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Aurora Institute

Three Big Take-Aways from Maine

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Classroom after classroom, school after school, district after district – an incredibly powerful commitment to student-centered proficiency-based instruction has taken root in Maine.  What you see on the videos is what you see in the classrooms. What’s more, it is incredibly consistent classroom after classroom:

  • High level of transparency about learning targets and rubrics between students and teachers.
  • Customized learning with students working at their own pace within a band of what it means to be “teacher-paced” with choices about how they will pursue their learning and build evidence of their learning.
  • Teachers organizing themselves to enable students to get what they need, working at their own achievement levels so that they can experience success.
  • Teacher collaboration and professional development driven by proficiency.

During a rapid-school-visit tour across four school districts led by Maine’s Superintendent of Instruction Don Siviski, my personal understanding of competency education shifted. Here are my big Ah-Ha’s from my visits.  I’ll write in more detail about the site visit later.

1) It’s All in the Mindset:  The members of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning are building a culture of respect and learning. It’s based on the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck . (Click here and scroll down to learn more about Mindset by Carol Dweck).  Here is the basic idea:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work— brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great  accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Building upon a growth mindset creates schools in which teachers draw upon each other’s strengths, support each other, and drive their own professional development based on what their students need.  Once a school embraces this mindset, it becomes a place where all students succeed. We are starting to see data-driven indicators of success as well. One elementary school saw 92% of their Title 1 students have greater than one year of growth last year.

I’m reading Mindset now. I hope everyone involved in competency education will read it immediately.

2) Making Room for Failure: Yes, competency education is all about helping students to be successful. And that requires making sure that there is room for students to get stuck, take more time, and sometimes show evidence that they aren’t getting it yet. In the bell-curve A-F grading system, that can be considered failure.  In Maine, they understand that mistakes and failing are part of learning and that students (nor teachers) shouldn’t be penalized for learning.

My favorite was a poster:

Three Great Things About Failure

It’s temporary
You learn what not to do next time
You begin to see what will work

Looks to me like failure is just success in progress.

In most rooms there are flow charts to remind students what to do if they get stuck, including looking at the resources, asking a friend, or still not getting it? – then go ask a teacher. All the schools had extra time embedded in the day for everyone to get a little more work done – for the students that were struggling, they could go find the teacher that could provide them with the help they needed.

3) Professional Development Driven by Proficiency: The growth mindset is applied to adults in the MCCL districts.  It is assumed that educators want to learn, and, with the right supports, can be successful.  Many teachers talked about the first big shift as thinking about students as “our students” instead of “my students”.

Repeatedly, teachers would talk about risks, not quite getting it right, and going back to the drawing board with your peers from teachers as they talked about learning how to operate in a proficiency-based system.  Over and over again teachers exclaimed “It’s hard!”  We pushed a bit – what about it was hard? It’s clear that part of the challenge was the time it takes to set up new systems.  However, the underlying meaning is that teachers are working hard to improve proficiency of their students. They are stretching themselves. They are looking for more time for “teacher talk” to talk about student work, what the learning targets mean and what proficiency looks like.

As one educator explained, “Our professional development is driven by proficiency. We let the agenda for our weekly meetings be driven by what we need to do better to help our students be successful.”

I feel profoundly blessed to have been able to do an actual site visit in Maine. We can’t all do that. So the next best thing to do is watch the videos with some peers and allow yourself to be inspired and challenged.

Thanks to Don and all the incredible educators in the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning.