Welcome back! Students are back, and the buildings feel alive again. It is the end of the third day, and we are already settling into the year. As you and the learners get ready to start new learning adventures this year, keep these ideas in mind:
What do all of these student products have in common?
- A children’s book page showing an animal cell, with labels and simple explanations of how the major organelles work.
- A Prezi showing an animal cell. The presentation zooms in on different parts of the cell with a narrator explaining their functions
- A pop song about the animal cell. Each verse focuses on a different organelle.
- A multi-paragraph essay describing the key parts of an animal cell
- A hand-sewn felt animal cell doll with all the major parts labeled and a display box with descriptions each major part.
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.
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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