"Does your program use the learning cycle?"

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 16, 2008 | Observations by Larry

This question frequently enters the discussion when issues related to FOSS curriculum design and instructional practice are bandied about. But what is the questioner really asking? Some emphasize the learning cycle, implying that it's understood that there is one agreed-upon set of procedures that describes a process that is essential for learning. This definition suggests that the learning cycle is something that happens in the mind of the learner. Others, when pressed, describe the learning cycle as teacher centered'a sequence of instructional strategies planned and organized in the mind of the teacher. Still others think of the learning cycle as a set of steps in a lesson, a kind of template for instructional design.

The asker may or may not have a learning-cycle model in mind. When I was just a pup in the science curriculum game, working at LHS as a staff member on the Science Curriculum Instructional Strategies Project (SCIS), Dr. Robert Karplus was codifying the first systematic approach to elementary science instruction. After working at it for a decade, he coined the term "learning cycle" around 1970. It recognized three phases of intellectual engagement with scientific phenomena'Exploration, Invention, and Discovery. These three phases were the result of a great deal of reflection on both the nature of science and research from the fields of educational psychology and learning theory. Exploration honored the need for experiential learning as the basis for understanding. Exploration provided direct sensory data and trial-and-error information about a focused topic in science. Invention was the phase where the teacher introduced conventional scientific schemas to help students make sense of their observations. These explanations provided a structure or framework around which students could construct concepts'personal explanatory models. Discovery provided the opportunity for students to use their new concepts in new situations. Concepts gain power when they are practiced and applied under novel circumstances.

A couple of decades later, the learning cycle was reconceived by Rodger Bybee and the curriculum group at Biological Science Curriculum Study (BSCS) as a series of five phases of intellectual involvement with scientific phenomena, known by convenient reduction as the 5Es: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. This model book-ended the original Karplus model by starting the inquiry process with engagement (stimulating interest and activating prior knowledge) and ending with evaluation (confirming, correcting, and reflecting on understanding). The central three phases (Explore, Explain, Elaborate) are barely distinguishable from the original Exploration, Invention, and Discovery.

The intelligence incorporated into the learning-cycle design is informative in that it delineates many of the elements of comprehensive and thoughtful instruction, but the implied rigor has always disturbed me a bit. The most strident followers of learning cycles assert that if an instructional sequence doesn't follow the design faithfully, the effort will be fruitless. I don't agree. I don't think engagement with every idea in science should or can be efficiently and effectively accomplished with a single sequential, formulaic approach.

My experience is that there are science domains that lend themselves to a more structured instructional design and some that don't. Physics often does. An inquiry, however, into life cycle, or fieldwork on trophic interactions, may yield best results from different, more holistic approaches to obtaining knowledge of the natural world.

There is also the problem of helping educators, particularly tyros, understand that a learning cycle is not a blueprint for instruction, but rather a way to think about how to engage a major concept...a coherent chunk of curriculum. The cycle may take days or weeks to complete a revolution...and at the same time a second cycle may be in motion, but at a different point in its rotation. The bridges between the "cycles"are sometimes the most important connections we can help students discover.

And why a cycle? I would hope that you don't return to your starting point after a thoughtful excursion into the wonders of the natural world. The starting and ending points should be significantly remote in terms of learning. How about thinking of a coherent learning episode as having an arc rather than a cycle. And any one learning arc may be quite different from the next one. Here is one possible arc: Engage, Explore, Evaluate, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate (an inquiry into metric measurement of mass). Here's another: Engage, Explore, Engage, Explore, Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate (an inquiry into life cycle).

The important message about learning cycle is not remembering the names of the stages in the cycle, but understanding that each name is a placeholder for a body of knowledge that relates to the kinds of cognitive engagement we want students to experience as they move incrementally toward an understanding of the things we want them to know. This is what Karplus and Bybee had to struggle with and understand before they could guide student inquiry effectively toward understanding.

In FOSS we have resisted the temptation to apply a formula to our curriculum design, feeling that the natural world is too complex, diverse, and wondrous to be embraced with a codified one-approach-fits-all design. And this is why you will not find a concise learning cycle that describes the FOSS instructional philosophy in the front matter of the teacher guides. But rest assured that the body of foundational knowledge that informs learning-cycle thinking has been incorporated seamlessly and invisibly into the FOSS curriculum design.

That's my position and I'm sticking to it. I'm ready to Engage anyone on the subject, Explore the nuance of the subject in depth, Explain my rationale thoroughly, Elaborate on the ramifications of my position, and Evaluate the merits of the arguments lodged on both sides. And, if necessary, reluctantly Embrace a new point of view on the whole subject.