Vol. 15 : No. 1
The Learning Stairway Process
By Guy Bensusan
The basic concept of the "stairway" is a step-by-step ascent into the more complex aspects of self-directed learning. The other learners and I all participate by writing and sharing ideas, building our concepts as we go. In this way, each person expresses his or her understanding of each step while also learning from the perceptions of other peers.
I use the Caucus Software program, which DEOS Moderator Mauri Collins and I decided was flexible and allowed each learner to have a personal home/ workspace where other learners (myself included) may visit, read and comment.
There are fifteen steps, one for each week of the semester. Each builds on the previous and anticipates the next. The first asks all students to read the same essay that I developed in 1990 (A Cultural Evolution model in six parts called the Hexadigm --- see my web page or websearch Hexadigm).
Each then writes a first draft explaining their understanding of the model, posts it for others to read, reads what others wrote, and then writes a second, more comprehensive essay. Thus each step will show growth on the single topic, while the overall stairway allows multiple single growths to accumulate over the semester.
I call the Stairway process Escalator, though some folks insist on calling it the Elevator until we discuss the concept that with an Elevator one is lifted by the mechanism, with a Stairway one must do the work of climbing even though someone has established the structure, while with an Escalator there are riders as well as climbers while the whole process ascents and all reach the top.
All start "on the same page," with two important consequences. One is a growing sense of multiple causation, while an historical awareness grows in which cultural sequences as well as geography compete as significant contributors to diversity. This leads to consideration of the dichotomy of nature-nurture and develop into later Schools of Thought assignments.
Two: the first writing is a benchmark for the "GROWTH" grading which I use: they start where they enter, move forward and go as far as they are able. They learn with and from each other, cooperate, and learn how to learn on their own as I gradually comment ever less as the weeks ensue.
An additional consideration is that most of the courses I teach are liberalizing surveys, rather than high level seminars (though the escalator also works well there. The learners are diverse in culture (this is ARIZONA and our native and International Students [on campus plus online overseas] are working in a language foreign to them). Multiculturality expands us all.
Finally, I award each learner an A at the beginning of the course. Granted, it is in one sense an encouragement gimmick - because in order to keep that as their final grade, they MUST perform at an ascending standard. Over time it is clear to them and to me that they will work MUCH harder to keep the A than to try to achieve it in a competitive situation. Here is teamwork learning, preparing them for the workplace lateralizing of future jobs.
The syllabus states:
This WRITING INTENSIVE PROGRAM has FIVE requirements.
You are awarded the grade of A when you start the course. I assume you to be mature, serious and interested in improving your higher thinking and inquiry skills. I expect you to develop the ability to examine and discuss the matters you study from various diverse viewpoints and to be able to argue effectively in behalf of more than one slant, spin or line of interpretation.
To keep that A as your final grade, you must:
(1) respond in writing to all fifteen assignments as they are due every few days, and post your response in your personal electronic workspace or folder that you create in the VCC. Detailed instructions about how to do that are below in part five.
(2) stay current and timely. If there is to be any deviation from weekly posting, I expect an email of explanation. Three weeks without posts or message will tell me you have dropped, and your workspace will be closed.
(3) read new postings widely, comment constructively with substance each week upon as many as possible. Post in each student's room and item number.
(4) be helpful and encouraging to your course colleagues, especially if you see them falling behind.
(5) demonstrate growth in:
I expect you to improve, write more, develop depth of critical thought and analysis and build your later postings at greater length, thoroughness, solidity and comprehensiveness.
Several attributes are synthesized in the Learning Stairway.
(1) An academic database is provided for the learners - these are essays that I have written from what I used to declaim in lectures.
(2) Each learner will function as information provider, as colleague and critic, and how all will end the course with a general view of the totality course subject, some specific "expertise" is their respective chosen topics, an understanding of the nature of evidence and how to evaluate sources, and a semester of practice in learning how to learn on their own.
While the idea for this program developed as I was teaching over Interactive Television to multiple Arizona sites ten years ago, its formulation, implementation and ongoing development/fine tuning was fostered by input from several thousand learners who have contributed even after graduating and entering teaching careers. Much of the success of the program is due to their efforts, while the appearance of Caucus six years ago gave us a platform that propelled us into interactive constructivist collaboration.
