Unit Based Curriculum

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I loved learning as a child! From Grade 2 to Grade 12, I was always at the top of my class.  I would relish the opportunity to read the textbooks from students a year or two older than me. So when I reached those grades, I already had a pretty good handle on that material before we even started.


But I could see that the rest of my class was not in the same learning position. They struggled with the material and had no natural drive to master it. Something outside of themselves drove them to whatever academic success they attained. For many of these classmates, sports, arts, and social connections were the ultimate rewards of school.


And the bottom of the class is a different story: they were so far behind that they never did understand much on the blackboard. They put in time at school and went through the motions. But when your reading level is at Grade 2 level and the science is for Grade 5, the science doesn't make much sense. It's not hard to understand why these students left school when they turned 16.


I lost that love of learning in my second year of university. I then became an ordinary student, not really fully understanding what I was learning, but learning enough to pass courses and get my piece of paper. Despite my lower enthusiasm, there was still some education happening. 


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 dreamed of a system where all subjects would be divided into many small units rather than grades. Students would work independently on their units. Teachers would be more of guides for students to manage their units rather than be 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 I 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 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 from 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 give a damn about balancing chemical equations or analyzing Shakespeare.  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 to. It has lectures and textbooks and teachers and schedules, to which the student have been trained to access. If we implement the UBC in my institution, I am sure there will be fewer upgrading graduates at my institution. 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 their 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 who recognize the value of putting education into kids like David. There are more teacher aides to give him more one-on-one time than when I went to primary school. 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 to 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 abilities. 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 to 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.  And I see more ability inside David, but 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 subject the teacher tells him to work on). He would be given small quizzes at end of each unit. His score would be allow 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 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 five, 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. The classroom teacher is going to monitoring 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 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 will need to be developed. Lots of 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. 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 in a UBC direction. Why not make the trend more deliberate?


















