One of the goals of learner-centered proficiency based education is to create authentic, real-life experiences for our students. Traditionally, the way school has been structured does not really mimic the experience people have outside of school. Do you categorize tasks into subject specific chunks? When is that last time you did just “math?” Have you ever said to yourself, or someone else, something like “Hold on, I’m doing science right now. That writing will have to wait until later.” I doubt it. How strange would that be!?
Or how about other real-life competencies? What happens when you are planning a group presentation, and one member doesn’t do their part? The presentations stinks, or is clearly lopsided. Perhaps the group members get annoyed with one another, and the slacker never gets invited to be a part of that kind of opportunity again. Maybe your supervisor expresses disappointment, and now you feel extra pressure at work. What about if you are late paying a bill? Maybe now you have to pay more. Depending on who you owe the money to, it can be a real hassle to correct the late payment. On the whole, however, we always have a second opportunity or a chance to fix the problem in real life. Even if we mess up royally and end up in prison, there is typically a way to work towards fixing the issue and getting back on track. What generally motivates us to do our best work, and get things paid on time is the hassle involved if we don’t.
If we want to create some of the real-world-esque scenarios around things like deadlines and retakes, we have to start thinking about setting up comparable hassles for our students. Giving students multiple opportunities to show what they know means giving second chances, maybe even third chances, but not without some work on their end. Here are two ways to build the hassle in so that students begin to learn that doing it well, and on time, on the first chance is worth the effort:
1. Require students to do an error analysis before resubmitting work, a project, or an assessment. In an error analysis, students need to identify what they got wrong, why they got it wrong, and then do whatever it takes to show they can do it. Here is an example of an error analysis for a math assessment:
2. Be honest with them about their performance and give them a second opportunity later on, not right away. This works well with more complex tasks, like presentations or other projects that take a significant amount of time. Support students to keep track of what went well, and what went wrong in their process. At the start of the next project, have kids take that feedback out and set some goals about how to go about things differently this time. Over the course of a semester, or a year, students will have wonderful evidence of their growth in these abilities, and future projects will be stronger.
3. Make the redo something different. Do make sure the assessment is as the same reasoning level as the initial task, otherwise it is an unfair assessment. Changing up the task requires students to continue to think, rather than just regurgitate. Mixing up the question order is a start, and not quite what I mean. Ask a different essay question. Give a task in a different output mode (visual representation rather than an essay). Have them hold a discussion with you on the spot.
School can absolutely mimic the real life hassles we face when we don't do out best the first time. We just have to think a little differently. Will there be times when a student decides to just deal with the consequences of late work or redos anyway? Sure. Sometimes we all do.
One of the biggest concerns about proficiency based, and learner centered instruction, centers around the idea of “students working at their own pace.” Education community members wonder: what about deadlines? what if a student’s pace is “do nothing?” who will teach them if the just keep going ahead? what happens if a kid finishes all the standards by the time they are 16? The questions go on, and on. Most of them are completely valid questions, and worth conversations about. A good place to start is to examine how the idea of a student’s own pace.
Instead of thinking of the word “pace” think of “readiness level.” A student’s readiness level is the point where they have the ability to be successful with whatever the current learning is, and stretch a bit into new understanding and skills with the support of a teacher. Readiness level is the same thing as the Zone of Proximal Development. So now, think about this new statement:
In a learner centered system, students work at their readiness level
This changes the picture a bit. There is still room in this vision for a teacher to teach, for there to be deadlines, for students to learn at a degree and depth that makes sense for them, for a class to all be studying the same topic at different complexity levels. A student’s readiness level can be used to match instruction and expected independence for any kind of procedural or declarative knowledge, including planning, organization and other soft skills.
But what about pace? The amount of time it takes, or should take, a student to complete and show mastery of learning is still important. Our students should know what a good pace is, and what to do if they get behind or ahead. Setting a pace for students includes setting due dates and otherwise supporting the development of those work habits.
By now the school year feels under way. The chaos of the first week has subsided. Classes are settling into routines. Units and projects are underway. Our excitement and expectations for the new year, and our students, is still there.
It is these expectations, the ones we as teachers hold up, that have the most power for our students’ learning. This piece from NPR explores the research behind teacher expectations and student achievement, and also offers some ideas for recognizing and adjusting our expectations.
In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning Peter Johnston talks about how the way we speak to our students conveys our expectations. He argues that our language is the central tool for the social, emotional, and academic development of our students. Here are three of my favorite suggestions for how we intentionally use language with our students so that we can create the intellectual life we want them to grow into:
Notice and Name: Be explicit about the praise you give. Say who you saw doing something you want to praise, then say what it is they did.
Become Strategic: We want to foster problem solving and creative thinking. One way to do this is to give students the opportunity to explain their thinking and processing in group settings. Ask students questions that prompt strategic thinking whenever the chance arises.
It is the second week of school, and many are already feeling the pressure of CONTENT! Before routine setting and culture building gets left by the wayside, remember that going slow at the start makes it easier to go faster later. Here are some ideas for keeping classroom culture growing this week:
Best wishes for an excellent second week of school! I look forward to meeting more of you, and starting to spend time in the schools and your classes learning about the amazing learning communities here in RSU 2. I’ll be reaching out to people, and please do reach out to me if you are already curious about how we can work together.
Courtney is the Instructional Coach for KIDS RSU #2 in Maine. She also hosts a podcast about personalized learning, and is available for independent consulting work.
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