An essential component of learner centered proficiency based education is being able to meet learners at their particular readiness level in any area. Readiness level is another way of talking about the Zone of Proximal Development, the sweet spot of learning. In a personalized learning environment there should never be a moment when a learner is disengaged because they are being expected to work at a level that is either too hard or too easy. This is where flexible grouping comes in.
Have you ever visited a classroom, or a team, or a school, and felt like there was some kind of secret code the members all shared? Perhaps the learners and teachers were using hand signals, or using specific words and phrases which clearly had a meaning that was understood by all the learning community members. The communication took very little effort, and happened quickly and smoothly. Classrooms and schools that have successfully shared and sustained a common language are special places with an environment prime for powerful learning.
Last week we thought about the importance of revisiting the initial work around culture we engaged our learners in at the start of the year. It can be helpful to have some protocols at the ready to use, since visioning and setting codes of conduct can be messy work! Here are two protocols, which many of us have used in different contexts, that are great for supporting vision setting:
January, the start of a new year and at the same time the middle of a year. In the rest of our lives outside of school we are all thinking about new starts, reflecting on the successes and struggles of the previous year and laying plans for embracing what we have learned in order to grow and move forward. In contrast, many of us in school are picking up with a new learning opportunity and continuing along the content marathon of the school year. This year, why not take some time for reflection in school as well?
I cannot think of a subject area, or class, in schools today in which we are not working with learners on articulating thinking. We regularly ask learners of all ages to put forth an idea then explain their reasoning in support of that idea. In English Language Arts we might ask readers to say what kind of person they think a character is, and use evidence from the book to explain why they think that. In Science classes we ask learners to form a hypothesis then use observations and data to prove their hypothesis correct or incorrect. In Social Studies we might ask learners to argue why a particular historical figure was a strong leader. In art and music classes we ask artists and performers to critique works and performances, using observations and knowledge of technique to support their judgements. I’m sure you’ve thought of an example from other contents in which learners are expected to share, or exchange, ideas and why they hold those ideas. This is very important work, and sometimes difficult work.
Choice in learning is an essential element of the Applied Learning philosophy. When learners have a say in the what, where, when, and how of their learning both engagement and autonomy flourish. Sometimes when we start thinking through choice in the learning environment our minds swing to the extremes. We imagine a place where the learners direct everything.
There has been some confusion here in RSU2 as of late about what Applied Learning is. So, let's take a few moments to clear some things up. First, Applied Learning is NOT an IT. Applied Learning is a philosophy, a set of principles for instruction and includes some specific filters for instructional decision making:
Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning. Applied learning opportunities include:
- inquiry based in driving questions or problems
- choice in learning process (input, process, output)
- learning put to use, not simply tested
- reflection on learning
In order to transition to an effective learner centered proficiency based community, we have to make some important shifts in our stances as educators. Sometimes these shifts are subtle and nuanced. Other times they are clear and straightforward. Focus on and change in instructional practices will only take a learning community so far if the underlying philosophical stances do not change.
Before we go any further in exploring some of the crucial mind shifts, take a moment to check in on your own stances using the following survey. Take your time with it, and be completely honest. This survey is completely anonymous and for reflection purposes only. Emails and names are not being collected. You will be able to see a breakdown of how people responded.
Now that you have checked in, honestly, with your educational stances let's talk about where we really need to be operating from in order to truly have a learner centered proficiency based learning community.
1. They Are Learners, Not Students. Did you notice how often the word learners showed up in the survey? The difference between thinking of the young people in our school as students versus learners is subtle, yet very important. Student has a more passive connotation, and implies a certain level of compliance. Learner has a more active connotation, and implies a level of engagement and agency. We want the young people in our schools to wonder, explore, and learn. We do not want them to simply study. One of our Guiding Principles even states: ... a self directed and life long learner. How would that statement feel different if it read: ... self directed and life long student.
2. A Teacher of Learners. In a learner centered proficiency based system, the professionals are no longer teachers of specific grade levels or subject. Without a doubt, people specialize in certain ranges or areas; a teacher with strengths working with primary learners should continue to work with primary teachers, and we need professionals with strengths in different disciplines. All of us, however, must be flexible with knowledge in a range of targets and subjects in order to meet the needs of the young people in front of us. Further, all of us must be consciously teaching those young people to be learners, a set of skills and dispositions that span all disciplines.
3. The Learning Belongs To The Learners If the young people in our rooms are to be learners, then they need to be a part of the planning and decision making around their learning. We need to believe that they can, insist that then can, and support them until they have the confidence that they can. This means making targets crystal clear, connecting activities and practice to the targets, making learning pathways available accessible. This means giving learners, and supporting learners with, choices in how they learn, how they practice, and how they demonstrate their learning. A powerful question to ask yourself as you make lesson and unit plans is: what decisions am I making right now, and how much of this decision can students do on their own or with my support?
4. What Matters Most is What Matters Next Our only job as educators is to figure out where our students are as learners, what they need to learn next, and how to support them in getting there. This is how we nurture the young people in our schools to become self-determining adults. We are not preparing them for college. We are not preparing them for high school. We are not preparing them for middle school. We are not preparing them for the next grade level. We are preparing them for a future of their own designing. The only way to meet them where they are and support their growth forward.
We all know that making learning transparent is a key element of learner-centered proficiency based education. We've all gotten the memo: have targets posted. Many people have even taken posting targets a step further and posted all the learning targets for an entire project, course, or year. All of these methods can be a solid part of making learning targets and progressions visible to learners. The important thing to remember is that making learning really visible is about much more than simply slapping a learning target up on the wall; It is about developing learner agency. When learners know what it is they are supposed to be learning, and where that fits in the bigger picture of what they have to learn, motivation and engagement go way up.
If the goal is supporting learner agency, and not simply the posting of the target, we have to think differently about how we use targets. As a start, here are some target-posting pitfalls to be aware of, and some ideas about how to sidestep them and make the learning truly visible.
Just the other day a colleague sent me a note saying “please post about homework!” I can’t say I’m surprised, the homework question is one of the perennial questions in education; I even wrote about it last year. And like a stubborn weed, it spawns and shoots many other questions:
How much homework should students have?
Is homework for practice or learning?
Is it fair to assign homework that relies on internet access?
What is the purpose of homework?
How does homework count, if at all?
Does everyone have to do the same homework?
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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