Dino Manalis Added Jan 10, 2018 - 5:19pm
I support the factory model, but each student should have a personal counselor, in addition to the teacher, to help him or her personally.
A. Jones Added Jan 10, 2018 - 6:49pm
the factory model of education
More commonly known as public education.
Autumn Cote Added Jan 11, 2018 - 6:39am
I couldn’t agree more with anyone that is displeased with the status quo.  I also couldn’t agree more that the kids most harmed by the status quo are the gifted students. 
However, I question how what you will have in mind will work.  Depending on the student, freedom can be a terrible thing.  Some people need structure and being told what to do or they aren’t going to do anything. The second issue is the issue of logistics, in classrooms that are 20-35 kids large I don’t see how a teacher can teach that many different lessons at the same time.  If you’re saying kids will be assembled based on age and not ability; that presents the issue of having 12-year olds in the same class as 16-year olds. 
Dave Volek Added Jan 11, 2018 - 10:16am
Actually I am quite pleased with how Alberta education has advanced since I went to school. In my day, kids like David were left to "they won't amount to much anyways, so let's not put too much effort in them".
I'm not sure what the student-teacher ratio would be with a UBC. Students would work at their own terminals. They would have a lot of choice in the units they want to work on, and they work at their own speed. Teachers would be there to make sure they are working and provide a little help when needed. But most of the delivery would come from the software, not the teacher.
The structure of current education is necessary because that is how we have taught ourselves. With a UBC, we would have to teach kids to learn on their own, starting at the age of 4 or 5.
Even A Broken Clock Added Jan 11, 2018 - 11:03am
Dave, as one of those students who were self-motivated to learn, and one whose active learning has lasted my entire life to this point, I have difficulty in understanding the perspective of those who don't share that motivation. Your explanation of your son's issues is helpful to me in giving a fuller perspective of how someone may not be able to have that motivation.
I despair that the US education system is heading in the right direction. Here in my state of West Virginia, they just reduced the number of credits required for high school graduation from 24 to 22, enabled students to count junior ROTC as social studies credits, and enabled show choir to qualify as a physical education credit. With that type of change, it certainly seems like we are devaluing education instead of increasing its importance in our society.
opher goodwin Added Jan 11, 2018 - 11:08am
Instilling a desire to learn and a reason to learn is quite an art. I've seen some outstanding teachers who can do that. The thirst they create is unquenchable.
Dave Volek Added Jan 11, 2018 - 11:33am
We who have had intrinsic motivation to learn need to understand that others don't have that. In the adult world, they would quit such a job. Or maybe in another way, without the paycheck we would not be in that job. Such learners really don't see a paycheck.
In essence, we do "force" a lot of students through the process of getting an education. In some ways, a UBC would do the same (e.g. "Get 25 units done this week and you can stay on the basketball team"). In other ways, we need to find that internal motivation that both you and I experienced as children. The factory model cannot do that; maybe the UBC can. 
As far as watering down the curriculum, my son is in a watered-down curriculum. Trying to force him through the standard academic program that will put him into a university, he will become very frustrated, hate school, and possibly leave without a diploma. With the watered-down curriculum, he will leave school with a Grade 9 level of reading and numeracy--and that will help him with many "ordinary" occupations. 
And I would say that "choir" and "RTOC" are also giving teenagers some very valuable life skills. They have to master something and work as a team. These activities beat hanging out at the food court at the mall. We should acknowledge that students who earn credits in this way are still developing themselves---but most likely not ready for the rigors of Grade 12 math or biology. Not everyone is destined to go to university; it's important to know where they at at, what they are capable of, and move them forward. A UBC will better deliver on that approach.
Dave Volek Added Jan 11, 2018 - 11:40am
I have been in adult education now for 11 years. On one hand, I have helped quite a few people recover from their poor high school experience and helped move them forward. On the other hand, there are people who enroll and don't put much effort into the upgrading process, including asking me for help. I just can't reach them.
A great teacher can accomplish only so much. The bulk of the effort comes from the student.
And like other occupations, there is a degree of mediocrity we have to live with. If we fired all the mediocre teachers, (or garbage collectors, or pilots, or whatever), there would be a lot teachers out there. A well motivated student can work around a mediocre or a poor teacher.
Richard Plank Added Jan 11, 2018 - 4:18pm
Dave, I could not agree with you more; far more poor students with bad attitudes then poor teachers with bad attitudes.  However in the bigger picture I think the problem is change is only possible a bit at a time.  The issue like most everything else we face is "wicked",  word used from the academic management literature to be essentially unsolvable.  So what we need to do is just  make it better a little bit at a time.  I certainly agree with having a big picture and an end, but what we teach our students is to do it a piece at a time in a planned, if that is possible, way. 
Dave Volek Added Jan 11, 2018 - 4:49pm
We are evolving more towards a UBC, but I don't think there is a general plan in place.
In educational circles, there has been a lot of discussion of the "flipped classroom" where students access the internet for their lessons and quizzes. Teachers become more facilitators than presenters. And, of course, there is a lot of opposition to changing the classroom in this way. And I would have to agree that many of my adult students do not have the internal motivation to learn in a "flipped" environment. We need to start this training quite young. 
The Khan Academy is perhaps one of the better sites for online lessons in high school courses. At this point, I consider Sal Khan's lessons as another way to learn the same concept as with your teacher--and maybe between Sal and your teacher, you might come to a better understanding of the concept.  I don't think Sal is able to find success independently with his learners because he does need to incorporate different approaches.
A few years back, Khan were started to build an interlinking web of concepts that students could work through, proving their knowledge by taking quizzes after each lecture. It seems this concept has been taken down, and they are only offering lectures again. In other words, they have gone backwards it seems. They probably didn't have the funding to do this right.
A. Jones Added Jan 11, 2018 - 11:39pm
I probably could have handled calculus when I was  16 had the right academic path been carved for me.
A. Jones Added Jan 12, 2018 - 12:02am
