Schools have long organized the learning process into a series of discrete grade levels through which students advance year to year. This system assumes there is a standard relationship between students' ages and their level of cognitive development. It establishes a model of "normal" progress, development, and content mastery. This understanding of education has become so widely accepted that administrators, educators, and parents evaluate learning materials—and students—in terms of whether they are at, above, or below "grade level."
The Problem with the Grade-Level Model
Although this system is useful for managing classes, it has serious implications for students who don't fit the model. Students lagging behind the calendar are either retained or, out of concern for their social development, promoted. Students whose learning outpaces the standard sequence may be advanced more quickly through the grades, but they are just as likely to find that the system limits their learning opportunities.
Reform efforts aimed at solving the problems of students failing classes, repeating grades, or dropping out altogether have focused on instruction, testing, and class size. A constant refrain is, "If only we could get students to perform at grade level!" The implication is that if we improved our approach, educators could get students to learn on schedule. What's too often missing from the discussion is the effect of the grade-level model itself, not just on students, but also on the practice of teaching and learning.
When learning is strictly defined by specific segments of content that students should learn at specific ages, teachers become focused on transmitting information and testing students' ability to move forward. Students, in turn, focus on keeping pace with grade-level content to avoid retention and humiliation.
By conflating progress and the mastery of specific content at specific times, the grade-level system deemphasizes other important dimensions of education, such as developing critical-thinking skills and serving students with diverse learning styles, backgrounds, and abilities. The grade-level system also reinforces social inequalities by excluding students who cannot conform to it.
Learning Cycles in Brazil
One alternative that has been successful in some Brazilian schools is escolas cicladas (cycled schools), which are organized around three-year learning cycles. Learning cycles represent a more nuanced understanding of how learning happens—and should happen—in students' lives.
Learning cycle schools have existed in Brazil, mainly in urban areas, for more than 10 years, although only 11 percent of Brazilian schools use the approach (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Perquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, 2005). They were initially developed as a way to stem rising dropout rates and break a pattern of chronic grade-level retention. In traditional Brazilian schools, too many students who failed to achieve expected outcomes at their grade level dropped out; many came to believe that school was "not for them." However, when students work in learning cycles, they understand that it may take more than a year to start seeing results, and they are more likely to stay and give learning another chance.
Learning cycles in Brazil emerged with the redemocratization of the country in the mid-1980s. In restructuring the education system, policymakers focused on creating democratic practices that would promote access to education for all students. The 1996 law Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional [Guidelines and Bases for National Education] allowed for innovations in structure and flexibility in curriculums and schedules within schools below the high school level. Lawmakers recognized that such flexibility would help keep students in school, shrink socioeconomic disparities, and strengthen the country's economy over the long term.
How Learning Cycles Work
More Flexibility, More Time
Cycled schools don't limit acquisition of a specific body of knowledge to one particular academic year. Most cycled schools move students through three cycles of three years each. The content and skills students are expected to master in the first cycle roughly correspond to the content and skills traditionally learned in 1st through 3rd grade, content learned in the second cycle corresponds to that learned in 4th through 6th grade, and learning in the third cycle corresponds to 7th through 9th grade content. The three cycles roughly correspond to the age groupings of 6–8, 9–11, and 12–14, but students who are at the same point in their learning are placed together, regardless of age.
Schools make a special effort to develop integrated curriculums and choose learning outcomes that are relevant for the students' local communities, in line with the philosophy of influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1980). Students are expected to master basic learning objectives during each cycle (such as learning basic math operations during the first cycle). Learners have flexibility to learn at their own pace, however, and have three years in the same classroom to master these objectives, rather than being expected to grasp a specific amount of content or skills in one year.
Systems based on grade levels generally limit a student-teacher relationship to one year; learning cycles extend this relationship to three years. There are usually several "home classrooms" within a cycle, with each class having a main teacher, but team teaching and multidisciplinary hands-on projects are also the norm. Ideally, the same group of teachers works with the same group of students during a cycle. As a result, teachers develop a deeper relationship with students and families and become members of the communities they serve. This relationship is important because cycled schools tend to serve economically disadvantaged students, for whom interruptions in schooling are common.
To ensure that students learn at the pace right for them, teachers frequently assess students using multiple measures, such as student writing, portfolios, and observation of student work. Teachers in the same cycle look at student work together and jointly determine how well individual children are meeting learning targets. The judgment of whether a particular student needs additional help to master expectations and whether each student is ready to be promoted to the next cycle is up to the teachers.
