Category: Insights into Implementation

Behavior Management Tools Might Not Be Best for Student-Centered Learning

October 12, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center on September 14, 2017. It is the first in a series on the practical side of cultivating student ownership of learning, produced by JFF’s Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.

High-quality learning is often messy. It can be noisy and nonlinear and full of surprises. That may be why many of us seek to control it. We establish rules, plans, and procedures to contain the unpredictable outcomes of our students’ learning. And we distinguish behavior from academics as if the way learners are expected to accomplish their learning teaches them nothing about how to behave as learners.

The trouble is, many educators were taught to think about classroom management and behavior management as activities of control. Classroom management is seen as organizing and structuring the flow of activities and expectations to maximize efficiency and task accomplishment, while behavior management is framed as the teacher’s efforts to manage and respond to disruptions.

But what if control was the wrong impulse? What if our efforts to control behavior sometimes worked against our loftiest educational goals regarding college/career readiness, critical thinking, social-emotional health, and civic preparedness? What if there was another way to achieve our objectives besides control?

There is! With the explicit goal of fostering learner independence, student-centered learning calls for a different set of approaches, ones that are more akin to learner facilitation than learner control. Rather than prioritizing efficiency, order, and compliance, student-centered approaches draw from a wide variety of educational research (see the Students at the Center Research Portal) to create learning environments that inspire students’ academic, social-emotional, and metacognitive development. Recognizing that emotion is an integral component of all learning, facilitators of student-centered learning seek to personalize an optimal mix of risk-taking, disequilibrium, accomplishment, and confidence in each individual student. By intentionally modeling and coaching empathy, cultivating relationships with and among learners, and establishing a culture of partnership, trust, and support, learner facilitators move past merely controlling behaviors to cultivating motivations and inspiring engagement. And in the busy, messy, nonlinear world of high-quality student-centered learning, these approaches are used to drive the goal setting, self-regulation, and success that lead to social behaviors and mature thinking processes.

Here’s an example for one learner facilitator’s opening activities, well-timed for the beginning of the school year. After introductions, first-year teacher Nate Gray launches his classes by engaging students in collaboratively creating a T-Chart with the headings “Expectations of Me” and “Expectations of Each Other”: (more…)

Redesigning the Syllabus to Reflect the Learning Journey

October 9, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on September 10, 2017.

Personalized learning is still in its infancy—as are the curricular tools and resources available to support teachers in implementing it.

Currently, there is no shortage of articles offering a high-level look at how and why personalized learning will impact student growth, and conference sessions where teachers are encouraged to change the way they teach, but not given the tools to modify their instructional practices. There are plenty of resources with step-by-step guides and blueprints designed to walk teachers through a process to personalize learning. Additionally, there is a growing number of online platforms and prepackaged curricular products (both free and at cost)—not to mention the new stamp on existing tools—you know, the sticker that says “personalize learning with (insert product name.)”

But, for personalized learning to be personal—it must be less formal and formulaic. We need to design student-centered learning experiences and that takes time, practice and support.

The Syllabus Gets a Facelift

If we think about learning as a journey that gets compartmentalized in formal education, then the first experience for middle and high school students is often the syllabus. In many ways, the traditional syllabus places restrictions on when, what and how students will learn. It sets expectations for how growth will be measured and what penalties will be enforced for late work or missing class. Most syllabi lack flexibility and aren’t very engaging; which contradicts everything we know about high quality teaching and learning.

I currently work at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, as the Head of Middle and Upper School and I teach one 8th grade geography class. Back in 2011, I was getting my feet wet with blended learning and experimenting with new pedagogical practices in my geography class. As a result of my recent transition to a blended learning environment and my desire to turn control of learning over to my students, I decided the traditional syllabus needed to be turned on its head.

Redesigning the Syllabus Starting With Student Experience

Conventional syllabi are developed from the perspective of the teacher—designed to present what he or she plans to include in a course. I wanted to develop an alternative version that looked through the lens of the student, and my vision was to tailor each one to reflect what a particular learner would be doing every step of the way throughout the course. This was not simply a more visually appealing version of a classic syllabus, it was a radical overhaul of the student experience with the primary goal of changing their perception of their role as a learner.

