The Graduate Manifesto of George Cassutto


Building a New Model of Teaching and Learning

Before entering the Virtual High School program, the model of instruction to which I have been exposed in my own teacher training reflects many of the trends popular with educators over the past two decades. The influence of education pioneer Madeline Hunter is evident in the shape of instruction today, and her ideas about constructivism mastery learning comprise a good part of the adaptive philosophy that makes up the methodologies of the Virtual High School.  Her contribution to education can be seen in the movement towards standards-based instruction. With the No Child Left Behind Act a reality, many states have implemented standardized testing as a way to measure "adequate yearly progress." Virginia has led the movement with its Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. The courses, teachers effectiveness, and student performance that would be the outcomes of the Virtual High School are subject to assessment by way of these standards and standardized tests.

The basic structure of the lesson plan we were given in undergraduate teacher training is primarily a product of Hunter's "direct instruction" methodology. On my own website, I have posted a lesson plan template that teachers can use as they develop their own lessons. An explanation of each component can be found on this page from the University of Montana at Billings.

Another influence on my own lesson and unit plan development is that of the cooperative learning movement. When I cam on to the staff of North Hagerstown High in 1991, my principal, Dr. Richard Gulas, instituted training for teachers in the area of cooperative learning, which was based primarily on the work of Spencer Kagan. Cooperative learning takes the emphasis in the traditional classroom off of competition and shifts it to building at atmosphere of working together so that the strengths of each student contribute to the achievement of all. Kagan is also a driving force in the ideas of differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences, a concept originated and expounded by Howard Gardner. These trends call on the teacher to take time to develop lessons and units that meet the emotional and educational needs of individual students. These trends have been compounded with the federal requirements to create a classroom where students with special needs can operate in the "least restrictive environment." On a practical level, meeting the needs of special education students within the regular classroom has led toward a trend called "inclusion," where students with special needs are "included" in regular education classes. A special educator co-teaches the course so that the Individual Education Plan (IEP) of special education students can be implemented.

How these trends will be integrated into the Virtual High School model is as yet to be seen. But one positive aspect of the mentor-student relationship is that it is characterized by flexibility. The mentor can adjust and adapt the curriculum to meet the individual learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses of the students with which they are working. Mayeroff points out that "time and place fade in significance, allowing students to complete work at their own speed, within reasonable parameters" (pg. 86). Indeed, the integration of technology into the Virtual High School curriculum can allow course developers and mentors to provide greater motivation and chances for success that what might be possible in the brick-and-mortar classroom.

Indeed, the integration of technology into the Virtual High School curriculum can allow course developers and mentors to provide greater motivation and chances for success that what might be possible in the brick-and-mortar classroom.

The COPLS (The Community of Practice Learning System).
The COPLS (The Community of Practice Learning System).

The Virtual High School model provides the online student with a structure for learning called the COPLS (The Community of Practice Learning System). The key aspect of this non-traditional approach is that the student is challenged with relevant, meaningful activities that lead the student to apply "inert" information into useful situations. Each learning unit, or module, is centered around a representative problem that acts as the central theme for the module. Students still conduct research in order to fill in the blanks in background knowledge, but they must put to use the bits of knowledge they gather into a coherent whole. The final product is submitted to the mentor for review and discussion. The mentor is the target audience, the knowledgeable expert who acts as the "sage-on-the-side" through the entire learning process.

The on-line structure involves the development of authentic activities where the content being learned has a high correlation of relevance to the life of the learner. 

The design of an on-line module of learning mirrors the day-to-day activities that a student would encounter in the traditional classroom. Traditional activities might include reading and answering questions from the textbook, viewing instructional videos, classroom discussions, simulations, and listening to guest speakers. The on-line structure involves the development of authentic activities where the content being learned has a high correlation of relevance to the life of the learner. The web course designer must include activities that build a student's basic knowledge on a given topic. 

Students gain the basic building blocks of knowledge by conducting research or examining web resources and even a traditional textbook. The difference is that these basics are gathered with the intention of using them in the creation of a culminating project, which is commonly known as "the challenge." The challenge is structured in a such a way that the activities and practices of the real world is reflected in its completion (Norton, 2003). 

Once the student has gathered basic facts on  the topic at hand, they must then engage in the process of constructing new concepts that reveal a deeper understanding of the topic. This process would reflect the "synthesis" level of Bloom's taxonomy, where the student uses previously gained understanding to create something new and original. The teacher can use these new products as measures of learning in the form of student assessments. Teacher-web designers must develop course content with assessment in mind, leaving templates, rubrics, and keys online in the password-protected area of the on-line course website called "mentor resources."

Bloom's Taxonomy (1956) Revised version of Cognitive Domain

Bloom's Taxonomy (1956)

Revised version of Cognitive Domain

Source: ATHERTON J S (2004) Teaching and Learning:  Bloom's taxonomy   [On-line] UK: Available: 

After the student has developed the challenge and its ancillary components within the module, it becomes necessary for them to share with educators what they have achieved. These adults, whether they be called teachers or mentors, must have an opportunity to respond to the student's ideas, shaping their understanding and correcting any pieces of misinformation or areas of knowledge that are lacking in the final product. The mentor communicates with the student via email, and on a more interactive level, through a chat session. The mentor also has the opportunity to help the student make connections between the element of learning in which they were engaged and the activities of practitioners in the topic's field.

Technology is the building block that the web designer at at his or her disposal to make learning on-line possible. The web designer is also an expert in the academic subject field, which allows course content to be presented in refreshing and compelling ways. 

There are other tools at the disposal of both teacher-designers and student-learners when communicating electronically. 

Many of these structures were seen by Virtual High School teachers as they moved through the On-line Academy for Teachers (TOAT) modules. The TOAT modules acted as models for teachers, who were functioning as on-line students. we were able to see the variety of activities that on-line course developers have at their disposal while emulating and simulating the challenges and accomplishments of on-line learners.

 The Missing Piece