3. What is the theoretical basis for the curriculum?

Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALN) Curriculum for Scotlandprinciples

Part One: Principles
 
3. What is the theoretical basis for the curriculum?
 
It is important to think about the theories of knowledge that underpin our understanding of how people learn so that we can teach and assess appropriately. Behaviourism is a theory that conceives of learning as a set of skills such as recognising and reproducing letters, signs and symbols that are acquired through the tutor or others in society reinforcing the approved responses. These theories tend to see the learner as relatively passive and there is an assumption that the repetition of skills will aid learning. This approach is particularly common in the teaching of numeracy where it is assumed that learners will understand the four operations (+,-, x,¸) by doing many examples of similar calculations. This theory makes a strong distinction between right and wrong answers and assumes that knowledge exists independently of both tutor and learner. Few tutors nowadays consciously use behaviourist theories. However, aspects of behaviourism still have an influence on teaching practices (Bruner, 1986), for example, reinforcing a skill by lots of repetitive practice through worksheets.
 
Constructivism, on the other hand, is a theory that sees learning as an active process of gaining understanding in which learners use their prior knowledge and experience to shape meaning and acquire new knowledge (Glaser, 1992). It is based on research related to the development of expertise in thinking. This approach emphasises that human beings are active problem solvers who learn in order to make sense of the world around them. People explore, solve problems and remember. Learning activities are undertaken not just as ends in themselves but as a means of achieving larger objectives and goals that have meaning in the wider communities that the learner is part of. This means that knowledge emerges out of the problem solving activities that the learner engages in. So the learner has a central role in interpreting what is being taught in ways that are meaningful in his/her own context rather than depending on the expert tutor as the sole source of knowledge. For example, learners have tacit knowledge of how they learn to do new things gained from experience of doing a particular task such as taking money out of a cash machine or finding their way around a new area. Tutors need to help learners think about what strategies they use in this kind of learning and how they can transfer these strategies to other kinds of numeracy or literacy tasks. Active learning also emphasises the importance of transferring the learning that takes place in the learning programme to the learner’s everyday life. If this doesn’t happen, literacy and numeracy learning becomes divorced from these broader purposes and does not have real meaning for learners (Daniels, 2001).
 
This theory also shows how important it is for tutors to build on the prior knowledge of learners by helping them to identify what they already know about a particular topic (Gillespie, 2002a). Tutors should understand fully the range of prior knowledge and experience that some learners might bring, including those from minority backgrounds who have faced prejudice and discrimination based on gender, race, age or disability or their capacity to learn. This existing knowledge can then be built on in order to help learners to achieve a more expert understanding. For example, in a family learning programme tutors can ask what parents already know about their children's education, directly build on this to identify gaps and then address any misunderstandings. Research shows that if tutors do not involve learners in naming and analysing their existing understandings, learners may not grasp new concepts, such as new ways of understanding maths, and revert to what they already know. This research also highlights the importance of developing learners' critical thinking and encouraging them to question their assumptions. If assumptions go unchallenged then misconceptions persist and learners get stuck and find it difficult to move on to new knowledge and understanding (Gillespie, 2002b).
 
The research literature also highlights the importance of a focus on cognitive and metacognitive strategies (Greeno et al, 1997). Learning strategies can be divided into two basic types. Cognitive strategies help us to remember and organise content information. For example, when we read we might apply a cognitive strategy to skim the title, pictures, and headings of a text to get the gist of what we will read. We might take notes to help us remember the main points. An expert reader will also know when it is possible to skip over sections of a text and when it is important to read every word carefully. When learning a large number of facts, a good strategic learner will "study smarter" by working to understand the "big picture" and then dividing the facts into categories through a classification scheme, diagram or outline, for example mind maps (Gillespie and Nash, 2002).
 
Metacognitive strategies consist of knowledge about one's own thinking processes. They are the "executive managers" of knowledge and involve planning, monitoring, evaluating and revising one's own thinking processes. Good metacognitive strategy users engage in an ongoing process of identifying what their prior knowledge of a topic is, what they don't know, and what they need to learn. Metacognitive strategies enable learners to plan and self-regulate their work and to judge under what conditions to apply which cognitive strategies.
 
Tutors can help learners to learn these skills by enabling them, firstly, to examine their prior knowledge and to construct new knowledge in the light of their past experiences through reflecting on the knowledge, skills and learning strategies that they use to complete a particular task. Secondly, tutors can ask learners to think about how this specific learning might transfer to other parts of their lives and to use this information and their thinking processes to monitor, develop and alter their understanding. Finally, tutors can help learners to identify what barriers they feel interfere with their learning and revise their assumptions about these in the light of their own growing independence.
 
There are three kinds of metacognitive knowledge: which strategies are relevant, how to apply the right strategy and why these strategies are useful. This means that when someone is acquiring a new skill the tutor needs to break the complex task down into smaller steps, help the learner to see how to do each one, and then show how to put the individual pieces back together again. This means that effective tutors should be aware of how to explain the individual parts of any activity, should understand how to stimulate the learner's thinking about the problem and know how to explain the processes of thinking at the level the learner can understand and employ. 
 
Another key concept is that of "scaffolding" (Vygotsky, 1986):
 
The role of the tutor is, through guided participation, to build bridges from the learner's present understanding and skills to reach a new level of knowledge. This collaborative process moves the learner along the developmental continuum from novice towards expert. Scaffolding helps to do this by providing tasks that are slightly above the learner's level of independent functioning yet can be accomplished with sensitive guidance. In the process of jointly performing a task, a tutor or more skilled peer can point out links between the task and the ones the learner already knows, helping the learner to stretch his or her understanding to the next development level. Within the ALN curriculum, the tutor's role is to first structure the task and the learning environment so that the demands on the learner are at an appropriately challenging level. Then the role is to continually adjust the amount of intervention and the range of tasks to the learner's level of independence and fluency.
 
The idea of scaffolding is a key one and to be effective it should be based on practices that:
  • give ownership of the activity to be learned to the learner
  • are appropriate to the learner's current knowledge
  • provide a structure that embodies a "natural" sequence of thought and action
  • result in collaboration between tutor and learner
  • result in internalisation via the gradual withdrawal of the scaffolding and the transfer of control.
The tutor is always a member of the learning community and so should make it clear that s/he is also a learner and that learning is a shared responsibility.
 
Learning is not just about cognitive development; it is also about values and feelings and so the emotional and social dimensions are equally important (Illeris, 2004). Because literacy and numeracy skills have assumed enormous significance in contemporary Western society the discourse surrounding adult literacy and numeracy tends to focus on what people lack rather than what they have and emphasises their deficits, not their strengths. Learners internalise this emphasis on individual failure rather than thinking about the circumstances and structures that might make learning difficult.  This means that many learners have low self-esteem and may be unwilling to take the risk of learning in new ways (Crowther et al, 2001). At school they may have used the strategy of not trying new ways of learning because they were afraid of failing. Sticking to what they knew may have seemed safer even if their old ways were of little help.  People learn early on at school that failure is to be avoided and so may simply withdraw rather than show that they do not understand something. This is why it is important that tutors work with learners to draw on their existing knowledge, skills and understanding as this emphasises strengths rather than weaknesses. This in turn leads to learners becoming more confident about what they know and can do and so better able to learn and grow in self-esteem (Beder, 1999). It is also important to recognise that barriers to learning may be erected not only by learners but also by tutors, barriers based often on unwitting stereotypes and assumptions about the contexts and capabilities of learners.

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