A Tide of Understanding

April 10, 2014 by

MLately, I have been pondering how to help educators better visualize a progression of learning targets while warning them to avoid the linearity that seems so obvious. When first observing a progression, the continuous increase of complexity is hard to miss. So it is easy to conclude that students should finish the first step, then move to the next, complete that, and then the next, constantly ascending the ladder of learning. The problem with this vision is it does not represent how thinking and learning occur. Learning is not a constant. It ebbs and flows like the incoming tide on a coastal beach. Missing this can lead to using the progression as a checklist of skills and not fully using the advantage given by having a well-defined continuum of learning targets.

The power of a progression lies in its ability to make clear to student and teacher which learning outcome is centered in that student’s zone of proximal development. Without knowing what students have already mastered, been exposed to, or are just beginning, educators risk attempting to engage students in learning that is too low or too high. If we assume all students are at the same level of readiness simply because they are all in the same grade, we risk boredom or stress. In an earlier post, I talked about the stress caused by a lack of clarity in teacher expectations. Learners need the right level of stress in order to foster the attention needed to have a good performance. Too little pressure and we are bored; too much and we become fatigued and exhausted on our way to a breakdown (see graph). Learners need to be in the comfort zone. A learning progression will help identify where that is for each individual. (more…)

A Tale of Two States

April 9, 2014 by

taleoftwostates-mapI had a quick conversation with Sal Khan last month that really highlighted the importance of the questions, What do we think competency is? and How do we measure it?

The different ways we think about competency and what we want for our students is one of the underlying issues causing confusion in the field. It also has powerful implications for whether we are going to help students develop higher order/deeper learning skills.

If you think that competency education is completing a course of study on adaptive software (FYI – this doesn’t meet the field’s working definition) or getting a certain score on the SAT, you will make different design choices than if you think competency is being able to apply skills in new contexts.  Another way to think about this is using the knowledge taxonomies: If you think competency is at Level 2 Comprehension, the way you design your schools is really different than if you set it in general at Level 3 Analysis or Level 4 Knowledge Utilization. So if we are talking about proficiency-based diplomas and competency-based credits — How do we know when a student is competent?

This issue jumped out when I saw that New Mexico is implementing an Alternative Demonstration of Competency for students who can’t pass the high school exit exam. New Mexico is on a slow road (think snail) to personalized, blended, and competency education, so I was curious to know how the State was thinking about competency (click here for overview of policies).  Usually, I wouldn’t refer to exit exams within the realm of competency education because they have nothing to do with transparency of learning progressions, empowering students to own their own education, providing adequate supports and time, and making sure students reach proficiency each step of the way. My personal analysis is that high school graduation exit exams are policy hammers used by state government to get schools to do better by kids, but in fact, they knock kids down as they try to enter adulthood without a diploma.  In reading the details of the Alternative Demonstration of Competency, however, it sounded so much like Colorado’s new proficiency-based diploma policy and its emphasis on cut scores that I thought it best to highlight it here. Perhaps New Mexico is backing its way into competency education? (more…)

Chewing on Learning Progressions: Some Food For Thought

April 7, 2014 by
kphillips

Kaili Phillips

One of the big pushes in our district (and many others throughout Maine) is customized learning: students working at their own pace to progress forward from the point at which they are currently achieving. 

One of the primary tools used to facilitate this type of learning is a “learning continuum” or “learning progression” (hereafter referred to as the continuum or continua). The continuum seems sequential, as it contains rows and explanations for forward progress in each of the given areas of focus, seeming to offer a step-by-step, methodical guide that a child can follow to a successful education. In fact, in many cases learning continuum do not have to be sequential at all. The design of continua suggests linearity so that students can follow the steps and essentially be “done” learning when they get to the end of the line. This obviously makes no sense whatsoever. The challenge to educators is to rethink how and when they use continua in their lessons.

Here are some possibilities and suggestions regarding how to effectively use the Learning Progression model in middle school. As I teach English-Language Arts, my examples are… well, English-Language Artsy… but I am confident that you may find a thought or two that translates well to your content area. (more…)

Learning My Lesson

April 3, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.28.14 AMI had asked my ninth grade students to write a “last” chapter to the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischmann we had finished reading as a class. I knew they had read the entire novel and even annotated it because we did all of our reading in this room. Sometimes we did it in a literature circle. Sometimes we did it by ourselves. Sometimes we used a form of Socratic Seminar to ask questions of each other and dig deeper into the author’s intended meaning.

But I knew all my students had read the novel and understood its metaphors, allusions and themes because we did the work together. And because of that, I knew they would be able to creatively adapt what they knew and believed.

