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Aurora Institute

Learners Rule

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

cover, learners ruleI took a few hours out from gardening yesterday to dive into Learners Rule by Bill Zima, principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine. Described as a work of tactical fiction, it’s a book about the power of personalized, proficiency-based systems (Bill is from Maine, so we’ll use the term proficiency-based in this blog).  What’s fascinating is that the term proficiency-based learning is not mentioned once in this book. It’s about learning and nurturing learners.

For educators who want to know what proficiency-based learning looks like and how to do it, I don’t think there is any better resource available than Learners Rule.  It is also probably the best resource we have right now available to help teachers identify the shift in thinking and practice that happens when we move from batch to personalized learning. There are even pictures of the different tools at the end.

I finished the book hungry for more, as it doesn’t touch on the school-wide changes that have to happen, nor on the way teachers begin to collaborate around students and their learning. We’ll just have to be patient – hopefully, Bill will write a sequel.

Below are three connections and insights that popped out for me (and there were many more) while reading Learners Rule.

Asking The Why Question

I don’t think I have ever understood the connection between proficiency-based learning and the practices of continuous improvement as described in this book. In one conversation, the new teacher explains that he puts everything through a Why? lens to make sure he is clear about his intentions. Asking Why? is a mantra of continuous improvement to allow assumptions to be aired, identify Band-Aid practices, and open up new ways of working.

Yet, the connection between proficiency-based approaches and learning is also rooted in asking the question Why?. It is in asking Why? that educators make the pedagogical decisions that are rooted in child and adolescent development, motivation theory, and cognitive development.  Why school? Because we want students to be able to think and love learning. The academic standards are a secondary concern once students are engaged, respected, responsible and wanting to learn.

Student Agency at the Root of All Learning?

Bill’s book made me realize how limited my thinking has been about student agency. I always knew that student agency is an important element of proficiency-based education. The transparency of the system and the ability to have multiple ways to learn and demonstrate learning of a common set of standards enables student agency. All true, but I realize that viewing it through a systems lens was blinding me to a fuller understanding.

Student agency is also one of the goals of the K12 system. When we talk about college and career readiness, we are talking about developing students to become self-driven, independent learners who can navigate situations and new institutions successfully. Yet, that even suggests that somehow we give them agency.

Reading this book, student agency took on an entirely new meaning for me. Student agency is a natural phenomenon. It exists, and the question becomes whether we nurture it, draw on it, engage with it, or tamp it, even suffocate it, by the layering of rules, compliance and isolated studies. Student agency always exists; the question is, are we engaging with students in productive ways, or in ways that keep all of us from reaching our goals?

It’s About Culture

In the introduction, Bill recounts a conversation with a teacher that opened his eyes to the problems of the traditional systems. He asks the math teachers why a third of the seventh graders were failing math. The teachers describe all the reason kids might be failing and how to address them, including students coming ill-prepared so provide remediation software, or they are losing points from not turning in homework even though they are passing tests, therefore have them do homework after school. Then one teacher says matter-of-factly, “We do not know why kids are failing.”

And with that Bill sees the light. “We are teaching textbooks, chapters, and courses. We are not teaching kids. We wait for the struggle, encourage them to try hard, but continue moving through the book. We never stop to patch the hole. We never give it another thought …. The problem with the current plan of addressing curriculum was we had no idea how deep the hole in their learning went. Was it a superficial wound that would scab over and eventually be undetectable? Or was it deep and festering?”

Bill describes meeting with the Reinventing Schools Coalition and learning about their system. “The core of personal mastery was that students worked at their readiness level and moved forward only when they had demonstrated mastery of a particular learning goal.”  However, the definition isn’t a specific instructional approach. Bill points out that a vibrant learning culture is the linchpin of proficiency-based education. “Once the teachers stopped managing a traditional classroom and instead began overseeing the culture, students began to take off.”

 Nothing Works … For All Students

For all those teachers who wonder what proficiency-based learning looks like, Chapter 6, The First Pitch, describes how a teacher creates a learning culture starting at day one, as well as techniques to build the sense in students that they are responsible for their own learning and supporting each other in learning.  Chapter 7 explains how teachers co-design the Shared Vision and Code of Conduct that you’ll see on the walls of most personalized classrooms. I’ve seen these documents in proficiency-based classrooms but had never seen how they were created. I felt like I was sitting right in the classroom, watching it happen before my eyes.

The book is filled with examples of how teachers engage their students in sharing responsibility for the classroom and the learning. It also highlights the practices that educators have to let go of. The walls are bare in the classroom on the start of school (more room to put up student work), there isn’t a seating chart (as students are expected to move around), and seats are clustered around tables rather than in rows.

I really like the conversation about standard operating procedures (SOP) as they are one of the things that are the most amazing to me in proficiency-based schools. I took a class with Chris Argyris long ago and was stunned by the power (and danger) of the difference between the theories we espouse and the theories we use. Creating SOPs with students seems to me to be a way to navigate the power difference that is found in traditional classrooms. The co-design of SOPs is a way to create a culture of engagement as well as to learn to navigate new environments. (What are the SOPs at my internship or in my church?)

The book also helped me understand the value of reflection. Kim Carter explained to me that at the Making Community Connections Charter School, teachers reflect every day (and at important points throughout the year) by writing 200 words. I hadn’t seen it in other proficiency-based classrooms, but reading about how a teacher establishes the culture of learning, reflection is an integral part of the time together in the classroom.

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to write Learners Rule and make it available to others. It’s a powerful addition to the field.