This blog post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on August 9, 2016.
This is the eighth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery Collaborative, The Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, North Queens Community High School, and EPIC North.
Joel Rose and Sue Fine of New Classrooms introduced me to the concept of anchor weights and tethering. I had sought out their insights into how we can better engage and teach students who are missing pre-requisite skills needed for grade level curriculum. (Truly, we need to figure out a shorthand phrase for this phenomena.)
New Classrooms has invested heavily in research and development to create an instructional model that “reimagines the classroom around each student.” Their framework is based on personalized pathways, competency-based learning, valuing relationships, and regrouping based on common needs. It’s a blended model with a combination of live and online instruction. At this point, they have focused solely on math, although they are considering developing the model for other academic domains as well. (Their video on personalizing education is great).
Math is why I wanted to talk to Rose and Fine. I have heard too many educators say that a student who doesn’t understand numeracy, fractions, and a host of other skills is going to have a difficult time – impossible, even – to learn and apply algebra. So why are we having students take algebra over and over? Are they building their pre-requisite skills, or is this some form of torture to take the same class over without any hope of learning it? The challenge facing competency-based school as well as any type of school is how to help student learn the grade level skills and learn the pre-requisite skills so that they begin to backfill all the skills they are going to need for higher and higher level work.
New Classrooms model is based on a concept of tethering students to a grade level standard and then determining which pre-requisite skills students need in order to master that skill. They help teachers to prioritize by providing a skills map that that identifies the interdependence between skills. As outlined in this concept map (a higher conceptual level than the skills map), in order for a 9th grader in an algebra class to be able to graph quadratics, he or she would need to understand two strands of mathematical skills. One would be based on solving basic and complex equations that would reach back to early grades. The other would be understanding algebraic functions (8th and 9th grade) based upon evaluating expressions (6th grade), and whole number operations including multiplying and dividing large numbers (2nd through 5th grade).
However, teachers still need to set priorities for where they are going to focus in helping a student build up their pre-requisite skills to meet this standard as well as other skills in higher level mathematics. New Classrooms does this by assigning anchor weights to each concept and skill that indicate the degree to which they are used in higher level mathematics. Teachers would thus focus first on the concepts or skills with higher anchor weights indicated with dots on the concept map.
What New Classrooms has designed is a way to make sure students are going to reach grade level standards and build the pre-requisite skills they will need for further studies. Students now have a personalized pathway to help them reach the targeted grade level standard. Even though it might take a student a while to learn that grade level standard, they will have filled some portion of their gaps by the time they are ready to move on to the next standard. They might need to backfill some more, but they know that they will be able to reach their destination. After a while, they have backfilled all their gaps and are closing in on being able to do grade level standards.
This is ground-breaking as far as I can tell. Yes, it will take some students longer to learn to do both things, grade level and pre-requisite skills, but that is because they are learning more. They are learning over a longer distance over the skills map. But they are not always going to take longer. Early indicators from New Classrooms suggest that students do catch up to grade level.
Ruminations on the Insights From New Classrooms
The conversations with Rose and Fine got me to thinking about what might be possible.
Student Maps: All of this would be made even easier if the student information systems vendors would get on the ball and begin to build systems that provide maps of each student’s trajectories in meeting (or missing) standards. Teachers would know instantly what skills students were missing or where they were ready to focus. Right now the vendors are focused on standards, specifically standards within grade levels, even though many students are not performing at grade level. For all the talk of private sector innovation, it is these vendors that have now become a barrier to offering personalized, student-centered instruction. We need to be able to track an individual student’s path along the entire learning continuum and be able to see across domains as well. It’s helpful to be able to see progress on standards within courses, but it also reinforces that schools deliver grade level curriculum rather than teaching students.
Rate of Learning: If students are going to learn pre-requisites while being tethered to a grade level standards, then some students’ paths are much, much longer than other students’. Thus, the concept of faster and slower learners is tossed out the window. This is about the distance. We should be monitoring the rate of learning that is personalized, not just learning based on a grade level standard. Thus, we might be able to indicate the distance a student has to go to learn a standard. For example, Dan’s weighted distance for learning an algebra standard is 3.0 because he has to go back three performance levels to build the pre-requisite skills, while Molly only has to refresh multi-step equations so her weighted distance on the standards might be 0.1. Although a rough proxy, something like this would allow us to monitor the rate of learning.
If we can work out the kinks, we might have a way of weighting the learning that students are doing and giving credit to the instructional strategies used by teachers, including making good instructional choices about things like the use of adaptive software. The better teachers understand learning progressions, the faster they’ll be able to respond to the underlying misconceptions students have. It’s the beginning of a new set of metrics.
Anchoring the Learning: Right now teachers in both traditional schools and competency-based schools feel that they need to cover the standards in the same way they used to have to cover the curriculum in face of the end of year accountability exams. Repeatedly, teachers have told me “it is only fair” to have exposed students to what they are going to be tested on. However, that logic doesn’t hold if there is no way for those very students to learn those standards without getting help with the pre-requisite skills.
Until states develop accountability systems that are more aligned with student learning (and they can do a lot toward this, including using adaptive assessments), we need some way to empower teachers to do what is instructionally in the interest of students. What if we created mechanisms where a teacher says they are going to “anchor a student” as a way of saying “this student needs to slow down and build up their pre-requisite skills, and I’m going to help him.” (I just like the sound of this more than tether – although tethered to a balloon might be a lovely metaphor.) Principals can monitor the students who are “anchored” to make sure that they are making progress and getting closer and closer to do grade level work.