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An Innovative Pedagogical Approach to Learning and Teaching: The TC EXCEL Framework (Part One)


Teaching could be stressful, yet one of the most rewarding exercise that can inspire creativity with substantial benefits for students. Globally, it is widely recognized that newly qualified teachers struggle to deliver excellently on their content without facing challenges, most of which come from disruptive student behaviours or distractions in their classroom. Of the many consequences of poor classroom management or distractions, the most negative and discouraging effects could emerge from poor student engagement and participation with class activities, discussions or tasks. As a novice-teacher, I struggled with some of these issues in the early part of my career, which eventually became fuel for my quest to seek creative solutions that could engender students' active participation in learning (doing something meaningful and useful). To a large extent, I knew it was time to change the traditional form of teaching which numbs creativity and imagination to something more creative to drive different forms of learning. This is also because I could not continue to watch all my efforts and time invested in planning a lesson only for it to flop. To this end, my new mission was born, a very simple one - to infuse creativity in my lessons and inspire my students to become self disciplined and organised knowledge seekers in a way that everyone could learn and take turns in teaching (sharing information).


With these ideas, I started exploring how I could get my lessons to ensure that students were being exposed to information and experiences that informed, or challenged their existing beliefs or enhanced their understanding of the things they were to learn in class (curriculum content). This was easy, because they had textbooks, they loved being active, and could talk all day long if I didn’t interrupt them, and they had nature (the environment) with its vast variety of matter in all its forms. In the early stages, I was keen to explore different ways to increase classroom engagement, reduce time I spent on classroom management issues. However, as we persisted with what I now describe as the EXCEL model or approach, I noticed a refreshed excitement from the class, as different groups of students were eager to share what they had learnt. This was also accompanied by an improvement in learning quality which were evident through sequence exams. The fact that even my weak students could articulate their progress over time, and develop confidence in tackling class tasks was sufficient evidence that this was an approach I could explore further.


Long story short, by the end of 2008, I had completed a full reflective cycle of my teaching journal, from which I was able to assemble all the approaches and techniques I used to secure a 100% success rate for my form five GCE O/L Chemistry class. In fact, I used to take some of my form 3 students to form five Chemistry lessons and have them engage with the lesson, to which they would match up the cognitive demands that were required as success criteria for a lesson. On reflection and after further studies (acquiring a Master and a Ph. D) I can confidently say the methods I used were not new, or novel per se, but their integration and procedural application was innovative in the context of my class and school- which has led to the development of the EXCEL Pedagogic Framework/Model (an approach of learning and teaching that promotes curiosity, collaboration and lifelong learning).


So, What’s EXCEL?


The EXCEL framework which is Teach Connect’s flagship pedagogical guide, developed in 2008 and further developed through the Community Support Programme in 2014 provides a refreshing approach to teaching and learning. During this time, the use of the EXCEL pedagogy framework was intended to guide our teaching efforts to empower and equip our learners with Confidence, Resourcefulness, Creativity and Resilience (CRCR), which were also the key indicators of the programmer's success. Given that this programme targeted children in community homes (orphanages), the choice and design of the five fundamental phases were grounded in learning philosophy that perceive learning as a cognitive, social, and integrative experience where a change in belief, behaviour, knowledge, and understanding are incorporated into the person’s existing repertoire of behaviour and schema (values, attitudes and beliefs).


With this background it shouldn't be surprising that the EXCEL framework draws from a wide range of learning theories, approaches and techniques in favour of student-centred learning and education. It acknowledges the importance of developing learner’s knowledge (theoretical and application) through task-based activities that also runs along the individual and group collaboration continuum. Thus, regardless of the underlying theories in action (Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory, Kolb’s Experiential Learning, Piaget’ cognitive theory or Vygotsky’s social constructivism or Connectivism) main objective is to develop student’s knowledge, understanding and competencies through a series of scaffolded exercises where thinking and the process of thinking (metacognition) are critical. It suffice to also state that applying this approach requires that the learning process establishes high expectations and achievable learning outcomes for students as they engage with the lessons and the specific tasks. We all know that Bloom’s Taxonomy is a great pointer to how educators can assess their learners’ knowledge and skills, though poorly established or low level expectations would of course yield their desired fruits- low or poor performance. While I have often respected the requirements of the curriculum, I never saw any harm in taking the bar further, believing that true applicable knowledge can only be acquired once we have mastered the knowledge base, and have developed a sound understanding of the concept. With this in mind, my lesson outcomes were often capped at the higher order thinking outcomes such as Analysis (Describe/Explain how…), Evaluate and Create. A practice that paid huge benefits in the Community Support Programme.


