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Aurora Institute

McComb’s Six Pillars of Student-Centered Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Stephen Johnson, Data Analyst and Personalized Learning Coach

This is the second post on a series about McComb School District in McComb, Mississippi. Start here.

Superintendent Cederick Ellis didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. As the district began to think about how they could improve schools in McComb School District, they knew they needed to learn from other districts and schools around the country. So they began to read about and talk to other districts.

In 2013, Ellis, the finance director, curriculum director, and other district leadership visited the Education Achievement Authority to understand their personalized approach. (Please note: The EAA no longer exists, but you can find articles about it at CompetencyWorks while it was under the leadership of Dr. John Covington and Dr. Mary Esselman.) Ellis remembered, “It is rare for a finance director to get excited about anything about teaching and learning. It was the children themselves and the conversations she had with them that lit her enthusiasm. She told me, ‘We have to find a way to make this work for our children.’”

As enthusiasm grew, a group of principals and teachers visited EAA to ask questions from their own perspective. Ellis noted, “We didn’t want to simply replicate the EAA model. We wanted to tailor it so that it would fit into our vision of the future. The principals and teachers were thinking strategically about what they wanted it to look like in their schools as well as how to roll it out.”

McComb’s Personalized Learning Model

The six pillars of student-centered learning at McComb are:

  • Scholars are grouped by readiness
  • Scholars assume ownership for their  learning
  • Scholars work at their own pace
  • Scholars show evidence of mastery
  • Scholars are provided with continuous feedback
  • Teachers are practitioners

Stephen Johnson, Data Analyst and Personalized Learning Coach, explained that once practitioners have implemented the classroom management practices of personalized learning, they are finding it takes about eleven days to introduce scholars to the practices to create a shared vision and opportunity to take ownership. By investing up front in a strong orientation, everything else flows from there throughout the school year.

McComb, like many other districts, is using language to signal the change from the status quo.

  • Scholar replaces student
  • Lead learner replaces principal
  • Practitioner or teacher practitioner for teacher
  • Learning labs replace classroom

Ellis explained that they think of teachers in the same vein as nurse practitioners, who have the ability to diagnose, engage with patients in a caring way, and set a plan of action.   

In the learning labs (classrooms) I visited, scholars were almost all on task. They were usually working in groups, often using a station rotation model. Ellis pointed out, “When children and teachers are learning this model, they change stations after a certain point in time. As both become more comfortable with the expectations and routines, scholars begin to be more flexible and continue on until they are satisfied with their learning.” With 1:1 devices in the early years, there was a lot of instruction and practice delivered through software. However, there was just as much learning taking place working with the practitioners (teachers), in group activities, and individually. I don’t think I’ll ever get the sweet image of scholars tucked under a bookshelf, in a tent, or cuddled into a large basket reading on their own with the hustle and bustle of the other twenty scholars in the background.  

Johnson, previously an instructional coach at EAA and now Data Analyst and Personalized Learning Coach at McComb, is leading the transition to personalized learning with a clear focus on how to use data to inform both scholar learning and adult learning. Johnson explained, “The EAA model began with the core ideas introduced through the Chugach model. It then went through four to five iterations, including thinking deeply about how technology could be used to empower scholars, respond to their individual growth, and monitor progress.” He continued, “This personalized model continues to go through a metamorphosis. Stretching back to Chugach, the focus is always on being student-centered. However, as it has developed, we are seeing a personalized approach with a blended learning instructional strategy. We don’t emphasize the technology: we emphasize the personalized learning approach in which scholars are empowered to own their learning and where we are meeting kids where they are.”

Building the social and emotional skills so scholars can become independent learners is emphasized at McComb. Johnson explained, “We want to instill social-emotional skills. But simply teaching the skills isn’t enough. We need to make sure they are reinforced throughout the school and school day.” For example, McComb has embedded restorative practices and Move This World and online program for children and adults to center themselves at the beginning and end of each day.

McComb is struggling with state assessment policies, just as do other personalized, competency-based systems around the country. Mississippi’s state assessments assess students annually from third to eighth grade. Johnson described this tension, “How do you teach scholars where they are in their learning, but test them where they should be? How do you properly do test prep in a student-centered environment? It is very intellectually challenging to combine instructional approaches that are consistent with what we know scholars need to learn with policies that are designed around different goals.”

One step they’ve taken is to move to grade level power standards to make sure scholars are exposed to the core concepts they will be assessed on at the end of the year. They then use those power standards to shape an instructional strategy that takes into consideration what scholars need to know in order to learn that power standard. They want scholars to understand which skills contribute to each standard so they “don’t freeze in the testing room.”

Reflection: I’m hearing about this strategy more frequently. I wrote about it in this article on “anchoring” the instruction. It makes perfect sense given the policy environment that personalized, competency-based schools are working under. However, does it really make sense instructionally for students? It’s possible that this is a great strategy, but we need to double check ourselves with research on different strategies to meet students where they are within the context of grade-level expectations that take into consideration the discipline, the specific learning objectives, the size of the gaps, and the length of interventions. Buddy Berry argued that if we stay focused on meeting students where they are, by sixth grade or so most will be close to or on grade level or above.  

Johnson explained, “We need to understand which parts of the prerequisite knowledge a scholar understands or is struggling with and which parts they don’t. We are moving away from the binary you-either-get-it-or-you-don’t and moving toward what a scholar knows, what they need to know, and how deeply they know it. We are moving in the direction of using research on (instructional) learning progressions to think more deeply about which is the best way to move scholars forward.” At this point, our conversation dove into a discussion of different instructional strategies, how to think about zones of proximal development within this context of grade-level standards, and scaffolding. Mississippi has created a 400 page document on scaffolding that identifies what skills students need to know in order to fulfill each standard for each subject and each grade.

An Eye on Progress

Johnson explained, “We keep our attention on developmental growth and academic growth as well as grade level proficiency. It’s difficult to get data on growth, and we’ve worked closely with Scantron, which has been more of a partner with us than a vendor.” They’ve moved to a skills-based grading policy in their pilot schools in which parents receive information every nine weeks on both how their child is progressing and what performance level (grade level) they are on. They use a three tiered structure to describe the levels of mastery: developing, approaching, and exceeding for each performance level. The “report cards” also describe how scholars are progressing in developing important characteristics in their ownership of their learning, such as attentiveness and responsibility.

Ellis remarked, “The scholars who have been here for three years are well on their way to becoming the independent learners we’ve set out to develop.” When asked about whether there were scholars that this personalized model wasn’t working well for, Ellis said sadly, “There are children who have experienced trauma or have chaotic lives. They need smaller settings, more adult attention, and more individualized support along the way.”

Reflection: This idea that there are always some students who need more intensive support should challenge all of us to think about what that might look like within schools, or if what is needed are hyper-caring, structured settings for students from K-12 who just need more support in building a stronger set of social & emotional skills to guide them through very challenging lives.

Read the Entire Series: