A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

School Reform and Student Diversity - September 1995

4. High Quality Learning Environments

This study focused on exemplary language arts programs in grades 4 through 6 and exemplary science and mathematics programs in grades 6 through 8 for language minority students in restructured schools. Table I-4.1 shows the curricular areas we examined at the exemplary schools. Their approaches to curriculum and instruction were interwoven with their language development programs and embedded in their school reform efforts. All three--curriculum and instruction, language development program, and school organization under reform--taken together created a high quality learning environment that provided challenging curricula for LEP students. This chapter presents specific findings on curriculum and instructional approaches. The innovative curriculum and instruction for LEP students blended opportunities for active discovery, cooperative learning, a curriculum related to students' experience, and thematic instruction into a coherent whole. Of necessity, the discussion below addresses each of these elements separately, but the reader will notice connections among the elements in the examples provided in text boxes. Strategies that were implemented across content areas are discussed in Findings #4.1 through 4.4. Findings #4.5 through 4.7 address the three curricular areas upon which the study focused--language arts, science, and mathematics. Finally, Finding #4.8 discusses uses of technology at the exemplary sites.

Table I-4.1
Content Areas Studied at Exemplary Schools


Language Arts



Del Norte Elementary


Hollibrook Elementary


Linda Vista Elementary


Inter-American K-8


Graham and Parks K-8


Hanshaw Middle



Horace Mann Middle


Wiggs Middle



Finding #4.1 Engaged Learning. Exemplary schools adapted innovative approaches that helped LEP students become independent learners who took responsibility for their own learning.Teachers acted as facilitators for student learning and were not the sole source of information and wisdom. Teachers encouraged students to view one another as resources for learning.

The exemplary sites adapted innovative strategies for curriculum and instruction to create engaged learning environments that fit the needs of their LEP, as well as non-LEP, students. As part of the adaptation process, the schools adopted the vision of engaged learning, sometimes with the help of external partners (see The Role of External Partners), and selected strategies from a collection of approaches. They adapted these approaches over time to create a unique curriculum and instruction particular to their sites. 1

Figure I-4.1 illustrates common strategies at the exemplary schools. As the figure suggests, the schools created learning environments in which students were the center of the classroom activity. Teachers structured assignments so students could clearly understand what was expected of them. Students collaborated with their peers and teachers within a structure that stimulated discovery and mastery of complex skills. Students explored curriculum content that had relevance to them and the reality of their communities. The curriculum emphasized depth of understanding over breadth of coverage, allowing students to see the natural connections among and within the traditional disciplines. Teachers delivered instruction in ways that encouraged students to approach their studies from different and broader perspectives and to seek more fundamental issues and knowledge. These approaches were true across grade levels and for language arts, science and mathematics.

In sum, the exemplary schools used a series of strategies that might be called engaged learning. These strategies are in line with research on learning.2 As Healy (1994) explains, "Research on learning has demonstrated that students understand best, remember ideas most effectively, and think most incisively when they feel personally responsible for getting meaning out of what they are learning instead of waiting for the teacher to shovel it in." 3

To put these innovative approaches into perspective, we can contrast them with the more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction seen in many schools. The traditional approach has been characterized as a predominately passive form of instruction, in which the teacher is the center of the classroom activities. In this situation, the classroom discourse follows a script in which the teacher asks a question, students respond either verbally or in writing, and the teacher evaluates their answers as being right or wrong. This relatively rigid format may be conducive to the transmittal of discrete pieces of information, but the curriculum content may be irrelevant to the students’ reality and they may fail to make any connections across disciplines. As a result, "students struggle to understand concepts in isolation, to learn parts without seeing wholes, to make connections where they see only disparity, and to accept as reality what their perceptions question."4 The movement away from traditional approaches requires time and a significant degree of learning-by-doing. Nevertheless, the contrast between the extremes of traditional versus engaged learning shown in Table I-4.2 illustrates how far the exemplary sites have progressed toward creating new learning environments.

Table I-4.25
The Traditional versus Engaged Learning Paradigm

Traditional Learning

Engaged Learning Paradigm

Classroom Activity



Teacher Role

Fact Teller
Always Expert

Sometimes Learner

Student Role

Always Learner

Sometimes Expert

Curriculum Content

Isolated Disciplines

Integrated Disciplines

Instructional Strategies

Uniform Modes

Opportunities for Choice

Instructional Emphasis

Memorization, Breadth

Inquiry and Invention, Depth

Concept of Knowledge

Accumulation of Facts

Transformation of Facts

Demonstration of Success


Quality of Understanding


Standardized Tests

Multiple Sources of Data
Performance-based, Portfolios

Technology Use

Drill and Practice

Communication, Collaboration, Information Access, Expression

While the case study sites all promoted engaged learning, the process of adapting strategies to local conditions made the implementation of the strategies different at each site. For example, meaning-centered curriculum was a goal at all of the sites, but the implementation of this strategy varied considerably across sites. Table I-4.3 provides a matrix of the major strategies and their implementation at the case study sites. The following discussion of findings includes examples of various approaches at the exemplary sites.

