The Foundations academic program focuses upon the three main foundation skills: reading, writing, and mathematics, including language, facts, skills, concepts, principles, problem solving, and organizational aspects. Literature, social studies, and science are the grist for teaching these foundations. Students also take a Transactional Analysis psychology class four days a week.
Each student participates in extensive entry assessments of academic, learning, and performance skills to find out what they can do well, not so well, or not at all. We “fill all their gaps.” Students with similar needs and goals are homogeneously grouped together for instruction. Groupings change repeatedly throughout the day as students move from reading to writing to mathematics. Groupings also change continuously throughout the school year as students make more or less progress than students in their current group.
Learning success provides a context for teachers to give lots of positive reinforcement, and they do. Students get praised hundreds of times a day. In fact, in a variation of the token economy, students carry a daily support card with them throughout the day. Points are earned and recorded for meeting specific academic, learning skills, organizational skills, and citizenship aims that the teacher specifies before each class period. Students share their support cards with their families each day, giving them more reinforcement at home. Many students earn home-based rewards such as extra television, computer or telephone time for meeting their aims. In addition, classroom wall charts display the points that each student earns.
The comprehensive reading program includes basic prerequisites such as print awareness, phonemic awareness through auditory blending and segmenting, and the alphabetic principle. Basic foundations in decoding are emphasized, including sound-symbol correspondence, textual blending and segmenting strategies, and reading fluency.
Comprehension is a major focus. We teach students to retell stories and passages and chapters that they read, emphasizing main points and proper sequence, first orally and then in written form. After all, a learner can’t make inferences about what they’ve read if they can’t even say or remember what they’ve read in the first place! Students also learn background information and vocabulary related to reading selections, which are organized according to universal life themes and research themes to provide solid springboards for later inquiry and research. Both basal reading programs and authentic literature are incorporated. Students also learn over 20 key comprehension skills such as comparing and contrasting, and making inferences about characters, settings, and unspoken events. Students learn to “read strategically” by asking questions, making connections with what they already know, making and confirming predictions, applying the comprehension skills they have learned, and so forth. They learn strategies for organizing and communicating their ongoing thoughts during discussion sessions.
The comprehensive writing program includes mastery of “rubrics” – features and steps that define many different genres, including descriptive, narrative, explanatory and persuasive writing styles. Students master key component skills in handwriting, keyboarding, word processing, transcription, dictation, grammar, and mechanics; as well as organizational strategies such as selecting a topic, brainstorming details, and logically sequencing them in sentences, paragraphs, and essays.
The comprehensive mathematics program includes mastery of counting and the numerical system; math facts and calculation skills; math concepts; and math vocabulary. To master the language of speaking and writing about math, we use the retelling methods we employ when teaching reading. We also teach math thinking, reasoning, and problem solving skills.
In each area of study, we first focus on teaching component skills and concepts, and then bring them together in a real-world context. This sequence contrasts with current predominant holistic educational approaches in schools today that focus on complex real-world learning as a context to “teach” component skills. Many of today’s school activities are made up of challenging real-world simulations or problems to stimulate creative application and problem-solving. Project Based Learning is currently in vogue from late elementary school through college. It assumes that students can already perform all the component skills that the larger complex activity requires. Some educators think that projects are inherently interesting and stimulating, and believe these anticipated motivational features outweigh component skill weaknesses. The assumption is that, if the task is sufficiently interesting, learners will employ a battery of skills to “figure it out.” Diehard “constructivists” believe that the components are lying latent in their students’ repertoires, and it is the mission of the teacher to bring them out! In the end, some learners figure out how to complete a project or solve a problem, and some learners don’t. Most learners who “figure it out” never really develop masterful component skills like spelling, decoding, grammar, sentence writing, math facts; forever relying on others or reference materials.
Kent Johnson once observed a sixth grade math teacher simulate a stock market in her classroom to teach fractions and table reading. The simulation was a miserable failure and the teacher was shocked. After all it was highly recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics! Dr. Johnson showed her how she could remedy the problem – by first teaching the components and only then providing the context of the stock market to give real world relevance to fractions and table reading. While meaningful projects are important educational endeavors, at Morningside we introduce them right after their components are mastered. Current holistic practices are upside down. We take right-side up, first-things-first approach, focusing first upon components, then composites.
All of Morningside’s curricula and teaching methods are research based and/or evidence based. By research based, we mean that the curriculum materials and teaching methods are built from research on effective learning. By evidence based, we mean that the materials and methods have published evidence that student achievement improves with their use. Dr. Johnson spends lots of time scouring the education and psychology literature, searching for new methods and materials to try out. If the tryouts reveal better performance than we previously attained, the previous curriculum or teaching method “gets the hook.”
