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Aurora Institute

It’s Definitely Warming Up in New England

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

NESCCThere is still snow on the ground, but people were on fire at the New England Secondary Schools Coalition High Schools in Action annual gathering. The sessions were relatively quiet, but the hallways were buzzing:

  • It is really hard to put down the red pen and stay focused on the few standards that are the goal of the learning.
  • We were told we were preparing, preparing, preparing…and then suddenly we were there. We were performance-based.
  • We learned that trying to mix grading styles was making students crazy. They were always trying to figure out the algorithms used in the computerized grading system. I could barely get them to talk about the quality of their work and accept that applied learning isn’t something you can always do quickly.
  • One of the hardest things for some of my students to accept is that they are expected to actually work hard in a proficiency-based system. For some, the traditional system was really easy – especially if they excel in short-term memorization. It is a shocker that they are expected to actually show they can use all the information they have memorized. They realize they have gaps, and that is scary.
  • Some teachers are still having difficulty with organizing their classrooms in a proficiency-based structure. It’s not based on age or length of time teaching – there is something about the mindset, the ability to move beyond what you experienced growing up and what you were taught to do as a teacher, that allows teachers to make the adjustment more quickly or need more time.

It was a perfect sized meeting – about 675 people – so you could find who you were looking for, and sessions were so well curated they were offered twice (because they were of such good quality).

Two sessions really influenced my thinking: one from Parker School and the other a team of teachers from Burlington High School in Vermont.

The Parker Charter Essential School in Devons MA presented It’s Not Enough to Give Them What They Need: Self-Advocacy and Student Ownership in Learning. I loved their list of what classrooms might look like if schools were helping students build habits of learning and agency:

  • Kids are spread all over the room. They are engaged independently in their work, some kids are working alone and some in a group.
  • The teacher is meeting with a few students – small seminars are taking place with a few students with the teacher.
  • Kids are asking for supports they need.
  • Students are challenging themselves to go beyond the expectation of the standard.
  • There are a lot of mistakes and revisions.
  • Students are working a bit out of their comfort zones.

It’s a helpful guide for doing school visits – do you see evidence of revision? Of kids helping each other to learn? They also had a number of concrete practices they use in their classroom to share. Parker School has inspired me to do a lot better here at CompetencyWorks about offering more tips on the practices that can help students build agency. Does anyone want to write about how you help students develop the skills so they can have more ownership over their education?

I also had a chance to stop by A Sample System for Proficiency-Based Learning in the Classroom by two teachers from Burlington High School. I feel horrible because I can’t find their handout with their names – because their session rocked! It was the most gentle and pure introduction to proficiency-based learning I’ve ever seen. They were able to share a sense of the culture that is underlying competency education – not an easy thing to do in a short session. There were people in the room who were entirely new to PBL and clearly feeling nervous and intimidated. And the Burlington team engaged so carefully – starting with the “Me Bag” to introduce themselves as people, not teachers, beginning to build relationships with students and among the students (students have to learn all the names of the other kids in the class – one can’t even start to have a safe environment for learning if you don’t know each other a little).

We watched a homemade video by one of the teachers walking through what proficiency-based learning is and how it is being implemented in a chemistry class at Burlington High, complete with quick interviews with students. It was beautiful – especially the results! Not afraid to look at the data and share it with others, these two teachers have data that indicates that not only is the learning on the rise, it is much more consistent across classes. They also showed patterns of individual learning where an ELL may have been struggling at the beginning, but by the end of the course, they are able to demonstrate a strong mastery of the material.

This presentation opened my eyes to the value of having end-of-course summative assessments as one model of organizing learning. I’ve always been concerned that some students may be a bit bored and have no way to advance in a way that makes sense for them. This session made me realize it may make it a bit harder for students to advance more quickly, but there may also be value in organizing courses so that students can only demonstrate proficiency at the end of the course. I do think we need to think carefully about why we use different structures to ensure students reach proficiency and also that there is flexibility in pace – over time, I’m guessing we’ll get really good and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

I’m hoping they will write up this presentation for CompetencyWorks so we can share the video. Wouldn’t it be great if every teacher made a video about how they organize a proficiency-based classroom?