The Learning Cycle
Every unit has a beginning, a middle and an end. As shown in the diagram below, it typically begins with a teacher-led introduction to the material and a definition of the scope of the contract. It then branches out into a phase of independent exploration and practice, in which individual students or small groups do differentiated contract work to find their own path to proficiency. This is a part of the contract that many students come to look forward to. It is a time for them to be in charge. That phase is followed by the reconvening of the whole group to share, summarize, and solidify what has been learned.
A simple contract can be organized around one such sequence. On the other hand, if the learning goals are complex and the material is being developed in several stages, this process might be repeated one or more times. Each sequence would be followed by an assessment. If that assessment shows that widespread misunderstanding exists, it is time to return to the previous exploration phase, with new works added to the contracts.
At the end of the unit, every student self-evaluates his work and turns in the contract to be reviewed by you. Finally, there is a cumulative test or tests of the whole unit. During the introduction phase of the next unit, students go over their tests together and help each other to learn from their mistakes. If necessary, remediation work occurs during the next contract.
The Teaching Cycle
Given the pattern of the learning cycle described above, there is a convergence of work for the teacher at the end of each contract. This includes grading student contracts, grading unit tests or other assessments, setting up the next unit, and creating the next contract. In order to minimize the crush at these times, the teacher’s contract cycle needs to be intentionally out of sync with the students’. The teacher’s cycle begins with planning the next unit and writing the next contract during the middle of the current learning cycle. The more of these tasks that have already been completed before the end of the current contract, the better.
This diagram shows the relationship between the teaching and learning cycles. As an example, my design for the energy contract began during the middle of the previous contract on work. I began by looking at last year’s energy contract to review the learning goals and the list of contract items. In my file folder of masters for that unit, I had a copy of the energy contract with comments that I made last year on how to improve it. Those improvements included adding several intermediate skills steps and eliminating one lab activity.
I then checked the planning calendar from last year as well as the record I kept of what occurred day by day. In that record, I found several notes to myself to adjust the pace of the activities and to make some small changes in the sequence of those activities.
Finally, I looked through all the materials—textbooks, internet sites, problem sets—and found several new activities to include as differentiated items on the new contract.
The period when students are reviewing what they have learned is a good time to create the unit assessment. On the day they took the unit test, I would have them turn in their learning journals and contracts, already self-evaluated. After some practice, they were so good at it that it required very little oversight on my part, and I found I could often verify the grades they gave themselves while they were taking the test!
Finally, in the day or two after the test, I would focus on grading and returning it to them so that they could review it together in their study groups and those students who needed to work on remediation could begin that process promptly.