Redesigning Schools for the New Century: A Systems Approach, Chapter 8, NASSP, Reston Virginia. Copyright 1997, National Association of Secondary School Principals. www.principals.org. Reprinted with permission.

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