Engelmann’s Direct Instruction method is initially used to teach basic academic skills. In Direct Instruction, teachers present scripted lessons to children, who answer teacher-questions in unison. Teacher and students volley many times a minute with their questions and answers. Teachers praise and correct student responses until all children are accurate. The explicitness and careful progression of Direct Instruction lessons assures that students develop flawless skills very quickly. Over 100 Direct Instruction programs are currently published. For students with more learning skills, other materials may be prescribed. All instruction is delivered using the “demonstrate,” “guide,” and “test steps of direct instruction.
With Precision Teaching, students learn important goal setting, self-monitoring, self-management, organizational, and cooperative learning skills. Students also learn self-management and self-determination through freedom to take their own performance breaks and still meet their expected goals, skip lessons when they can demonstrate mastery, move through the curriculum at their own pace, select their own arrangement of tasks to accomplish in a class period, choose their own free time activities, and give themselves support card points.
Even with Direct Instruction and precision Teaching, educators cannot possibly teach everything that needs to be learned to become an effective, independent adult. Even mastery and fluency of an entire K-12 curriculum with DI plus PT would not do the trick. Effective adults must demonstrate generativity. They engage in behavior they learned in instruction under a vastly wider variety of stimuli and contexts than those presented in classrooms. In our model, we call this kind of generativity application. They also engage in new, untaught blends and recombinations of behavior when new stimuli and contexts occur that were not previously presented in instruction. We call this kind of generativity adduction. Such behavior illustrates maximum generativity. If students can engage in both application and adduction, their current relevant repertoires will survive under the constantly evolving novel natural circumstances that prevail in the real world.
We design at least two kinds of application activities. The first kind requires the student to engage in a previously learned performance in a new context. A student may read a newspaper and discuss the articles with their peers, after reading essays in their controlled reading program and engaging in teacher-directed discussions. A student may also write a letter to the editor of the newspaper about a particular article after learning and practicing the basic rubrics of writing a persuasive essay.
An important reading application activity in our curriculum involves strategically applying comprehension skills during reading. The context includes a group of students who are taking turns reading a selection aloud. At certain points a teacher stops the reading and engages in “think aloud” monologues that model applications of comprehension skills that the students have previously been taught. The teacher may pause the group reading at various points to make a prediction about what will happen next or what a character will do, or she may make a connection between the plot or a character and her own life experience. After two or three think-alouds, the teacher uses a delayed prompting method to assess and prompt student application of skills. First she calls on a student at certain points during the group reading to make a prediction or connection that will help to make sense of the reading or help the student relate more closely to it. If the student doesn’t respond competently, the teacher provides a prompt to facilitate the application. If the student’s application still does not meet criterion, the teacher may provide more intensive prompts and finally a full model of the application which the student can then imitate. Thus the student stays engaged with the teacher until he is successful, no matter how many volleys occur between them. The teacher provides increasing support until the student is successful. The relevant data to collect is the number and kind of teacher prompts that were provided, not the accuracy of the student’s response, since all students stay engaged with the teacher until they are successful.
At key moments in curriculum sequences, students are required to engage in new blends and recombinations of previously learned component skills without instruction. We call this kind of generativity adduction. More advanced operations in arithmetic, such as long multiplication or division of numbers, are recombinations of previously taught addition, subtraction, and multiplication elements. More advanced forms of sentences and compositions are recombinations of elements learned separately during previous writing instruction. More advanced field sports are recombinations of many previously learned motor activities and chains. The compound called debating combines elements such as argumentation rules, oratory style, Robert’s Rules of Order, and quick refutation. The elements in all of these activities can be separately taught. A compound of these elements can then be introduced as a challenging activity that can recruit the necessary elements.
When an instructional objective represents a potential opportunity for learners to engage in a new blend or combination without instruction, the teacher introduces a generativity probe. Often she simply says, “I’ll bet you can (or can’t) figure out how to do this problem all by yourselves.” Learner outcomes making up as much as one-third of a course of instruction may emerge “for free” along the way, as the component skills that make up an emerging skill are mastered. A careful sequence of skills, and a focus upon teaching each skill as a general case, make Morningside’s programs generative in design. Generative Instruction is instruction that is carefully designed and sequenced to produce skills that are not directly taught.
To promote generative behavior, we also teach students to think, reason, and problem solve by talking their way through new problems in reading comprehension, mathematics, social studies and science, using Whimbey’s Think-Aloud Problem-Solving (TAPS) method. This generative method is the core learning-to-learn technology used in our program. In TAPS, teachers model and coach students to think out loud, through talking, writing, diagraming and other supplemental activities which support thinking, using specially designed protocols that represent effective ways to work through problems. Students are taught five key repertoires that are required for effective reasoning and problem solving. Then they coach each other to “get fluent” in using the TAPS protocols and these key repertoires to solve a range of problems. Once TAPS fluent, they coach each other’s use of TAPS to master content and skills across a typical school curriculum, such as social studies, science and math. They also use a version of TAPS to edit and improve their writing skills.