UBC curriculum would flow naturally from Common Core if they would just use it.
Common Core was rejected outright by several states because they quite understandably didn't want the distant, heavy hand of the federal government exercising such a granular level of control over education. Eventually, more states rejected the initiative or just didn't implement it.
Federal government always works the same way when it comes to its dealings with the states: it takes money from the states in the form of taxes, and then tells them if they want the money back, they will have to comply with whatever "initiative" or "standards" the federal government wants. There are always strings attached to federal monies.
Everything the federal government does is a "one size fits all" program, which is the exact opposite of the individually tailored, "many sizes for many fits" instruction and learning that Volek envisions.
It's somewhat different at the state level, but only in degree; not in kind. The history of state-funded public education in the U.S. can be traced to the mid-19th century when some self-styled progressives (e.g., Horace Mann of Massachusetts) became fascinated with the strict, uniform methods of education and civil-servant training in Prussia. Mann even made a trip to Prussia in the 1840s to study the Prussian Dossier System (which included the keeping of a life-long "School Record" of every student on file for every government bureaucrat or employer to inspect) and returned to the U.S. with great enthusiasm for it. His main idea was that the purpose of education was not so much intellectual training, or even character training, but citizenship training; i.e., he was interested in graduating from his schools a uniform product called "an American citizen", in the same way that the Prussian academies abroad graduated good, obedient, uniform Prussian citizens.
Former educator John Taylor Gatto has written several books on the history of American public education, but you can read a précis of that history here and here.
Shane Laing Added Jan 12, 2018 - 2:38am
Dave. When I attended boarding school there was a system where pupils could "float." By that I mean if a pupil was naturally gifted in one subject they could move up a year and study at a higher level. I am guessing that that option was only available to those of us lucky enough to attend boarding school.
You have my undying admiration for being a teacher. I certainly couldn't do it.
Dave Volek Added Jan 12, 2018 - 11:17am
David Quinn
I'm not familiar with the Common Core program, but it sounds like something that is/was in the line of a UBC. I'm not surprised that there were a few bumps on the road. When I think of putting together a workable UBC together, it is a very big project.
One challenge is defining an exact curriculum. As well as my college job, I have private tutored high school students from the public and Catholic school systems. The learning objectives for the College, public and Catholic Grade 12 math program are about 75% the same, but the other 25%--well they go off in different directions. When we add the different provinces and states, we get a patchwork of Grade 12 math curriculum across North America.
If a UBC is properly developed, it will be of such an expense that it really cannot be financed by one or a few educational jurisdictions. This means many jurisdictions will have to think of surrendering their "sovereignty" to the UBC.  So it will also be a big rethink of culture to implement the UBC.
Dave Volek Added Jan 12, 2018 - 11:29am
Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary has moved a lot ways towards a UBC. Students move through their high school courses at their own pace--and can take university transfer courses if they are academically inclined. This model has been around since 1970, but it doesn't seem to have inspired other schools in Canada.
Unfortunately, I'm not a real teacher! I am a tutor, which means I don't have the formal classroom presentations to prepare, administration, and marking. And this means half the pay of a regular teacher.
I have a mental disability that makes it difficult to juggle lots of balls. So I don't aspire to full teacher's job. But this job fits where I am at in life.
A. Jones Added Jan 12, 2018 - 6:41pm
I have a mental disability that makes it difficult to juggle lots of balls.
What sort of mental disability?
Maureen Foster Added Jan 13, 2018 - 5:43pm
The current model isn’t the factory model, it’s the model that calls on teachers to differentiate their instruction for each child.  So it’s not all that dissimilar to what you’re calling “unit based curriculum.”  That being said, the status quo is clearly broken.  So even if you disagree with my assessment of your idea, I’m all for you giving it a try. 
As for money, we currently spend plenty on public education.  There is no reason to think your system will be vastly more costly than the current system.  If anything the most costly aspect of education, teachers, will be less needed because the students will be educated by computers.  The best way to give you the money you need to attempt your system, is to either convince some private school to give it a try or provide students vouchers to exit the public school system and enter yours.   
Mark Hunter Added Jan 14, 2018 - 2:48am
Clock, I would totally county show choir as physical education. My youngest daughter was in show choir for three years, and they physically and mentally worked harder than any regular P.E. class.
Dave Volek Added Jan 14, 2018 - 10:27am
A Jones
In 1998, I come down with a case of mononucleosis. Unfortunately it didn't put me flat on my back like it does to most people. I continued working and eventually the symptoms worsened to where I could not work two years later. The mono left me, but I came down with what is known as chronic fatigue syndrome. While I was low on energy, the worst was impairment of cognition. I didn't drive for six months because I couldn't put the pieces of the traffic together very well. After that, I limited my driving to avoid tiring myself out.
It took about 12 years for most of the chronic fatigue to leave my body. But these days I get anxiety attacks when the world becomes "too much". I can usually talk myself out of them, and a mid-day nap often solves the problem. But for sure management type jobs (like teachers) are not in my forte. My father and his two sisters suffered from various mental illnesses, but they could not admit it and never sought any treatment.
I would not say the current education system is broken. It is doing what it should be doing: mass production of education for the least cost per unit. 
When we add that too many families do not have a high enough value for education, it's hard for the current education system to counter that social force. We should expect that it can't save everyone. But it is trying (at least in Alberta).
The economics of a UBC, as I see it, is a huge upfront cost followed by a reduction of staffing. Unfortunately this initial investment is so huge that no one educational jurisdiction is capable of financing it by itself. There is going to have to be some pooling of resources across North America to create it. I'm not sure the political will is there for that---yet.
Mark Hunter Added Jan 15, 2018 - 12:04am
Dave, it took me about ten years to recover from mono, and I too still need the occasional mid-afternoon nap. Or what passes for it, since I work nights.