I also salute the boundless encouragement and energies of Deos Moderator Mauri Collins, who worked with me for three years at NAU prior to her moving to Old Dominion and now to Rochester IT. Her efforts resulted in the acquisition of a superb (though soon to terminate) software program. No matter: others now exist, and one from the Learning Trust will be on the market next year, having been developed in conjunction with input from me and learners in the courses I offer.
Prior to getting Caucus, interaction with essays was a nightmare of photocopying, mailing and FAXing!!! Caucus helped us take off, and the archiving of the many learner essays now comprises a solid body of research data that may reveal some new and diverse insights into stairway learning. At this point Professor Melody Rondeau and Dr Arnolda Hilgert have performed initial research (published in Ed at a Distance), but more, MUCH more, needs to be done with this huge sample of demonstrated learning growth.
Escalator structure comes from my selecting ten key issues germane to dealing with academic issues, and then arranging them in an order of ascending complexity so that learners are always climbing into a place they have not been before, and cannot easily anticipate. From my constructivist-deconstructionist vantage, I view all fields of study as having common ground, despite a seeming divergence among arts, sciences, socio-behavioural studies, engineering, business, services, management and health.
The way I see things, all fields share: a body of information, a history of the field, tenets of the discipline, past giants, current leaders, diverse and ever-widening sources of information, alternatives in way-out fringes on either side of center, ways of validating information, vocabularies, sub-fields and national, cultural/sub-cultural and gender variants, and none are complete yet, since each day brings new developments. Being lifted by and climbing the interactive Escalator leads learners into these ever more complex considerations step by step.
The courses I teach are either regional (Southwest US, Mexico, South America, Iberian arts and culture) or topical (the love tragedy of Carmen and Jose, The Columbus Controversies).
The steps are:
1. Cultural Model. This is a six-sided integrated prism through which change and causation can be outlined. The parts are: Cultural Sequences, Mutual Influences, Regional Diversities, Modernizing Technologies, Expanding Comprehensions, Revised Interpretations. These interact with each other and the model can be explored in any sequence. (See Hexadigm on my NAU web page or do a WWW Search for Hexadigm)
Each writes and posts an initial explanation draft (focus is on the ideas, not "MLA" formula and style). Following the reading of many other posts, they update with a second essay. Some students want to write first and then read others, while others wait, see what others do and then write their first essay. Since the goal is learning, I encourage them to develop in their comfort zones at first.
2. Imagine. Each learner, having explored the "historical" multicultural model now selects a topic (e.g. painting, folksongs, dance), a specific theme lasting over centuries (e.g. weeping woman, weather causation, sky or animal stories), or a specific field of study (e.g. transportation, agriculture, communication, architecture) in the long-term view. Then, out of their IMAGINATION (no research), they run that topic through the Hexadigm parts to formulate their initial "research design". They thus approach their subjects with an overview already in mind for exploration and contrast.
3. Components. It becomes apparent in the previous assignment that each topic subdivides easily into several parts. In this assignment learners formalize those into a componential outline (with as many parts and they can think of) as the specifics relate to the selected topic. For instance, architecture might subdivide into structures, materials, styles, purposes, locational adaptations, architects, unusual alternatives, new developments, etc. The learners write, post, and then read how others did this with their own topics, getting additional ideas, and modify their earlier essay in an update posting.
4. Verify. Now comes the selection of a variety of books, articles, interviews, websites, etc. I ask that several different types of sources (in terms of era, nationality, gender, discipline, etc) be selected for later analysis and comparison. The assignment here compares the internal imaginative hexadigmic exploration of the topic with available information. This begins to reveal the slants and foci of the authors, which will be explored in greater detail later on. The written assignment involves external information, as well as subdivision into components, while also revealing the incompleteness and special slants of source materials.
5. Ladder. This is a second and vertical analysis model, contrasting with the historical hexadigm. In this assignment, learners explore their reactions at various levels. The bottom rung is the I-like/don't like Initial Gut Response. The second rung lists sub-parts, organization and techniques while the third looks at the timeframe and cultural context.