I knew they’d be able to do it because I would be there to help them, guide them and monitor their progress because their work would be completed in class and during after school workshop sessions.

I knew their levels of competency because I assessed it every single day.

The pattern here isn’t new. Rick Wormeli suggests rethinking how we assign work to students and how we penalize them for not doing it. Both Wormeli and Doug Reeves make powerful arguments against “the zero” in the teacher grade book. (more…)

Gateways, Not Grades

April 2, 2014 by

This is the second of a two-part series on Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 1.

 In our traditional system, students progress in age-based cohorts, with most students progressing regardless of what they know and somej curve being retained to repeat a year.  Competency education expects students to get the support they need so that they are proficient, offering flexibility as needed, such as allowing students to continue to focus on gaps or areas where they are not yet proficient (i.e. competency recovery) in the summer or the coming school year.  The challenge for the school is to keep students on track AND provide flexibility to ensure they become proficient, which means rapid response when students struggle and more intensive interventions as needed.

Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) has a different understanding of what it means to be on track. It’s not just an arrow, angling up at 45 degrees. It’s the J curve, which predicts that as students become more mature, with the habits to be successful learners, they will take off and learn on a much steeper trajectory. Under this theory of learning, how does MC2 make sure students are on track and progressing?  (more…)

Igniting Learning at the Making Community Connections Charter School

April 1, 2014 by

This is the first of a two-part series about Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 2.

 

“As a learner, I grew in the way a fire would if you sprayed gasoline on it.” – From a student’s graduation portfoliomc2

That’s what Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) is all about –creating dynamic learners. At MC2, serving grades 7-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire, it feels like they wiped the slate clean of all the traditional ideas of what makes a school and started to design the school from scratch.  It’s deeply student-centered in its design and operations.  Its theory of change is built upon a deep understanding and appreciation of adolescent development, motivation, and learning sciences. MC2 is a model that will work for any student. At its center, it is designed around the kids who are educationally challenged (about 35% of MC2 students are classified as having special education needs), have already had a tough time in life by age 14, who have felt betrayed by the adults in their lives, and are drawing from their own reservoirs of stubborn hope that things can get better.

This case study on MC2 is broken into two parts. The first is on the design principles and the theory of action driving the school. The second is on how students progress and the implications for teachers. (more…)

Voices from the Field: Growth Mindset

March 31, 2014 by
Michelle Finn

Michelle Finn

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the importance of these attributes through the work of Pink, Duckworth and Dweck. Should we in the field of education be sitting up and taking notice? When research shows that these attributes, rather than IQ scores, are a better determiner of success, you better believe we should notice. And act.

In the classroom, moving students from compliance to engagement, from fixed to growth mindset, from reactive blamers to proactive problem-solvers doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen, and it may come in many forms. As we discussed in previous articles, a focus on building culture and student goal-setting has great impact on not just the way students learn, but on how they think about themselves as learners. This self-reflection is crucial. In order to grow, we have to be aware of both our strengths and weaknesses, which in turn can help to set challenging, yet realistic goals. Self-reflection also promotes a growth mindset. If you continually set targets for yourself, plan the steps of your 10-mile march, to borrow from Collins, then act upon your plan, you begin to realize that everything is about a learning progression, not a pass or fail. What an empowering stance from which to greet each day! (more…)

Listening to Our Critics: Offering Multiple Assessements on the Path to Proficiency

March 28, 2014 by

listening-thumbsup-downI read an article today about a company that scours through comments and complaints from customers on Amazon to find out what product details consumers are searching for, to then create those products. And it got me to thinking about conversations with students.

During site visits, conversations with students let you know how the school is doing in terms of embracing the spirit of competency education. When students talk about what they are learning, what they need to be successful and want to hear from other, quieter students, you know things are going in the right direction. If students lead off with the grading system and continue on with a string of complaints, you know that some pieces are missing. We need to listen to those concerns because listening to our “consumers” will help us create better schools.

I visited a high school that was experiencing a lot of implementation challenges.  It was the second year of implementation and most students seemed to value competency education. One student’s comment seemed to capture the overall value of competency education: “I value competency education because I like having to pass every piece of the course. I feel more prepared and the teachers act as if they care that I pass.” Students and teachers, however, also were frustrated, sometimes for the same reasons, but not ready to give up at all. Three issues emerged from their critique that I’ve put together in three different posts.