Table I-4.3
How Study Sites Implemented Engaged Learning

Elementary Grades (4-6)

Middle Grades (6-8)

Del Norte

Linda Vista



Graham and Parks


Horace Mann


Meaning- Centered Curriculum

• Project-
based learning

• Opportunities
for hands-on experiences

• Social studies curriculum included the culture and traditions of the home countries of the students

• Work "centers" designed around common themes

• Thematic instruction

• Curriculum emphasized the culture and traditions of the Americas

• Curriculum
built on student experiences

• Opportunities
for students to expand their experience base

• Thematic instruction

• Curriculum related to students’ personal and community experiences

• Curriculum included social action component relating to local or global issues

• Integrated, project-based learning

• Thematic instruction

• Respect for diversity promoted through curriculum

• Curriculum involved social action component relating to local or global issues

• Thematic instruction

• Project-based learning

• Curriculum related to students’ personal and community experiences

Cooperative Learning

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

• Use of student as expert

• Students collaborated in pairs and small groups

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

• Whole class and small group collaborative activities

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

• Use of student as expert

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

• Cooperative learning using heterogeneous grouping

Literature- based Language Arts

• Whole Language: Reader’s Theater, Literary Letters

• Writer’s workshop

• Accelerated Reading

• Whole Language: Story Maps

• Literacy development through storytelling

• Writer’s workshop

• Reader’s workshop

• Writer’s workshop





Experiential Science





• Inquiry- based scientific sense-making

• Learn science by observation

• Learn science by applying science

•Expeditions, experiments, and projects

• Learn science by applying science

• Learn science by observation

• Expeditions, experiments and projects

• Learn science by observation

• Expeditions, experiments

Constructivist Mathematics






• Use of manipulatives

• Problem- solving

• Problem- solving

• Math across the curriculum

• Project- based

Integrated Uses of Technology

(not integrated extensively)

• Use of multimedia technology as medium for expression

(not integrated

(not integrated extensively)

(not integrated extensively)

(not integrated extensively)

(not integrated extensively)

• Use of communications technology to access information

Finding #4.2 Cooperative Learning. LEP students in exemplary schools worked in cooperative groups and students became proficient cooperative learners.

At each of the case study schools, engaged learning environments were created with the use of cooperative learning groups in which four to six students worked together to accomplish a specific learning task. These small student learning groups emphasized collaboration and they were facilitated, not directed, by the teacher. As a result, the students had the opportunity to co-inquire with their peers and their teacher. As a "coach, " the teacher offered critical guidance, not answers or solutions.

In the traditional learning paradigm, most instruction is conducted in a whole-class format and most work is completed individually and often competitively. In contrast, cooperative learning resembles the way people work and interact in the workplace and in families. Classrooms organized to make effective use of students ’ working jointly can better prepare students for more complex environments. Working in cooperative groups allows students greater opportunities to become more active participants in their learning and requires that they assume greater responsibility for their own learning.6 Cooperative learning strategies are particularly effective with LEP students because they provide valuable opportunities for students to use language skills in a setting that is less threatening than speaking before the class as a whole. Cooperative learning groups promote student language use in relation to a subject area, such as science or math, which serves the dual purpose of enhancing language development and understanding of core content.

At most of the exemplary sites, teachers employed the two fundamental features of true cooperative learning: positive interdependence and individual accountability. Positive interdependence means that members of the group must assume collective responsibility for the group task and must understand that individual members cannot succeed unless the whole group succeeds.7 Individual accountability means that the success of the group depends on the learning of individual students; each group member must understand that he or she must contribute to the group process. 8

Study schools used cooperative learning strategies in a number of interesting and creative ways. Teachers skillfully designed, organized, and facilitated work that utilized group strengths, mitigated individual student weaknesses, and engaged the students in actively pursuing knowledge. Often teachers deliberately mixed students with varying levels of English fluency and literacy in a single group so that students who were less fluent could learn from those who were more proficient in English. Teachers often assigned roles to group members for cooperative activities and periodically rotated those roles. Students were assigned to be facilitator, timekeeper, recorder, etc. and took their roles seriously. The entire class was trained in the process of carrying out each of those roles.