As a reminder, here are the 6 levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy

  1. Remembering

  2. Understanding

  3. Applying

  4. Analysing

  5. Evaluating

  6. Creating

Back to the framework and how all these fit together -the framework can be broken down into five main domains : Exploration, EXperimentation, Construction, Evaluation, Learnt Lessons which can be used individually or combined in a lesson or a unit. For example, a lesson that requires students to work on a task for a unit on Electricity (Exploration, Experimentation, and Construction) and present their answers (Construction, Evaluation and Learnt Lessons) which is then complemented with lesson notes and further class work.


EXCEL as an acronym for the five domains of the model is centred on the ideologies of

  1. inquiry-based learning

  2. problem/project-based learning

  3. group learning

  4. choice-based learning

  5. self-directed learning

This combination redefines the role of the teacher and student in the learning process significantly with respect to the power dynamic, locus of control, and flow of information. It is worth noting that, throughout the application of the model, the teacher’s role is dynamic (constantly changing) and framed as a learning facilitator or guide, who create opportunities for dialogue and exchange with the students in search for an organised knowledge from unstructured knowledge and unorganised information- supporting an epistemological view whereby the “object to be known” is put on the table between the two subjects of knowing for exploration as described by Paolo Freire (1987). Of course this approach requires a certain degree of courage, professionalism. creativity and openness from the teacher who is responsible for creating the climate and atmosphere in the classroom.


The Five Domains of the Framework/Model


Given that from an early age, children are able to construct some awareness and knowledge of their environment with some functioning theories as a way of understanding the world around them, the EXCEL approach is anchored on an experiential form of learning with notions of object permanence. The idea behind the first two domains for example is based on the fact that learning is a continuous explorative process that is also emergent, borne out of planned or unplanned interaction between the learner and their environment, who through simple or complex experimentations and iterations become exposed to more complex awareness and knowledge of their environment. Exploration (investigation), which offers an open and flexible model of learning, allows students to co-direct their discovery as they engage with the real-world. This domain also invites learners to become researchers and observers, who immerse themselves and engage with the concept (exploring and experimenting) from which they could build new understanding (learning by constructing new schemas).


Through this approach, the teacher’s role gradually shifts from the sage on the stage to a learning facilitator who helps to guide learners towards their investigation, using appropriate thinking tools for the achievement of lesson outcomes A key thing to remember is that all five domains have specific tools for thinking, structuring arguments, challenging opinions, evaluating a concept etc.


Exploration


Focus: The Exploration domain uses scenarios and inquiry based learning as the foundation for the learning activities. Students are encouraged to answer ‘What If’ questions about a specific topic with an exploratory focus (inquiry-deep questioning about the world around them). This can be applied in lessons and units where evidence of the subject matter can be found in the students natural environment.

Tools: Data collection tool, Concert Development Mind Map etc


Experimentation

Focus: The Experimentation domain uses Hypothesis and project-based learning as the foundation for the learning activities.. Students are encouraged to explore a project and answer hypothetical questions about the topic and draw conclusions from their experiments (within guided and safe parameters). This can be applied in lessons and units where evidence is needed to make conclusive statements about a topic.

Tools: Experiment protocol, Hypothesis Tool etc


Construction


Focus: The Construction domain uses storytelling and Mind Mapping as foundation for the learning activities. Students are encouraged to construct and articulate their understanding of the topic, lesson, the problem etc. This can be applied in lessons and units that require students to use their memory, knowledge, critical thinking and understanding (ability to apply knowledge in a novel way).

Tools: Concept development Tool, MindMap, Fishbone Diagram etc


Evaluation


Focus: The Evaluation domain uses Critical Thinking, Peer-Assessment and Logic Maps as foundation for the learning activities. Students are encouraged to evaluate their understanding and knowledge and test their validity of their knowledge and understanding. This can be applied in lessons and units that require students to demonstrate their reflexive and critical ability. As with the Exploratory domain, questions such as, What If, are commonly used to get students to think widely about their perspective and thinking process.

Tools: Critiquing protocol, Assessment Rubrics etc


Learnt Lessons


Focus: The Learnt Lessons domain uses Critical Thinking, Flections, Mind Mapping and Logic Maps as foundation for the learning activities. Students are encouraged to document the lesson (note taking is key and should be checked by the teacher), to demonstrate their reflection, and highlights of key learning points (what they understood from the lesson).

Tools: Mind Maps, Reflective Notes Note Books etc


The EXCEL framework can therefore be used as an approach and model of teaching, provided you are aware and confident of the role you play as a facilitator and use the right time allocation, resources and lesson plan to optimise or enrich your learners’ experiences. This is a third part series of the framework and in the coming sequels, you will get details on how to plan and deliver an EXCEL Lesson. Until then, I'll appreciate your thoughts in the comments.


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