1)  “I don’t like the reassessment policy.  Too many students, especially the honor students, don’t even study any more. They just wing it on the quizzes and then if they don’t pass, they ask for a reassessment. It’s not fair. “

Other students who struggled with some subjects had a different point of view. “Some of the teachers only know how to teach you one way. They don’t seem to really understand the material with any depth. So it’s hard to get the help I need. So I end up just taking the reassessments over and over. “

  • Listening? Teachers complained about reassessments, as well. At this school, competency education had developed a quality of “testing out,” and teachers were spending a lot of time on reassessments rather than helping students to be successful in the learning cycle the first time through. In my discussion with teachers, the focus was more on aligning standards and assessments and much less on instruction.
  • What’s Missing? Three questions were raised for me during this discussion. First, the school was only using the habits of work or lifelong learning competencies in a perfunctory way. Students said they were inconsistently used and inconsistently applied.If they had meaning, those honor students would not want to have “inconsistent demonstration of professionalism” or “emerging proficiency in quality of work” at the top of their report card.  Second, the school did not offer flex time for students to get support during the day. Teachers and students were left scrambling to find time after school or during lunch. No wonder there were a lot of students needing reassessments. Save time and resources by helping kids get it right the first time. Third, there was little in the conversation that suggested that the students had a shared vision of a community of learners where they committed to learning and supporting each other. Although the district is a strong partner in the transition to competency education, turnover in school leadership was having an impact.  I know that many of the districts we would consider successfully implementing competency education invested heavily in the beginning to create a shared vision among teachers, parents, community members, and students. Fairness was about making sure everyone has the support they need to learn, not who gets to take a quiz when. Corrective action: I haven’t talked to anyone who got to this spot and then corrected it. We would love to hear from you.
  • Rethinking the System? Something feels off to me about emphasizing reassessment so heavily. Reassessment is often discussed as if it is a product of student behavior, when in fact I think there are three contributing factors for students needing reassessment.

1)    Students may not have a strong understanding of efficacy (how hard do I need to work to succeed).

2)    Adequate school resources haven’t been dedicated to ensure that supports and interventions are in place. This may be as much as an organizational issue as a resource issue.

3)    Teachers’ may not have adequate knowledge of learning trajectories to allow them to identify where students are likely to trip up. If there isn’t a strong PLC, teachers may not be able to draw from the collective knowledge of their colleagues, so are dependent on their own knowledge base. (I’m still learning about learning trajectories and how they are different than learning progressions.  Learning trajectories are how students learn and the most likely places they will stumble because of misconceptions. Learning progressions are our best guess at how students should learn, for example, Common Core State Standards. And individual learning progressions are how students actually learn.)

I know reassessment becomes a real problem at schools that create grading systems where students who have demonstrated proficiency can request reassessment to get higher points. That is different from a grading system that hopes students will demonstrate learning at Level 3 (analysis) and then return later to demonstrate Level 4 (knowledge utilization). In addition, in personalized systems, students and teachers know when it is time for a student to take summative assessments, as they have already demonstrated proficiency. We need to get stronger at articulating the change in emphasis, otherwise schools like this one will continue to have time-based assessments that then require resources for reassessments.

 

Audacious Thinking

by

audiaciousI was recently reading about Google X.  We often think of the Google workplace as the sandbox of Millennials.  It is filled with spaces for work and play and sets the pace for work-space design that challenges the thinking of educators who are working in spaces that are far different. Google X is the Google work environment on steroids.  It is the think tank of Google, where the only expectation of the employees is audacious thinking.

This has really jarred my thinking.  As we look at this new entity called competency education, we could really use a good dose of audacious thinking.  The No Child Left Behind era, which I hope is firmly ensconced in our rear view mirror, has trapped our thinking and caused a great deal of reactionary behavior in our ranks. Have you heard the following:  “Our kids haven’t done well on the state test for the past few years; we must need a new literacy program.”  “We don’t have enough supports in math, we’ll just have to build an RTI system for that, also.” (more…)

Competency Education Supports Both Traditional and CTE Learning

March 26, 2014 by
Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Amanda is a typical high school student who loves spending time with her friends, participating in a variety of clubs and activities, and doing well in school. Since a very young age, she has wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an emergency room nurse. My school is preparing her for that demanding career with a competency-based model that has been designed to help her master a series of academic competencies, academic behaviors, and college and career-ready skills. Our competency-based model engages Amanda in her learning in ways that traditional high school models never could.

Five years ago, the administrative team in my school district and I began suggesting that our school make the move to a competency-based grading and reporting system. We knew that was going to be a monumental shift for some of our elementary and secondary teachers, but that it wouldn’t be such a bold move for others. The career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators who work at our regional CTE center, for example, applauded our efforts to move the school district to the model that they had always used to define their work. (more…)

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