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Aurora Institute

Challenges and Solutions in Creating a Learner Improvement Cycle for Personalized Mastery

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Copper Stoll and Gene Giddings

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

challengesIn our previous entry, we foreshadowed the need for learner involvement in all aspects of the Learner Improvement Cycle. The Learner Improvement Cycle is our adaptation from the work of Richard C. Owen’s Teaching-Learning Cycle. Our major innovation to Owen’s work is the focus from the teacher’s actions to the impact those actions have on the learner.  The Learner Improvement Cycle also encourages learners to seek multiple sources for their learning and to display their learning through technology, peers, teachers, experts in the field, and authentic audiences. This begins to enliven students’ acquisition and application of college- and career-readiness skills and knowledge. A major role change for both students and teachers is needed. Four challenges of implementing the Learner Improvement Cycle are:

  • Assessing: How does a teacher use assessment to instill academic confidence in his/her learners?
  • Evaluating: How do the adults in a school partner with their learners to provide authentic feedback on student results?
  • Planning: How are the learners personalizing their goals and action plans for learning?
  • Learning: How can learners master the standards through issues they find interesting?

Assessing Challenge: In many classrooms across America, every Friday, teachers say, “Put your books away, its time to take the test.”  The word “test” strikes fear in the hearts of many of those learners. This is because summative assessments are usually administered in a time-based manner; some students have been ready for days to display their knowledge and skills, while many of their classmates need more days and resources in order to master the concepts. Lessons learned from this kind of summative practice frustrate students and you hear, “Why do I have to wait to take the test? I’m ready now!” to “Why do I have to take the test now? I’m not ready!”  This reinforces students’ beliefs about themselves as learners. For the first learner, they fall into the trap of effortless learning and become frustrated when learning is finally presented to them at their instructional level. The second learner is reinforced that no matter how much effort they expend within the teacher’s timeframe, they will not be successful and gaps in their understanding become exacerbated.  Many students have had their confidence shaken as a result of this process.

Personalized Mastery Solutions in Assessing: In a personalized mastery classroom, students are acknowledged for what they already know and can do. Through a pre-assessment process, the teacher and learner can determine where learning begins. Therefore, students who have mastered some of the concepts prior to the beginning of instruction start further into the learning progression, and students who cannot yet show mastery of the standards start at the beginning.

As the learning progresses, teachers and learners will start to say, “Learners, when you are ready and you and I agree that you have mastered the components of the standard, please sign up for your summative assessment.”  Students who have mastered the components sign up right away, and those who need more time and resources will know they will get it. When students are ready, you will hear “I know this! I’m ready!” Learners should be able to demonstrate in a series of formative assessments the components of the standard and verify when they are ready to take the summative assessment. This instills confidence and empowers the learners.

Evaluating Challenges: In a class where whole group instruction is the primary strategy, it appears there is no time to collaborate with students and discuss authentic feedback. So what students usually receive is a numerical percentage – “83%” – or generic praise such as “good job.” Neither of these lend themselves to a thorough evaluation of the student’s strengths and weaknesses when compared to the standards and neither involve students in a continuous improvement cycle.

Personalized Mastery Solutions in Evaluating:  In a personalized mastery classroom, students will be working independently on their own goals and action plans. This provides time for teachers to engage individual students in a data-driven dialogue, in which the students process their results with their teacher/facilitator, allowing them to understand and determine the causes for those outcomes. This gives students the substance for planning their learning.

Planning Challenges: In traditional classrooms,  students are not involved in planning activities for their learning. Schooling is something that just happens to them. Teachers use their school and after-school time to plan lessons and assessments based on the unit of study, not the students.  Often this is a one-lesson-fits-all learning experience or assessment, with students not knowing what’s coming next.

Personalized Mastery Solutions in Planning: In a personalized mastery classroom, students are facilitated in their goal-setting and action-planning process. They understand the standards that need to be learned and their current achievement status on those standards. The students then draft their SMARTER goals and PLCA plans. SMARTER goals take the SMART goal concept to the next level by adding two continuous improvement steps, Evaluate and Review. This creates a scenario where students understand that their first effort may not meet the standard and they will need to “check and adjust” it. A PLCA (Plan-Learn-Check-Adjust) plan is a take-off from quality tools and processes (Plan-Do-Study-Act).  Students will plan the resources they need, create activities to learn, and determine how they will check to see if their demonstration of learning meets the standard against a rubric or exemplar. The adjust step occurs if the demonstration of learning does not meet the standard and steps need to be taken.

Learning Challenges: In traditional classrooms, textbooks and programs often become the curriculum of learning. Many times, the units of study in these resources do not have relevancy to the lives students lead. Teachers need to identify the background knowledge of their students in order to make the learning relevant. Learners often are expected to know and demonstrate their knowledge about things and events with which the teacher and/or the student have no prior experience, such as writing about escalators on the Navajo reservation or the snow unit in Florida.

Personalized Mastery Solutions in Learning: When productive learning is happening in a personalized mastery classroom, students are involved in solving real-life problems, using the standards to achieve solutions. Teachers and students need to create a learner profile so projects and problems match their learning style, interests, background knowledge, and college and career goals. When students have voice and choice in how they demonstrate their learning, they are motivated to learn, and poor behavior in classrooms becomes a thing of the past.

You may think that all this sounds like a daunting task and your students would never be able to engage and own their learning this way. We’re here to tell you there are thousands of children for whom this type of learning is the norm. We will write more in depth regarding each component of the Learner Improvement Cycle in future articles.

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Copper Stoll and Gene Giddings are career educators with more than 78 years of combined experience in teaching, leadership and consulting across the United States. In 2007, Stoll and Giddings co-founded Don’t Ever Stop! LLC, an educational and leadership consulting and partnering company that focuses on the transformation of districts to systems of personalized mastery. Based in Colorado, their mission is to build capacity in educational systems for Personalized Mastery. They have worked, since from retiring from public education, tirelessly to support districts in focusing on results of the adult actions on the learning. They have written a book, Reawakening the Learner: Creating Learner-centered and Standards-driven Schools in 2012 and are about to release a companion toolkit for implementation. You can contact Stoll and Giddings at [email protected].