It was bedtime on a winter evening in 2015. I was saying goodnight to my son Jay, a sixth-grader, when he asked me a startling question.
“Mom,” Jay said, “you give lots of presentations for your job, right?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Jay had a follow-up. “When you give presentations at work, what kind of feedback do you usually get?” It was not the kind of question I expected from an eleven-year-old. Although it reflected Jay’s thoughtfulness, it also reflected the journey that his middle school had been on for several years.
In the autumn of that year, after months of preparatory work, York Middle School had adopted a proficiency-based system. The teachers had worked together to identify a set of power standards and learning targets for each class, and a new reporting system had been adopted that would show each student’s progress towards these targets. The letter grades that had been used to describe student achievement were abandoned in favor of a new language – “Progressing,” “Meets,” and “Exceeds.” The school also instituted a new schedule which included a Targeted Learning Time every day, a block that students could use to seek extra help or make up work in areas where they were “Progressing” or where they had produced “Insufficient Evidence.”
For many parents, these changes were a disconcerting entry into unfamiliar territory; I, however, considered myself to have a strong understanding of proficiency-based practices. I had spent the previous few years as a teacher in a public high school that was implementing the same strategies, and I was currently employed as a school coach helping schools with various reform efforts, including the transition to proficiency-based and student-centered practices. So I figured I had mastered the change in worldview that proficiency-based education demands. It took my son to help me see how much I still had to learn.
My son’s 6th grade ELA teacher was Tony Beaumier, a master teacher. I am sure that Mr. Beaumier would achieve tremendous results with students regardless of the type of system he was in; however, he has been an wholehearted adopter of proficiency-based practices, and he is remarkably effective at using them. At a community forum about proficiency-based learning, Mr. Beaumier described with enthusiasm how he saw students taking responsibility for their own learning in the new system and using the standards to gain a clearer understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
I first realized how much I still had to learn at the end of Mr. Beaumier’s Macbeth unit, when the class held a discussion about which character in the play was most responsible for the tragedy: Macbeth, his wife, or the witches. I had heard Jay prepare his argument in response to this question, and I knew that he was ready to make some great points. After the day of the discussion, I quizzed him excitedly: “Did you speak up the discussion? Did you get an Exceeds?” Yes, Jay answered, he did speak up in discussion, but he did not get an Exceeds because the class as a whole got a group grade that reflected their collective ability to conduct a mature and balanced discussion, and they had not figured this out yet. Jay was not at all upset about this; he seemed to regard it as the most natural thing in the world, an honest and helpful piece of feedback about a way in which his class could grow and become stronger. I was speechless for a moment as the awareness dawned on me that Jay’s understanding of how he’d be graded on this discussion was considerably more mature than mine. I had been viewing the discussion as a platform for Jay to make an impressive point. Jay had been viewing the discussion as a discussion, an open exchange of ideas in which everyone becomes stronger when everyone is heard. Because of Mr. Beaumier’s skill in using the Common Core Speaking and Listening standard to help his students develop a sophisticated understanding of what it means to engage in discussion effectively, Jay had a clear understanding of what he and his classmates had done well and where they still needed to grow.
It was a few months later, while Jay was working on a research presentation for Mr. Beaumier, that he asked me his question about feedback. I felt something shift in our relationship as I described the advice that a colleague had recently given me after watching me make a presentation. Jay didn’t want or need to hear about what I might think I did well; he wanted to hear about the mistakes I was learning from, because he knew that that was the best part. It was humbling, but it was beautiful too.
These moments revealed a set of assumptions about learning that Jay had absorbed from his year with Mr. Beaumier. He assumed that everyone, even an adult “expert,” was constantly practicing and revising to try to get things right, and that critical feedback was a useful tool that could be used to improve a performance. He assumed that the learning was more important than the grade. And he assumed that the things he got wrong today might be the things that he would get right tomorrow.
This set of assumptions is such a mature and professional way of looking at work. It also is so hopeful and positive. I know that I did not possess a tenth of this maturity when I was a sixth grader. It is a tremendous gift.
Some of this gift came from Tony Beaumier, who has helped his students realize the best possibilities of proficiency-based teaching and learning. Some came from the set of practices that the faculty of York Middle School crafted together. This set of practices, in the hands of a wise, creative, and highly skilled teacher, helped my son deepen his conception of what it means to learn, and he, in turn, deepened mine.