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Aurora Institute

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CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bill Zima

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Learn Lessons from the Field

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 2.33.03 PMThose who have had the experience of living or working in a large city know the rush of seeing your subway train in the station and believing you can make the dash to the door before they close. Moving and dodging past passengers, you begin to feel great. “I am going to make it,” you think. The crowd begins to cheer. You can already feel the celebration. Will you spike your briefcase or simply do a quick shuffle dance. Then out of nowhere, you smash into something. Your nose is throbbing. After a moment you realize the doors have closed. You can see the driver looking at you with a smile on her face. Not in a mocking way but in an apologetic, “Sorry, the trains must stay on schedule” way. As the passengers glance up, you can sense the sympathy in their eyes. They know that feeling of being on the outside looking in.

The same crushing defeat in our Superbowl of ordinary, time-based challenges could be said for air travel, elevators and rides at Disney World. But it should not be felt by our students in our schools.

I recently visited some classes in a Maine school district that is partnering with the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) to move away from a time-based system and towards a student-centered, proficiency-based system. One of the often expressed advantages of this type of learning design is that students can work at their own pace. To students and parents this typically means they do not have to wait until the whole class “gets it” before they can move to the next learning opportunity. When asked, the students share their sentiments enthusiastically for this change in their education system.

On occasion I follow up with the question, “Last year, before you were doing things this way, did your teacher have to move on before you understood something?” To my surprise, every student, not just some, answers in the affirmative. And not with a simple, “Yeah, I guess,” but with an, “Oh yeah,” and enthusiastic nodding. As though I asked them if they enjoy snow days.  When asked how that made them feel, the typical response can be summarized with the recent response of a sixth grader. “It made me feel bad. I was just about to get it and then the teacher just moved on. It was like I did not matter.” No teacher chose the profession to have learners feel irrelevant. But that is how the system, based on their time stamp, is making learners feel.

This is just another reason why learning should be placed in a progression that makes it transparent. Students should be clear on what they need to know and be able to do to show competency. Competency-based learning is not simply about accelerating students to graduation, but about students having time to master the skills we have determined important enough to make part of our curriculum. Students cannot create multiple pathways of learning and take more responsibility for their learning if the steps are not apparent. In an interview with a student, he said that teachers have a secret book on their desk which tells them to teach a fact, have the students do something, give a quiz, turn the page, and do the next unit. He was unable to see the relatedness of what we were asking him to learn.

One of the challenges of creating a continuum of learning is to make the steps in the progression large enough to be meaningful, but not so large that students need a great deal of time to build understanding and demonstrate proficiency. At my school, we took the Common Core, found what was different between the grade level spans, and then turned that into a learning target. The targets where then placed on a progression. Some of the Common Core levels had little difference between them, so we combined two levels into a single target thus removing the time-based curriculum. There are many examples of learning continuums others have created. Adopting one of those means teachers can use more time innovating ways for all students to navigate the pathways.

The learning targets give our students something clear to shoot for and provide teachers a bullseye for feedback. They can tell a student where they have been, how they are progressing and what would be a good next step. Transparency of expectations will allow students to move when ready. In my visits to classrooms, students that have a clear progression of learning (which means they are aware of what they are doing, how they demonstrate proficiency and what is next) not only are producing qualitatively more impressive work, but they express a deeper joy of learning. John Hattie in “Visible Learning,” lists teacher clarity and feedback as two large leverage points to helping students succeed.

The learning targets also let the teacher know what has been mastered and what is still in need of support. Students can be given time to go back and work on that target. Teachers can give laser like intervention to help them move forward. Often students only need a few minutes of the expert’s eyes to determine where the sticking point is in their thinking. They can then fill the dip in the learning and not leave it to become a hole.

We cannot let the students feel that crushing blow of just missing the train. Learning, not time, needs to be our focus. I believe, based on evidence which includes my own conversations with and observations of students, once learning is transparent and laid out in front of the learner and the educator, time will become irrelevant and, therefore, not cause the students to feel that they are irrelevant as well.