Successful cooperative learning groups require that students have an understanding of process steps and have been prepared for relating to each other with respect. At most exemplary sites, students had multiple years of experience with cooperative learning strategies. By the time they were at fourth grade or above, they were proficient cooperative learners who had mastered the process. Minimal time was wasted in these classrooms in organizing groups for instruction or keeping students focused on the learning assignment. Because students were effective cooperative learners, teachers devoted precious instructional time to productive activity rather than classroom management, discipline problems, or repeating instructions. See Box I-4.1 for a description of a cooperative learning activity at Del Norte Heights Elementary School.

Researchers have attributed a number of academic and social gains to the use of cooperative grouping strategies in the classroom. In the academic domain, researchers have found that cooperative learning produces higher achievement gains than do competitive or individualistic efforts. Furthermore, it is an effective strategy for all types of learning--from memorizing basic facts to performing higher-order reasoning and problem-solving. Achievement gains are higher for heterogeneous groupings than for homogeneous groups. These higher achievement effects hold for all students, regardless of their levels of achievement, gender, or ethnicity. The effects also hold across content areas and grade levels. In the social domain, researchers have reported that participation in cooperative learning groups results in increased self-esteem, as well as more positive attitudes towards classmates and school.9

Box I-4.1

Del Norte Heights 5th Graders Collaborate in Study of Eclipse

Fifth grade student groups were assigned the task of designing an exploration of an upcoming solar eclipse. The groups were responsible for designing a device for safe viewing of the eclipse. They were also asked to explore a myth about the eclipse and examine how light from the eclipse might damage the eye. Having learned about the dangers of viewing an eclipse directly, each student group brainstormed for ways of designing a device that would allow them to view the eclipse. The student groups demonstrated their understanding of the physics of designing such a device, the anatomy of the eye, and the possible impact of directly viewing the eclipse.

Finding #4.3 Meaning-centered Curriculum. The exemplary sites developed meaningful curriculum that made connections across disciplines, built real-life applications into the curriculum, related curriculum to student experience, emphasized depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge, and provided opportunities to construct meaning through a process of active discovery. They often relied on thematic and project-based curricular approaches that related science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts and validated LEP students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The themes and projects were developed, assessed, and refined over a period of years by teachers working collaboratively, often together with an external partner.

Each exemplary school made a concerted effort to make the curriculum content meaningful to their LEP students. Teachers recognized that this effort, in addition to delivering the curriculum through engaging instructional strategies, was the most effective way of drawing out LEP students' intrinsic desire to learn. Meaningful content is critical to the creation of an engaged learning environment in which students develop more in-depth understandings of curriculum content, are able to grasp relationships among disciplines, and have the ability to apply their knowledge.10 In contrast, typical curriculum divides subject matter into separate fragments and formulas, losing connections across disciplines and to real-world applications.

Memorization of isolated facts and figures is particularly detrimental to culturally and linguistically diverse students whose past experiences are different from those of monolingual English speakers in many communities. Many language minority students, confronted with learning tasks without context, struggle even more than the average American student with learning tasks that are isolated from everyday life. Teachers at the case study sites strove to break the pattern of decontextualized learning by delivering curriculum in a way that has meaning to their students. As the examples in the boxes illustrate, they made connections across disciplines; built real-life applications into the curriculum; related curriculum to student experiences; provided students with hands-on experiences that enable them to comprehend and apply new information; and emphasized depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge.

The teachers in study schools provided opportunities for students to relate the curriculum to their own experiences and to construct meaning for themselves through a process of active discovery. In classrooms at the case study schools, curriculum was framed in a real life, authentic context. Students were assisted in developing integrated understandings of concepts. These approaches were particularly effective with LEP students because they provided an important context for learning and helped students make connections to the curriculum. Box I-4.2 describes three strategies that exemplary schools employed to make curriculum more meaningful.

Thematic approaches were effectively applied in classes with LEP students. Teachers developed their curricula around coordinated themes that integrated the main content areas--science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies. Themes were taught in English, Sheltered English, and Spanish, depending on the needs of the students. Lessons were designed to help students make connections and achieve deeper understandings of concepts by studying a topic from the viewpoint of various disciplines. At most of the exemplary schools, the organizational structure facilitated interdisciplinary instruction. For example, at Hanshaw Middle School, science and mathematics were taught by one core teacher and language arts and social studies were taught by another core teacher. See Box I-4.3 for a description of a thematic unit used at Wiggs Middle School.

