Evaluating a learning element…

An important part of using Learning by Design is the ongoing evaluation of designs for learning.    As I move into the final stages of teaching a learning element based on Dai Sijie’s 2000 novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, my colleague Jen Dennehy and I have been reflecting on the successes and challenges we have faced whilst teaching our learning element.

As part of the Lanyon Cluster of Schools Becoming Asia Literate project , co-author of the learning element Rita VanHaren suggested this novel as a means of integrating studies of Asia into the English curriculum.    It is a short novel, translated from the original french text.   The translation is a beautifully written semi biographical story, based on the reeducation experiences of the author during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.    After reading the novel we all agreed that it was text that would really extend the students in our Year 9 level one English classes.   In our initial discussions we identified the main themes in novel and the major ideas that we thought students should explore.

We also recognised that to enable our learners to engage with the novel and its setting, we would need to create connections with their lifeworlds and provide them with a basic understanding of the social changes that took place during the Chinese Cultural revolution.   This initial experiential learning or ‘front loading’ was designed to ‘hook’ our students in to thinking about the experiences of the author and hopefully arouse their interest in finding out more about the hardships he encountered during his reeducation.

Whilst reading the novel, students kept an ongoing record of narrative and character development through a character map in their journals.  This conceptual task was quite successful as it also helped them to keep track of plot and theme development.   Their conceptual understanding of the book was also supported by the construction of a wiki in which they posted significant quotes and reflections as we read the novel.   In addition to this we used functional grammar and cooperative reading strategies to analyse various parts of the novel in more depth after we had finished reading it.  As I write this my class is now moving into the learning element’s final essay assessment task.

Whilst teaching the novel both Jen and I felt that our students were finding it a challenge.   At one point, I even started to think that it was a book better suited to an older age group.  The novel is certainly a much more sophisticated text than many of my class members had experienced, and as many of them pointed out, not the kind of book they would pick up off the shelf.   However, as we progressed through the story, the voice of protest died out and I started to see a growing fascination with the lives of the characters.   While reading through their journal and wiki responses, I kept finding evidence of their engagement with the story, their growing understanding of the historical setting and a sense of their real empathy for the predicaments of the characters.

These responses were pleasing, and made me think that I was underestimating their capacity to engage with a foreign, translated text.  Yesterday, I realised what was missing while we read the novel.   We were analysing various passages at a word and sentence level using the functional grammar framework of mode, field and tenor.   I realised that my students had been struggling to understand the meanings of a lot of the descriptive langugage.  The author uses quite sophisticated language and many different literary devices to create vivid imagery.   While reading the book I adhered to the design of our learning element which focussed on analysis of plot and character development.   Unfortunately this meant that I didn’t allow the class to think as much about the function and meaning of the language.    Today my students looked at various descriptive passages from the novel in depth, and as they worked on their analysis I kept hearing remarks like “what an amazing description”, “that is such an interesting way of saying that”   or  “I never realised what that meant” with my  favourite exclamation being “wow this author can write so well”.   They were starting to understand the beauty of the language.  The problem was that I had assumed their understanding of the language and descriptions as we were reading the novel.   It surprised me to find that words like voluptuous, vivacious and lamentable were new to most of  them.   I had read the whole novel without really looking at the conceptual meaning of new words and ways of describing things.    In our post teaching rewrite, I think we will embed this word and sentence level analysis earlier in the learning element so that we can build our students appreciation and understanding of the novel’s descriptive language as we read it.

In hindsight, we can always identify more effective ways of teaching things.   That is the beauty of learning by design.   Our understanding of the knowledge processes helps us to identify wether the missing element was experiential, conceptual, analytical or applied learning.  Using these processes also helps to identify repetition in the learning element.   For example we also modified the learning element whilst teaching it.  The students had analysed and discussed character development extensively through wiki posts and journal reflections, applying their learning in a summative paragraph which was posted on the wiki.  For this reason we decided to modify the end of the learning element by removing an applying task which further explored character development.  This eliminated what we felt would be repetition and gave us more time for the students to work on their essay questions.   The process of evaluation and modification is one which is crucial to the development of quality learning experiences.

I have yet to see my students’ final essays, but after yesterday’s lesson I feel that the novel is a worthwhile text for their age and ability.  It pushed them beyond their comfort zone, and exposed them to new kind of literature  but ultimately I think that they all learnt something from it.  Teaching this learning element has, yet again, reinforced the value of reflective practice and the importance of modifying or ‘tweaking’ our learning designs as and after we teach them.  Learning by design is not about writing curriculum that is set in concrete, it is is about considering our practice and evaluating the way that the learning has taken place and the processes needed to create higher order thinking and engagement with the learning.