This drastic class redesign demanded that I ask myself some big questions: what content was required, what elements of learning could students control and what traditional and new measures I could use to gauge progress? Almost every question led to another. How much control could I give students over their modalities of learning, what would the challenges and successes of self-paced learning be, and if students had more control over how they demonstrated mastery, then what would rubrics look like?

Seven years ago, that first course redesign was a big shift for me. I had been teaching eighth grade geography for four years at that point, and historically, I had used a textbook and pacing chart to cover the curriculum. I used traditional grading practices, assessing student progress through quizzes, tests, project, midterms and finals each year. I was confident that students were learning and their grades supported that. There was little urgency for change—certainly not from my administration or peers. But I had this nagging feeling that my students deserved better. I knew they could make more progress if they had more flexibility to make decisions—but that couldn’t happen within the rigid structure that existed.

The heaviest lift for that first redesign was figuring out how to parcel out the course in a way that would give students more flexibility and choice. Abandoning traditional units and chapters and coming up with new potential segments of learning was a strenuous process. For that first one, I divided my class into three segments: Foundation, Content and Skills, and Assessment. I worked tirelessly to gather old and new resources, align them to each segment, and upload them to a website so that my students could access them at their own pace. (more…)

The Role of Advisory in Personalizing the Secondary Experience

September 13, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 24, 2017. 

The goal of an advisory is to help students figure out who they are, where they’re headed and how they’re going to get there. Through an advisory system, each student has an adult who knows them and helps them navigate high school so that they leave with a meaningful, personalized plan and are prepared for post-secondary options.

An advisory is a key component of a distributed student guidance strategy that includes regular meetings at regular intervals between an advisor and a group of students, has a clear focus and is something in which all students and staff participate. Student ownership is key to an advisory process, and there is typically a “gradual release” of responsibility from advisor to advisee. With the support of the advisor, students craft and own outcomes as they pursue postsecondary learning opportunities.

In the paper Core and More: Guiding and Personalizing College and Career Readiness, we assert that the best student guidance systems are blended (leveraging technology and in-person instruction and services), distributed (leveraging staff in addition to school counselors) and scheduled (utilizing an advisory period).

This advisory period is really the glue that holds it all together. The structure of the advisory should reflect the school’s mission, vision and philosophy of learning and should provide additional opportunities for students and staff to personalize their experiences.

High school can be a confusing time with increasing options for students due to the rapid expansion of digital learning. Advisory has to be the spine of the next generation high school. Sustained adult relationships can help students navigate this new digital landscape and maximize tools and systems to enhance their personal learning plan and map their trajectory beyond high school graduation.

Chris Lehmann, Science Leadership Academy (SLA), believes that student-teacher relationships radiate from the advisory period. “Think of advisory as the soul of your school. And in everything you do, remember that you teach students before you teach subjects. Advisory is the place in the schedule where that idea has its core and then it spreads into everything else we do,” Lehmann said.

Beth Brodie of Partnership for Change notes that a key function of the advisor is to ensure that every student has someone, “who knows them well and supports them at school meetings and conferences.”

Five Core Elements

We see five core elements that should be part of every secondary advisory system: (more…)

The How to Your Why

September 11, 2017 by

So much has been said about the importance of an organization having a purpose for the work they do. Schools have crafted purpose statements often containing phrases like “life-long learners,” “productive citizens,” and “successful members of society.” This is best done following a series of meetings with all stakeholders to capture their thoughts on what the experience of school should be for the community. At RSU 2, our purpose statement is “Cultivating Hope in All Learners.” We wanted a lofty commitment that falls just short of saying, “We want to make the world a better place.” All decisions we make, from allocating our resources to scheduling our learners, must be done in a way that shows we support our purpose.

But how do we know we are supporting the purpose? That question has been on my mind lately, causing me to ponder the middle ring in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, the “How”: how we do the things we do in support of our why. If your actions do not reflect your why, you should either change your actions or change your why. Left as is, people will begin to see hypocrisy in your organization. And once they believe you are not being true to the work, they will find evidence to support their doubt, even if it is falsely interpreted. Leaders will find themselves in a constant mode of management.

What I have come to notice is to get at the “how we will work together to meet our purpose” requires agreement on common language and common approaches. The stakeholders responsible for the implementation of the plan must spend time to truly understand it so the purpose can be realized. These understandings must include agreed upon definitions and tenets.