Why Students Don't "Fail"
The premise behind learning cycles is that, provided there is no emotional or physical impediment, all children have the ability to learn. If learning is not happening, something must be fundamentally wrong with how the child is being taught. Students in escolas cicladas don't "fail" if they don't achieve expected outcomes right away. Teachers refer children who lag behind to receive additional support through learning laboratories, in-school learning sessions in which students receive individualized attention and engage in activities focused on their specific needs. Activities are tied to work students are doing in class or in their many authentic projects.
For instance, learning lab activities for students who were involved in a project at a community recycling center included guided practice in tasks that the kids would be doing at the center: taking notes, organizing resource lists into spreadsheets, and calculating amounts of money for bookkeeping.
An unusually structured school day allows time for these learning lab blocks and also enables students who have to work at a job or provide child care for their families (a common situation among low-income Brazilian children) to stay in school. Schools operate in three shifts of four hours each—a morning (8 a.m. to noon), afternoon (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.), and evening (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.) shift. Students must attend at least one shift each day; they usually pick one shift that they spend in their home classroom. They have the option of attending school for an additional shift, and teachers strongly encourage students to attend a second shift, usually in one of the learning labs.
This flexibility means that the number of students who may be in school at a given hour on any given day is inconsistent, so administrators attempt to limit school enrollment to keep cycles from becoming overcrowded. However, these schools don't deny access to anyone. Some districts have managed to keep numbers as low as 20 students per cycle, whereas others accommodate more than 30 per cycle.
Students attend learning labs in a different shift from that of their home classroom. For example, a student who attends class during the morning shift may come to a learning lab in the afternoon or evening. Teachers recommend students for a lab and will require a student to attend if they feel it's necessary. All teachers divide their time between the home classroom and the learning laboratories.
The Effect of the Model
In the city of Porto Alegre, where cycled schools have operated since the early 1990s, many people credit this model with increasing the number of students who enroll—and remain—in public schools (Freitas, 1999). As a Brazilian-born educator now researching innovations in Brazilian schools, I recently observed how one public school in Porto Alegre integrates its curriculum with a community-based project, a recycling center developed to create jobs. During a visit to the school, I saw classroom discussions and activities that promoted students' awareness of their social conditions and prompted them to read and write about their lives and realities within their communities. Students used skills in math, language, and social studies that they had acquired in class in their work at the recycling center: They identified, counted, and sorted materials to recycle, organized lists, created spreadsheets, communicated with city agencies and local industries, and contacted potential donors. This kind of locally relevant work empowers learners and creates a strong connection among schools, families, and communities.
Organizing schools into learning cycles requires structural changes that ultimately result in more democratic pedagogical practices. Learning cycles cultivate a different understanding of school time and space. Students advance sequentially through objectives as they master content, but any individual's progress is dictated by the individual, not the system.
The innovations of Brazil's cycled schools go beyond structure and schedules to teachers' practice and curriculum choices. Because of the flexibility of the program and the interdisciplinary approach, teachers learn to communicate effectively and work collaboratively. Teachers have more time to understand an individual student's learning style. Relieved of pressure to "make the grade," teachers focus more on the learning process at hand. Lessons also are developed in response to students' progress. In the traditional system, content area knowledge is developed and assessed separately. Learning cycles integrate knowledge and assessment: Teachers make an intense effort to get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses at the beginning of a cycle and fashion many of the cycle's learning outcomes and activities on the basis of what students need.
Although the learning cycle model may not be immediately applicable to contexts outside Brazil's social, political, and economic milieu, cycled schools prompt us to think about education differently. The way traditional schools organize curriculum, space, and time reflects and reinforces broadly held beliefs about education. Changing these underlying dimensions can have radical effects on pedagogy. Teaching and learning become more engaged, and collaborative activities become less bound by the four walls of a classroom or the nine months of the academic year. Considering student disaffection and the high dropout rate in U.S. schools, schools may want to try a model like learning cycles that creates a more humanistic, differentiated approach to education.
This innovation also reminds educators to look beyond their borders in search of inspiration and solutions. Policies that allow for flexibility, like those now promoted in Brazil, enable local schools to become more relevant to the individuals they serve. Our student population in the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, and our students need to learn, not just graduate, to be successful. To teach effectively, we will have to endorse heterogeneity in all aspects of our education models. In doing so, we will create institutions more focused on learning.
Freire, P. (1980). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Freitas, A. L. (1999). Projeto Constituinte Escolar: a vivência da "reinvenção da escola" na rede municipal de Porto Alegre [School Constitutional Project: experiences in reinventing schools in Porto Alegre]. In: Silva, L. H. (Ed.), Escola Cidadã: Teoria e Prática [Citizen School: Theory and Practice] (pp. 31–45). Petrópolis, RJ: Vozes.
Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira (2005). Available: www.inep.gov.br
Fernando Naiditch is a native of Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Teaching at Montclair State University in New Jersey; email@example.com.
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