Box I-4.2

Exemplary Schools Implement Meaningful Curriculum

Horace Mann Students Pilot San Francisco’s Project 2061 Project-Based Model. At Horace Mann Middle School, 100 8th graders were challenged to create a "non violent community for the year 2000" for their neighborhood in San Francisco’s Mission District. The students worked with five teachers and community mentors, such as a Latino architect, who offered particular expertise needed to address the learning challenge. Five groups of 20 heterogeneously grouped students were given a week to develop a non-violent community. Students were challenged to address energy conservation, disposal of human and industrial waste, clean water and air, housing, care for the elderly and the very young, schooling, social institutions, transportation, crime control, and justice. Scale models were presented to the school and community at an open house at which students took turns explaining their ideal community and answering questions. All students got a chance to present during the assembly.

Hanshaw Students Study the Dreams of Immigrants. In Hanshaw's Sonoma House, the year-long theme for the 1993/94 school year was " I Have A Dream," from the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. The theme focused on people’s dreams and how they set about to accomplish those dreams. In one assignment for a Sheltered language arts and social studies core class, students interviewed an immigrant--a parent, relative, neighbor, or friend--about their dreams for living in the United States and their immigrant experience. Students as a class developed the interview questions, then individual students conducted and wrote up the results of their interviews. After completion of the interviews, each student gave an oral presentation of his or her findings to the class.

Inter-American Curriculum Relates to Students’ Home Countries. Inter-American tailored its curriculum to fit the cultural background of its students. The curriculum emphasized the study of the Americas and, because many students at the school were African-American, included the study of Africa--especially as African culture has influenced the Americas. Teachers often developed their curriculum around themes drawn from the study of the Americas. For example, fourth-grade teachers used a thematic unit on Mayan civilization as an opportunity to integrate content across curriculum areas. In social studies class, students studied the geographic spread of the Mayan civilization, the Mayan religion, and cultural traditions. In science, students studied Mayan architecture and agricultural systems. In language arts, students read and wrote stories about the Mayans. Finally, an art lesson in which students painted Mayan gods was integrated into the theme by a volunteer parent. The unit began with a visit to the Field Museum to see an exhibit on Mayan culture, architecture, and religion.

Developing themes required intensive work initially, but teachers at the exemplary sites refined and reused themes year after year. The materials used in one year could be repeated and extended in subsequent years with new groups of students. Documenting and reflecting upon the successes and failures of themes were critical to the continuous improvement of thematic curriculum. Box I-4.4 explains how Hanshaw teachers collaborate to develop year-long thematic units.

Box I-4.3

A Theme on Chile Peppers at Wiggs Middle School

Teachers in the newcomer LEP student family developed an integrated unit on chiles. In social studies, students learned about the historic and continuing tensions between Mexico and New Mexico over the chile crop. In mathematics, students made graphs plotting the relative heat of chiles, studied crop yields in different parts of the world and computed yield of chiles by acre. Students developed salsa recipes using fractions, adjusting recipe proportions for smaller and larger batches of salsa. In Spanish class, students read literature about the chile god and composed their own stories extending the myth. In science, students studied chiles during the unit on green plants, dissected chiles and learned about chile seed dispersal.

Box I-4.4

Developing a Thematic Unit: How Hanshaw Teachers Do It

California curriculum frameworks were used as the starting point for the development of Hanshaw’s year-long thematic units. For example, teachers used the California state frameworks for middle school science and mathematics as their starting point in developing the mathematics and science elements of a theme. Teachers worked together to plan themes that incorporated the framework topics. They laid out the topics that students are supposed to learn, then brainstormed to develop a theme that would incorporate the required elements from the science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts frameworks. Once they decided on a theme, they developed learning activities, often "sub-themes," that lasted a week, a month, or longer. After the theme was developed and implemented, the teachers reviewed the extent to which the original framework topics were covered. If one area, mathematics for example, was not covered adequately, teachers designed lessons to fill in topics that were missed or superficially covered; they did not force themes to include topics that could not be naturally integrated. Themes evolved over the years¾activities that worked were extended and those that did not succeed were dropped. Teachers reviewed the success of the activities at the conclusion of the thematic projects.

Chapter 4 Endnotes

1 This process involves mutual adaptation in which the instructional approaches are adapted to the site and the site adapts to the strategies. See Berman and McLaughlin, 1978 .

2 Cazden, 1988; Garcia, 1991; Healy, 1990; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988; Vigotsky, 1978.

3 Healy, 1990.

4 Grennon Brooks and Brooks, 1993.

5 Dwyer, 1994.

6 Johnson, et al., 1981 and 1990; Roy, 1990; and Slavin, 1990.

7 Johnson, Johnson, and Holubec, 1990.

8 Roy, 1990.

9 Slavin, 1990; Johnson and Johnson, 1989.

10 See Brady, 1989; Bruner, 1986; Katz, 1989; Havighurst, 1976; Kovalik and Olsen, 1994.

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