Implementing a Continuum of Learning with One to Many Relationships

By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

School administrators are often faced with complex decisions about curriculum, assessment, and the oversight of both. There is a myopic condition that can occur as conversations lead people into a spiral of understanding that is false, even if guided by good intensions. This condition is the belief that learning is a one to one relationship, and that content is related to a course or single field of study. The truth is that learning, real learning, is a one to many relationship where content can connect to an unpredictable number of areas if it is allowed to develop organically, and time as a constant is removed. 

Understanding One to Many

A one to many relationship is often used in database development. It is normally defined as a situation where an element of A may be linked to many elements of B, but a member of B is linked to only one element of A. For instance, think of A as mothers, and B as children. A mother can have several children, but a child can have only one mother.[1]

In terms of education and learning, a one to many relationship is created when something learned in one context, becomes relevant in another context. For example, a student in a math course learns about sample size. Then when they are working on a psychology research paper they apply that concept to their survey initiatives. I used math and psychology, because I have often spoken with students who enjoy psychology, but claim they are not skilled in math. Flipping the relationship, if students studied sample size mathematics in psychology I wonder if they would feel the same about their computational abilities?

Supporting the Unpredictable

As administrators debate, decide, and set policy they should consider that the best outcomes are often unpredictable. The history of invention has taught the human race this lesson, yet we seem to constantly try to create outcomes instead of observing what is happening without constant intervention.

The only true way for students to experience one to many relationships is to set guidelines for teachers that stress a continuum of learning around a single topic. Most topics have many layers, and as students spiral through the topic they can experience connections to other topics.

The concept of mastery becomes a single question: Have I gone as far as I can go? 

Each time a student re-enters the topic they move closer and closer to the answer to that question. They may never reach the end, but they will reach a satisfactory point where they can justify saying, “For now, I am finished.”

Supporting this type of learning is difficult. It requires the administration to discourage small unit based learning and timed slices of activities. School leadership also has to set policies and procedures at all levels that allow students to constantly revise and revisit previous projects and topics for additional credit and potential accolades.

As with anything, simply stating support will not achieve any meaningful results. The best course of action is to create a series of exemplars to explain how teachers can start with a topic, and keep growing it, while continuing to connect to multiple standards and learning goals. In addition, classroom materials and textbook planning needs to shift to where the goal is not to have a single resource, but a set of resources that can be used when appropriate.

As a computer science teacher I would often have three to four textbooks students could use. I did not set units of work with books, I set projects that I knew could be supported with all the books. Each book was structured differently and had appeal to different students. Never forget, the medium is the message.[1]

Next Steps

Over the next few weeks I will be blogging exemplars that explore this idea of supporting a continuum of learning around a single topic. These posts will further define how one to many relationships form, and always include some sort of assessment concept for those who are seeking accountability within organic environments.

Large scale change to improve learning does not require administrators to sit in a room and write dozens of standards. Simple core concepts that people can understand and support create a mission everyone can support. And ‘people’, must include students.

When you push students towards and endless formative outcome, the stress and pressure are as real as preparing for an all encompassing summative assessment. The only difference is the student will work until they find the end, and not stop because someone has told them the end is now.