Rung four asks where the information came from; rung five for data on the author, date, location and seeming intent, while rung six examines the slant or viewpoint of the information. The seventh rung asks for a categorization of where the item and concept FIT into a larger scheme of things - economic, psychological, material, spiritual, etc. The top rung requires the learner to revise the reaction on the bottom rung.
The essay I wrote on this model is posted with assignment five, and also is on my web page under Teaching Tools (see URL for my website). The intention of this assignment is to provide an overview for Assignments six through ten which follow, where each of the rungs will be explored in greater detail.
6. Frame. This assignment expands from Ladder rung three and asks the learner to place the topic in a context of culture and time-location awareness. If the conquest of Mexico in 1519 is the topic, the learner should investigate beyond the persons of Cortez, Malinche, Montezuma and Cuauhtemoc. Frame asks for an examination of conditions under which both the incoming Spaniards as well as the various native groups of Mexico were living and functioning. This includes the respective internal struggles of both groups, levels of contemporaneous technology, geographic awareness, dynamic events, changes in progress, and similar matters.
An essay is attached to this assignment and is called Evaluating Sources of Information. This discusses some two dozen types of databases and directs the learners attention to context both in terms of time and place of what is being studied as well as how one might know or learn about it. This aspect is emphasized here both to broaden the Frame or Context as well as to anticipate the forthcoming assignment, Probe.
The sources mentioned are books, diaries, magazines, newsletters, archive documents, paintings, artifacts, videotapes, music records, museums, study centers, galleries, exhibition halls, science observatories, military/community display centers, historical or archaeology sites, national and state parks, historical and natural monuments, interpretative theme parks, special purpose organizations, private collections, collections of oral traditions, individual interviews.
7. Probe. Having read about source evaluation, the learner now reads the essay on Bias that is posted with this assignment. Probe asks for an examination of each of the several sources that were gathered in assignment four. The emphasis is upon the "external" evidence of time and place of publication, who published it, the credentials of the author, and "paraphernalia of credibility" regarding how the work is organized, where the information within comes from, and (if possible) how it is reviewed.
A similar process regarding external evidence extends to videos, recordings, websites, artifacts, and interviewees. An assessment of externals should be made here as to which of the sources seem more solid and reasonable, which more "amorphous" and which more "iffy," along with some reasons for making the validity choices.
8. Refine. The second part of evaluating the sources of information requires an examination of the contents. The question here is more a matter of how the author comes across to the reader, or in the case of artifacts and videos, how the message "feels." This approach examines the "internals" of what is said, how it is said, the weightings of the word choices, the personal versus impersonal voices and tones of the author and organizer.
More than the information itself, this involves the tone, outlook, attitude and quality of expression and conviction conveyed by the author or site. Combining Probe and Refine allows some decision as to which source of information is most solid, more convincing or less convincing, and some reasons for having made that choice.
At this midpoint in the course each learner should assess whether the initially awarded A has been kept by describing the degree of timeliness with assignments, and commenting on personal improvement in knowledge, vocabulary, information sources, component relationships, substance and substantiation, integration of ideas, explanations and causations, writing and computer posting skills, abilities in written interactive discussion, and constructive analysis and commenting on the work of others.
9. Schools. This is the most complex assignment, since it involves reading an overview of the evolution of schools of interpretation over the past two thousand plus year of "Western Civilization," and finding several which clearly apply to the selected topic by each learner. Each learner comments and evaluates how those varied ideas and worldviews relate, points to those that seem the most sensible, and gives reasons.
The purposes here are to demonstrate the ever-evolving lenses of vision through which interpretations of "societal rights and wrongs" have been viewed, the impacts of modernization and technological innovation, and the accelerating velocity of diversification in every field of study that is visible and creates our current overloads, confusions and reactions. Many learners find this assignment challenging and while some struggle with it, they gain an introduction to categories of thought and interpretation that expand their horizons.
10. Recast. Based on the previous assignment, each learner now writes a script where several persons of diverse views will discuss the topic that has been studied for the past nine weeks. Whereas the previous assignment was somewhat long, difficult and intimidating for some, this one draws upon the creativity of each learner. The point here is to establish a conversation in which members of specific mindsets openly debate what and how they feel, while the learner-author demonstrates awareness of each of the selected schools of thought through the lines that each are made to speak.
This may involve perspectives from both genders, many academic fields, and diverse nations or cultures as well. The assignment is set up on three levels: (1) male-female, various locations, different generations; (2) different national culture or diverse academic disciplines; (3) several schools of thought. Each learner may choose the level with which they are most comfortable, and when they return to take additional courses with me, they ascend to higher levels in this assignment.
Evaluation feedback from learners suggest this assignment is the high point of the course. Some of these "dramatic renditions" have been excellent and have been published in distance learning newsletters in the US and the UK.
11. Resolve. In this assignment the learners are asked to review all the steps and their writings to date. They are urged to consider where they are at this point in the course in comparison to where they began, and how they have acquired additional or new perceptions about things.
The actual instructions are brief: "You recall "first impressions" and initial reactions, but where are you NOW? What have you learned? What do you now see that you did NOT see before? What aspects are most clear to you, what remains a bit muddy, or totally obscure? What questions are you comfortable answering on your topic and frame? What questions can you NOT answer and why do you think that is?"
12. Presentation. The learner becomes the teacher-presenter. Having studied their topic ten weeks, each selects the aspects they deem most significant and present their findings in writing online to their course colleagues. In the process, each comes to grips with one special topic, while learning about other topics from their peers, and the overall historical and arts-culture matters from their online course readings.
13. Critique. Each learner is required, with analysis and substance, to critique at least one presentation, though they are encouraged to critique as many as they wish and often do. Instructions are:
(1) What is the topic?
Write your statement about what you understand from the presentation.
(2) Did the presenter follow instructions well?
(3) Was the presentation clear and easy to follow?
(4) Did the presenter cover the topic well?
(5) What questions do you have?
(6) What are your comments about evidence and substantiation?
(7) How well did the presenter cover the steps of the escalator?
(8) What are your comments and suggestions?
Keep in mind we examine alternative views. This is not a contest, and egos are often fragile. Be clear and also gentle and kind. Comment critically on as many as you have time for.
14. Response. The presenter answers.
Instructions state: What do you think about what was said? How much of the critique do you accept? Were the comments solid, fair, points well taken? How do you respond? Do you stick to what you said, or modify it? If so, how much and why? It is easy to get defensive here, just as seeming to attack. Continue to practice clear, constructive dialogue. If you want even more practice, respond to critiques made by other members of the course.
15. Evaluation and topic forecast. I have created twenty-five questions about aspects of the system that I want the learners to write about. Some of these concern the students’ self-perception and expectations, some concern the course, its methods, strengths and weaknesses as perceived by the learners. Fifty courses have been taught this way, and have provided highly valuable information to me about ways of making things work more smoothly and with fewer anxieties for learners. They are all archived for reference, and it appears that some of the most productive changes have come from these evaluations. I find them far superior to the bubble sheet anonymous format in general use.
One more task remains, that each learner examine his topic with an eye to both past and present, and make a forecast about how the chosen topic might look or be some ten years ahead. Since we have been examining changes throughout the semester, this seems useful and gives practice as well as incentive to examine where we are headed. With this final item, the course is over.
And so is the semester. And while I began the semester by spending many hours interacting online with the learners, by the middle of the semester I was needed by far fewer than at the beginning. By the final weeks, I still read every new post daily, but no longer need to comment except here and there, or when it is obvious that more support must be forthcoming from me. It is an individual matter.
Interestingly, over the past six years the fall semester takes more personal touch-work than the spring.... which I personally attribute to the shorter days and less sunlight. Whatever the cause or causes, I personally believe that with our new tools we are entering into an era that will demonstrate to us that while we had prided ourselves on knowing much about teaching, we are just beginning to find out about LEARNING. Since I find each learner to be unique, we will find out much more in the years ahead.
Guy Bensusan, Phd.,
Senior Faculty Associate for Interactive Television, NAUNet,
Professor, Department of Humanities, Arts & Religion
NAU Box 5676, Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5676
voice: 520-523-9146; FAX 520-523-9988
Virtual Conference Center: