Research Put into Practice: Apex Learning Curriculum and Pedagogy
Apex Learning® was founded in the late 1990s—a time when online learning was beginning to enter the popular lexicon—as one of the world’s first providers of fully online, digital curriculum for secondary education. From the start, Apex Learning has paid close attention to how students learn and how digital curriculum can support that learning. Since the time of Apex Learning’s founding, online digital curriculum has become widely accepted and used in secondary schools, and research has continued to show great promise for its effectiveness. However, digital curriculum is only effective when properly designed. This paper, an update to a paper originally co-authored in 2010 with Allison Moore, M.Ed., presents research pointing to the elements of curriculum design that are necessary for supporting learning in middle and high schools. Furthermore, it presents how research on learning theory has been put into practice in the development of Apex Learning digital curriculum.
Curriculum Design Is Crucial for Student Learning
While online digital curriculum has been shown in scientific studies to be effective (Cheung & Slavin, 2015; Delany, 2011; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010), its level of effectiveness is dependent on the design of the curriculum and how it is presented (Belland, Kim, & Hannafin, 2013; Guo, Kim, & Rubin, 2014; Mayer, 2008). As more schools implement online digital curriculum, it is crucial that the design of the curriculum be evaluated using evidence from the learning sciences so that young learners can reach their full potential.
This paper begins by establishing its goal: Determining what it means for a student to learn and be able to accomplish tasks and solve problems in school and in life. Then, it presents evidence on what students need in order to learn, along with examples of how Apex Learning puts this evidence into practice.
Students today face increased challenges of globalization and changing economic and social opportunities. To prepare secondary students for success in college or for life, curriculum must prepare them to develop expertise to accomplish complex tasks and solve complex problems. Today’s more rigorous learning standards address this in part, but they do not address how curriculum needs to be designed, nor do they offer a comprehensive picture of what it means for students to learn across disciplines and apply their learning outside of and beyond secondary school. The following section summarizes what it means to learn in a way that prepares students for school and life.
How Learning Sciences Define Learning
The National Research Council’s seminal book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000) set one of the most widely used and respected standards for how educators and researchers define learning.
The How People Learn (HPL) framework defines successful learning as moving toward adaptive expertise—that is, the ability to apply knowledge creatively in new situations (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986). Student learners are like apprentices who work with experts (teachers and others) and tools (curriculum) in authentic settings (learning communities) to grow from novices to experts. Successful learners develop characteristics that experts possess (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 31).
- Experts have accumulated extensive content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep conceptual understanding of the subject matter in their domain.
- Experts’ content knowledge is more than sets of facts and procedures; experts understand facts and procedures within the contexts and conditions for which they apply.
- Experts’ deep, conditionalized knowledge enables them to notice features and meaningful patterns that novices do not notice.
- Experts can fluently access and recall pertinent knowledge with little cognitive effort.
- Experts can flexibly apply their knowledge to routine situations within their domain and may adaptively apply their expertise to unfamiliar situations, including situations outside of their domain.
Students typically begin as novices in education, with varying formal and informal content knowledge and understanding. Through the educational process, they move toward formal knowledge. Not all students become true experts in every subject, or even in one subject, but their education must develop the characteristics of expertise, even if it is to a relatively small degree compared to professionals with decades of experience.
These elements of learning do not contradict the learning outcomes specified by individual state standards. Rather, they provide evidence-based guidance on the abilities that students need to develop to meet the standards and to apply them outside of the classroom.
Apex Learning understands that the goal for students is to become active learners whose pursuit of increasingly adaptive expertise is a lifelong journey, nurtured during the secondary school years.
Learning for College, Work, and Life
Apex Learning is committed to helping students achieve the educational outcomes they need to succeed today and thrive tomorrow. These outcomes are consistent with the characteristics of experts and the goal of adaptive expertise.
Since How People Learn was published, the pace of globalization has increased, and young people now face significantly more competition in a global workforce. While the overall outlook for living wage jobs for people without formal education is bleak, the outlook for people with analytic and problem-solving skills is bright.
While developing academic expertise was once a privilege of the few at elite institutions, today we are tasked with empowering all learners everywhere (Davidson & Goldberg, 2009). Digital curriculum expands access to courseware that helps develop academic expertise, providing all learners with the opportunity to develop academic expertise.
With the growing abundance of information available, students need the intellectual tools and learning strategies to seek relevant resources, recognize what is important, and evaluate what is credible (Bransford et al., 2000). They need to understand the fundamental structures in various subject areas well enough to ask pertinent questions, think productively, and communicate effectively.
Students need integrated knowledge of facts, concepts, and strategies that will enable them to make connections and contributions to complex issues such as those related to the environment, health, and the economy (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009). More than ever, education must help learners become innovators—with the ability to apply their knowledge flexibly and creatively to solve problems in new situations.
All sections of this paper speak to the concept of active learning or “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content” (Center for Research on Teaching and Learning). In an active learning environment, students learn by doing, activating the brain’s perception-action cycle (MIND Research Institute). In fact, few educational interventions can match the power of active learning strategies in improving student academic outcomes (Hattie, 2009).
Active learning manifests in different ways depending on the subject area and desired learning outcomes. For example:
- In a math course it may include changing values within variables to understand how parts of a system are related.
- In language arts, it may involve analyzing the motivations of a character or author and constructing arguments for a point of view.
- In science, it involves understanding how evidence is used to support a theory or make a prediction.
- In social studies, it may involve understanding how different groups of people are motivated and how those motivations come together in a historical event that affects our present world.
These examples only scratch the surface of the ways that active learning can manifest; more examples can be found by looking at state standards that emphasize what students must be able to do, rather than focusing only on facts they must know. The main point is that active learning is complex, multi-faceted, and essential for success in school, work, and life. Curriculum that supports active learning must also be multi-faceted, and creating it is complex (Clark & Mayer, 2016; Dirksen, 2016; Horton, 2012).