There are two key goals that underlie the design of Victory Briefs Classroom. First, the lessons should effectively foster student learning via techniques grounded in the best of contemporary learning science. Second, the curriculum should be intuitively structured and easy to use.
The Classroom curriculum is designed as a blended learning course in which online, at-home instruction complements activity based, in-class learning. We have adapted the general idea of a ‘flipped classroom’ (a curriculum where passive learning, like watching lectures, is done at home and active learning, like working on essays or problems, is done in class) to form the foundation of our curriculum.
The basic building blocks of our curriculum are ‘in-class’ and ‘at-home’ lessons. Each at-home lesson is sandwiched between two in-class lessons and that resultant set of three is called a ‘lesson bundle.’ Bundles combine to form the course units (short units will be a single bundle, while longer units might include three or four bundles).
The at-home lessons will involve watching one to two short videos (ten to twenty minutes each) and taking two no-stakes online quizzes. One quiz will be a quiz on the material students just learnt, and one will be a cumulative quiz on material previously covered during the year. The in-class lessons will all be activity based and instructors will be able to access complete lesson-plans and class-resources online.
In general, an individual debate practice/class will go through two lessons. The first will be a follow-up on the lesson they did for homework, and the second will set-up for the lesson they are about to do at home.
Because all ‘lecturing’ occurs via videos, and all activities include completed lesson plans, instructors without any previous debate experience will still be able to teach the course.
There are many important things to consider while trying to design a curriculum. We want to mention just a couple of the central principles that have deeply influenced our design.
Ken Bain, in his celebrated book What the Best College Teachers Do, argues that the best instructors don’t just have a few special teaching techniques, instead they have a deep practical understanding of how learning works. One thing he emphasizes is that the best teachers think about knowledge as ‘constructed’ rather than ‘received’ (26). We tend to think about memory as a “a great storage bin” into which we place, and from which we retrieve, ideas. However, this obscures the way that students’ mental models shape the way they absorb information in the first place. Because “students bring paradigms to the class that shape how they construct meaning” it's important to shape the fundamental way students think about key concepts (26-7).
According to Bain, the best teachers don’t focus on getting students to ‘absorb knowledge’ but instead get students “to see a portion of reality the way the latest research and scholarship in the discipline has come to see it” (27). They want their students to “build new mental models of reality.”
However, changing student’s mental models is notoriously difficult. Because students will interpret new information, even information on how to model their thoughts, in light of their current model, simple top-down instruction is insufficient. Instead you need to create “expectation failure” in students, confronting them with “a situation in which existing mental models will lead to faulty expectations” (28). The best teachers “conduct class and craft assignments in a way that allows students to try their own thinking, come up short, receive feedback, and try again.”
This is why our lesson bundles always start with an in-class activity. The idea is to carefully craft an activity that forces students to revise and develop their mental models.
Unlike many other debate courses, our goal is not to teach students ‘five answers to make against your opponent's evidence’ or ‘how to structure a value criterion.’ Those top-down lessons, while they often produce short-term success, tend to harm students at the highest levels of competition, and prevent them from being able to apply debate’s skills to the rest of their lives.
Instead, we hope to have students begin to develop a conceptual understanding of logic and argumentation, and then afterward provide students with the vocabulary and technical know-how to apply those concepts to debate rounds.
The consensus of educational experts is that spacing out learning, especially in a way that allows sleep in between lessons, significantly improves long-term retention of information. In numerous studies, researchers have found that, while in the short-term students who space out practice do no better than those who study for one long session, in the long-term those who spaced out their practice significantly outperform those who did not (Bloom & Shuell 81; Moulton et al. 06; Cepeda et al. 06).
For example, in one study students were given, either 30 minutes on one day or 10 minutes on three consecutive days to study 20 French vocabulary words. At initial testing (at the end of study period) performance “was virtually equivalent for the two groups” (Bloom & Shuell, 246). However, when retested four days later the students who had distributed practice did about 35% better.
When students focus on material for a single session they are retrieving information from short-term memory. In contrast, if you break up instruction then students are forced to recall information from long-term memory which far more effectively solidifies neural pathways to that information.
Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel, in their wonderful book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, explain that
“Effortful recall of learning, as happens in spaced practice, requires that you 'reload' or reconstruct the components of the skill or material anew from long-term memory rather than mindlessly repeating them from short-term memory. During this focused, effortful recall, the learning is made pliable again: the most salient aspects of it become clearer, and the consequent reconsolidation helps to reinforce meaning, strengthen connection to prior knowledge, bolster the cues and retrieval routes for recalling it later, and weaken competing routes. Spaced practice, which allows some forgetting to occur between sessions, strengthens both the learning and the cues and routes for fast retrieval when that learning is needed again” (82).
Most debate curriculums are designed so that a single topic will be covered at a single practice. Thus you might spend a two and a half hour practice discussing the structure of arguments and doing various activities on argument structure. Our curriculum is designed to forcibly disrupt that model. Instead, of covering a whole concept during one period, each concept will get three shorter instructional periods and each debate practice will cover multiple lesson bundles.
Additionally, one of the two quizzes students will take after each lesson will be aimed at long-term, spaced retrieval of content covered previously during the year.
Frequent testing is often frowned upon in lay discussions of teaching and education. And while there are good reasons to be skeptical of testing as a primary assessment strategy, frequent testing is extraordinarily helpful as a learning strategy.
Short-term forgetting of information if one of the greatest obstacles to long-term learning. Humans lose about 70% of what they have heard or read in short order (Ebbinghaus 1964). This can be a distressing thing to dwell on as a teacher, because it indicates that an awful lot of time you spend teaching just goes to waste.
Luckily there is hope, and research seems to indicate that the testing effect is the best hope we have. One landmark study looked at kids who studied short articles, and took tests at various times before a final exam (the exam was taken two months later). The study found a) the longer the first test was delayed the greater the forgetting and b) once a student took a test the forgetting nearly stopped. The top performing students took a quiz quickly following learning the material. This effect expands beyond just memorization. Even in courses which emphasize synthesis and critical reflection on material frequent quizzing still causes students to score, on average, more than a full letter grade higher (Chamberlain 05, 07).
This is why our curriculum includes both immediate and repeated quizzing. These quizzes will not count towards a student’s grade, however, they will help ensure long-term retention of information.