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Aurora Institute

Guiding Students in Reflection: The Gateway Process at Parker

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Christina Kuriacose

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

notesThis post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on November 30, 2016.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

When we take the time to reflect, we take a moment to stop and critically think about what has come to pass. Without an understanding of why things unfolded the way they did, we rarely feel empowered to change the status quo. However, we often focus on the “living forwards” instead of “understanding backwards” – reflection.

Quite often, the time for reflection is the first agenda item to be compromised in a course or meeting. After powering through a class, educators often leave reflection as an afterthought, a final half-hearted question. After a couple students share out their brief, underdeveloped thoughts, educators often consider the subject complete and ready for assessment. Eventually the student receives a grade and moves on to the next task.

I recently sat in on a conversation between my cousin and my aunt about a low test grade. My aunt attempted to guide my cousin in reflecting about why he received his grade, her final statement being:

 “At the end of the day, I don’t care about your score as long as you understand what you got wrong and go back and learn those concepts well.” 

His response:

 “Are you kidding me?! You don’t care about the score?! That’s all that matters!” 

There are many reasons for my cousin’s response, but I would argue that one is that his learning does not intentionally incorporate reflection; he hasn’t discovered who he is as a learner.

The Gateway Process

I had the privilege to join a CCE Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network site visit to Francis W. Parker Charter School in Devens, MA. As part of the visit we learned about the school’s Gateway process. At Parker, instead of traditional subjects there are 4 domains of learning (Arts and Humanities; Math, Science and Technology; Spanish; and Wellness) and these domains are structured into 3 divisions. In order for a student to move from one division to the next in a domain they must “Gateway.” A Gateway project is an opportunity for students to prove that they have the necessary habits of learning and skills to take on more challenging coursework. As part of the Gateway process, students go through all their assignments in the domain and write a narrative reflection about what they can see in the evolution of the assignment and what that shows about how they learn, citing evidence from their assignments. After putting together this work, they orally defend their readiness for the next division in front of teachers, friends and family.

In talking with Parker students during the visit about Gateway, I discovered that the process helps them develop an awareness of themselves as learners. The students mentioned that the opportunity to reflect on their assignments helped them to articulate what helps them learn in different subjects. They were even able to strategize different approaches for grappling with challenging subjects—evidence of a growth mindset. But most importantly, they said they could see their own growth over the years: they took ownership of their learning, and they were proud!

Incorporating Reflection in Learning

A deliberate reflection process allows students to take a look at the activities they are engaging in and discern their personal strengths and challenges. Reflection doesn’t have to look exactly like a Gateway project. It can be a narrative journal that is kept throughout the year, a project based assignment, or even a student “Critical Friends Group”—among many other options. The most important part is that spaces for reflection are created intentionally and acknowledged as a necessary component of learning. Practice in reflection helps students develop self-awareness. It also sends a message: yes we are giving you grades, but you should also understand yourself as a learner. That’s something that I want to help students like my cousin understand. Maybe then more students will be able to advocate for themselves in their schools and learning will be truly student driven.

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Christina is a Program Associate, Quality Performance Assessment, at the Center for Collaborative Education. She helps develop sustainable operational processes for the QPA team, handles the logistics of projects in different school districts, curates QPA resources, and strategizes best ways to share student and teacher stories about performance assessment tasks.