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Aurora Institute

Servant to Two Masters: Balancing Skills and Content at Lindblom

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the sixth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

I met with several teachers at Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom) to discuss their experience in PBL. Three years into implementation, they estimate that about 90 percent of the teachers believe in the principles of PBL and about 50 percent have implemented strategies to match those principles.

Changing Practice

Casey Fuess, high school choir and teacher representative on the local school council, said, “Without clear learning objectives, teacherspurposefully or not—focus on engaging students for the sake of order and discipline. Instead, PBL leads teachers to plan the instructional environment to meet specific learning goals. PBL pushes teachers to think about how to intrinsically engage students with relevant material and the opportunity to see themselves getting better over time. Our students know that success is possible. PBL shifts teachers practices – we are always asking, ‘What do you want students to know, where is each student in their learning, and how can we create engaging projects that will help them get to the next step?’”

Nell Kemp, biology and biotech, explained, “Teachers need to have confidence in their practice and in themselves as learners. PBL can be difficult if teachers haven’t embraced the philosophy or don’t have a love of their content.” In hindsight, Kemp wished she had been able to take a full year to think about what proficiency-based learning looks like in the classroom.  

Supporting New Teachers

Everyone agreed that new teachers need support on classroom management – no matter what kind of classroom management. Schools need to build in support for teachers to use the classroom management practices designed around student agency and personalization. Molly Myers, AP geography, explained that professional development from Doug Finn of Marzano Research Labs was instrumental in learning how to organize classroom structures and procedures to support greater agency and personalization. The teachers are also exploring how to have more metacognitive reflection so students can better manage their learning processes. Myers emphasized, “Just let the experienced teachers who love their content go. They will create wonderful learning opportunities for students.”

“Teachers need to be reflective,” added Myers. “We have to own our failure as educators. We have to use them as an opportunity for learning to improve our skills.”

PBL and the Arts

Fuess shared his insights about the arts within the proficiency-based structure, “PBL has helped us clarify both the particular skills we expect students to develop and also the broader dispositions that students learn and demonstrate in the arts. In my choir classes, technology has been an important tool for assessing skill progression in areas like ear training and sight reading. At the same time, PBL pushes us to consider how we balance skill instruction with higher order applications like composition and analysis.

PBL and Science

Kemp said, “At first it seemed difficult, as I couldn’t see how the three-dimensional Next General Science Standards were going to fit into a proficiency-based structure. What I discovered, however, is that proficiency-based learning improved my practice. I focus now on what kids need to take away from a science course. This means there is more emphasis on skills, not just content.”

“At times I feel like a servant with two masters: skills and content,” Kemp added. “I’m still trying to find a way to balance them. This tension has led to amazing conversations about teaching. We are seeing a big increase in intrinsic motivation, and students are building rigor around revisions. They are striving to solve problems because it is important to them. It’s phenomenal.” She is finding the shift to more problem-based and inquiry-based instructional approaches both challenging and valuable.

She has also found that it is very difficult to have students operating on personalized pace when the course has complicated labs. She points out that it is difficult and even dangerous to have students all doing different labs at different times. Science has to be constructed with some activities organized for the full class, with flexible pacing on other steps in the learning process so students can fully understand and use the content. (Lindblom has been drawing on resources from FUSE designed to re-engage students in STEM.)

Teacher Apprentices

The L-TAPS program (Lindblom Teacher Apprentice Program) provides opportunities for juniors and seniors to become teacher apprentices. This is often used by students who started in seventh and eighth grade at the Academic Center and have advanced through their high school credits and have room in their schedules. They provide academic support, help with labs, and coach the middle school students in executive functioning skills. In some classes, the apprentice may be doing mini-lessons while the teacher works 1:1 with students needing help. Apprentices earn credit and, for some, they get to work in content areas they love.

Wish List and Lessons Learned

Here are some more lessons learned and insights from teachers:

  • Facilities Matter: The physical layout of the school and rooms does makes a difference. The Lindblom team feels constrained by the 100 year old building.
  • Teaching Kids, Not Math: It is important for teachers to like kids and care about them individually. Teachers won’t thrive in a PBL setting if they view their job as teaching a class rather than teaching twenty-five kids.  
  • Trust Matters: Fuess emphasized, “If you don’t have an environment of trust, it is going to be more difficult.” One element of building that trust is making sure that teachers have time to plan. This also includes creating a culture of learning among teachers. It’s important to provide time for teachers to observe other classes. This has been a challenge for Lindblom, as district budget issues resulted in them losing all of their PD days.
  • Assessments: Teachers noted that assessments take more time. Multiple choice and Scantron are quick and easy, but not valuable when trying to assess greater depth of knowledge. They now focus on fewer assessment with the emphasis on the performance assessments they know will take more time for them to review.
  • Be Prepared to Help Calibrate Students’ Understanding of Rigor: Teachers in the seventh and ninth grades have additional tasks related to helping incoming students navigate Lindblom. This includes understanding PBL, understanding the culture, and helping students understand the level of rigor. Lindblom isn’t calibrated to CPS standards but toward getting students into college, so there is often going to be a step up for students, which may include building their sixth or eighth grade skills even though they’ve already completed those years.
  • AP Locks in Content: The AP test drives content. Teachers have to take a step back to figure out how to build skills explicitly and still cover the content for the exam. Personal Inquiry: Is it time for AP to revise their courses to be consistent with the needs of personalized, competency-based systems? Or will they be a remnant of the traditional system that schools need to create work-arounds for?

Entire Series:

Part 1 – CBE in Chicago

Part 2 – Leap Innovations – Learning Exponentially for Advancing Potential

Part 3 – Loving Learning at Lovett Elementary

Part 4 – Personalizing Learning at West Belden

Part 5 – Getting Results at Lindblom