Cummins’ quadrants framework is a model for thinking used by great teachers to think about relevance and challenge. What makes great teachers is great thinking. In this series of posts I am sharing some models for thinking; models which codify the thinking that great teachers use, so that we might scale great practice from the ground up.
The Cummins’ quadrants model was shared with my by my PGCE English tutor Kate Glavina. It is designed for aiding thinking when designing learning for children with English as an additional language (EAL), but as is often the case with good practice designed for minority groups, I think it is actually good practice for all learners. It has certainly helped me to plan lessons that draw learners in and make the abstract relevant and engaging.
Four sides to learning
Cummins splits learning into four quadrants of activity. The vertical scale moves from Cognitively un-demanding tasks, those which the learners find easy, to cognitively demanding tasks, which they will find hard. The horizontal moves from tasks with a high context, for instance using material or content the learners will find familiar and relate to, to abstract concepts which are much more challenging to relate to real experience, but are often the ‘Objectives’ that have been defined for them to learn.
Any activity that learners take part in can sit somewhere in these quadrants. Cummins says as teachers we should make sure activities start in quadrant A, as activities which are cognitively undemanding, and which learners find easy to relate to are the best way to bring them in to the learning. We should then move to quadrant B, keeping the context high, but upping the challenge. Then, if needed, we should to move activities in quadrant C, the challenging but abstract concepts which many of our learning objectives are made up of.
The final quadrant
What about quadrant D? Do we really want learners taking part in activities which are not intellectually challenging and have no relevance to their lives? That is the realm of irrelevant worksheets and busywork which turns learners off- avoid quadrant D at all costs!
Cummins’ model in practice
As an example of how this might work, let’s look at a poetry lesson on alliteration. Many teachers might start this lesson by sharing the objective ‘To use alliteration in a poem’, and immediately explaining to children a definition of what alliteration is; the repetition of a letter or sound in the first syllable of words in a text. They may then look at an example of a poem which uses alliteration.
Such a structure jumps straight in at quadrant C, the definition by itself is cognitively challenging, and is provided with no context for the learners to relate to. It then moves to B by introducing some context, but by that point learners may already be struggling to relate to it, particularly if they have EAL.
Instead, following Cummins model, the teacher might start by sharing the poem with the learners, and discussing it’s meaning and significance for them. Starting in quadrant A gives them a hook into the learning without intimidating them, and allows them to bring their own meaning to the material. The teacher could then ask them to examine in small groups how the poet has technically achieved the effects they have discussed, allowing them to ‘discover’ the technique of alliteration, and thus upping the challenge and working in quadrant B. Then, and only then, a definition of the abstract literary device of alliteration could be discussed. This could be followed by the children writing their own poems, which is perhaps a move back to quadrant B as they will bring their own context to this, but they will still be engaging with quadrant C whilst applying this learning.
This model does come with a warning, as it could be easy to infer from it that our aim is for learners to be working on abstract problems with no relevance, and that the linear path of the model just provides an effective way of getting there. Discussing abstract concepts can be useful, this model itself is an abstract concept you can use to shape your thinking. However, you do have to ask yourself, is this something you spend some time on to deepen thinking, or is abstract irrelevance your end goal?
A simple shift in the order of activities can make a big difference to the relevance of learning, the acquisition of abstract concepts and the engagement of the learner. Cummins’ quadrants provide a model for something great teachers do; make learning relevant. However, as with all models this is not the only answer, and you still need to consider what the end goal for your learners is, and how much value working in the area of the decontextualised abstract has.
To read more on this powerful model, check out Cummins’ book on this subject.
Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingual Education and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy San Diego: College Hill.