Recently, I watched a five minute New York Times Magazine interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld in which he described his process for writing a joke. When you listen, his rules of thumb of joke creating and telling come out loud and clear. They are:

  1. Write about nothing
  2. Think of something you think is funny
  3. Be funny right away
  4. Write on yellow pads with a Bic pen
  5. Look for connective tissue to link the story
  6. Biggest joke at the end
  7. The wronger something feels the righter it is

While some of these might be typical for all comedians, some may be true for Seinfeld alone.

The same can be said for how a school realizes being a personalized, competency-based system of education. Our rules of thumb, lets call them tenets, the principle or belief held as true by the members of a group, will be both similar and special to the district who defines them. Said in another way, what are those things that we agree need to happen to reach our vision? No system is exactly like another. Whether it is demographics, geography, or traditions and superstitions (like writing every episode of Seinfeld with a yellow pad and a Bic pen), schools have personalities. That is what we mean when we talk about school culture.  That is why every school and system needs to invest the time and energy, in productive struggle, to build understanding of how they will put the learners and their learning at the center of everything they do. (more…)

Equity for ELs: Learning English in a Competency-Based System

August 2, 2017 by

Laureen Avery

Across the country, educators and policymakers are coming to the same conclusion: the structure of the traditional system is a barrier. The premise of competency education is that the traditional education structure, which is designed to sort students, can be replaced with one that is designed for every student to succeed. When we design for ensuring mastery, we have to build around equity and draw upon the research that informs us about how students learn best.

Chris Sturgis, 2017. In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency- Based Education.

Public education (and public educators) has made a promise that every student will have the opportunity to learn and develop the skills and competencies needed for success beyond high school. It is clear that traditional, established structures have broken this promise for many students, and it is imperative that the developing models of education address these past inequities as core elements in their fundamental structures and design.

English learners (ELs) are one of the groups that fared poorly under the traditional models. Next generation education models (personalized learning, blended learning, competency-based education, and others) are slowly developing an understanding of how to translate beliefs and values into actual practices that transform the core experience of education for English learners. Creating new models that work for English learners must move beyond the need for cultural awareness and into a deep knowledge of how to nurture proficiency in academic language.

iNACOL recently published the results of a broad-based information collection activity in “Next Generation Learning Models For English Language Learners” (Natalie Truong, June 2017). One of the promising practices highlighted was the use of language progressions to support students in a personalized, competency-based system. (more…)

How Schools Develop Student Agency

July 12, 2017 by

Alix Horton

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on May 28, 2017.

Through the tenets of agency, we help students see effort and practice in a new light and associate both as growth paths and, ultimately, success. We can provide students with the skills to rebound from setbacks and build confidence as they welcome new challenges. Instilling the principles of agency helps students find personal relevance in their work and motivates them to participate actively, build relationships and understand how they impact themselves and their communities. – New Tech Network

Developing student agency. Given the rate of change in the world, helping young people take charge of their own learning is more important than ever. This post includes an interview with Alix Horton, a School Development and Literacy Coach for the New Tech Network, as well as a few thoughts from Randy Ziegenfuss, a Pennsylvania superintendent.

What is agency? In short, managing your own learning. New Tech schools share rubrics that identify the ability to develop and reflect on growth mindset and demonstrate ownership over one’s learning. Below is the rubric for fifth grade.

How does NTN measure agency? 1) Growth mindset, or the belief that through hard work you can get better, and 2) Learning strategies to gather information, manage stress, and work with other people in order to do the learning you need to do.

What builds agency?  Carnegie Corporation identified culture and authenticity as key:

  • Culture and relationships that make student feel like they matter in the school community, and
  • Authenticity: purposeful work that matters to students. students will have a lot more persistence and agency if the work is purposeful through high quality project-based learning.

We expect elementary students to tackle and monitor learning with a lot of teacher support in terms of what questions to ask, where to look, how to gather information. A high school student has more ability to ask questions, find resources and find answers on their own. There is a handover component where teachers are doing more support at the lower levels and handing the work to students at the upper levels. (more…)

The Four Biggest Challenges to Implementing Maine’s Proficiency-Based Diploma

June 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on May 30, 2017.

Maine has long been an innovator in education, stemming back to the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Now all eyes are on our corner of the country as we transition from a traditional seat-time high school diploma to a proficiency-based diploma.

Historically, Maine has spurred national, paradigm-shifting discussions about how we “do school.” We have pushed many state districts to make significant policy changes that align with instructional and educational best practices, and have encouraged teachers, administrators, and districts to innovate educational systems design. I believe the new proficiency-based diploma requirements are yet another beacon of educational leadership and innovation, one that will alter our education system in meaningful and lasting ways.

But what exactly are these new kinds of diplomas, and just how difficult a transition do they pose to educators?

First, the basics. In 2012, Maine passed a law requiring that by 2018 all students would graduate with a proficiency-based diploma; the law then went through a major update in 2015-2016. The Maine DOE defines proficiency-based education as an academic assessment approach that requires students to demonstrate mastery of certain skills before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma. You can find the official definition here.

To me, proficiency-based education is about drawing lines in the sand of learning. It’s about recognizing that, if traveling to Boston, you don’t say you’re in Boston until you’re in Boston. It’s about knowing who you are, what you know, and what you can do. And, most importantly, where to go next.

There are many challenges facing districts, schools, teachers, students, and communities in this shift to a proficiency-based system of learning. Below are the four I believe loom largest: (more…)

Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: Work Study Practices Matter in a Competency-Based High School

May 22, 2017 by

Competency-based schools work to separate the reporting of academic performance and behavior into separate categories as a part of their effort to move from compliance to competency. For many teachers and students, this is a very difficult transition. What we all recognize is that behaviors that lead to learning are still important and can not simply vanish from the school entirely. Instead we need to continue to address them and instruct them so our students are competent academically and possess well-developed employable skills. There are many names for these types of skills; our district uses Work Study Practices, developed by the state, and is working to improve how we instruct and assess them in our schools. It is a work in progress but essential to student success at all levels.

Lesson #1: All students at all levels benefit from instruction in work study practices.

Nothing drives me more crazy than when teachers talk about how students should already know how to do things, and this type of conversation happens a lot when talking about work study practices. We wouldn’t assess students on academic material we haven’t taught them, but teachers do that with work study practices. Teachers expect students to be mindreaders and know what they are looking for in terms of creativity, collaboration, self-direction, and communication even though it may look different with any given assignment. The simple truth of the matter is that students need developmentally appropriate instruction in order to understand the expectations for collaboration on a group project so that they can work to meet them, just like they need to know how communication might be different on a digital assignment versus an oral task. Just like with academic competencies, they need a target so they can navigate their path to success.

Lesson #2: Reflection is an important key to success for students who are practicing work study practices.

Providing students with the opportunity to reflect on work study practices is the key to them internalizing them and applying what they have learned outside of the classroom. Students have the opportunity to identify how their behaviors have impacted their success on a given task: are they contributing to or detracting from the results? I have found that asking students to write about how they have demonstrated one or more of the practices by providing examples of positive behaviors has led to increased success, and it doesn’t take very long to see changes. Another important factor when talking about collaboration is to allow for student groups to reflect together on what they are doing well and what they can improve on the next time they are together. Reflection may look different depending on the age of the students in class, but it needs to be present so students can take ownership of their progress and internalize the experience for future tasks, whether they are in school or in the workplace. (more…)

Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: The Power of Interdisciplinary Work in a Competency-Based School

May 4, 2017 by

Interdisciplinary projects in a high school provide students with amazing opportunities to learn and grow. Though they can be incredibly valuable experiences, many teachers may face some pretty significant challenges depending on the structure of your school. So I will preface my observations by saying: We can do this in our school because it is valued by the administrators who have helped put people together who believe in it and created a schedule with the flexibility we need to make it work. Similarly, our school has developed small learning communities of teachers in different content areas who share the same students, thereby making interdisciplinary work possible. Finally, our schedule allows for teachers who share students to have common planning time to develop and implement interdisciplinary assignments and common assessments during the year. I recognize that not all schools have these structures in place, which might make this kind of work more challenging but does nothing to diminish its value.

Lesson #1: Two (or three) heads are better than one.

Working with competencies gives me the flexibility to choose a path for my students to demonstrate competency, which means I can select the content, resources, and experiences I want my students to explore. It also means that I can sit down with the biology and/or English teacher and we can look for places in our courses where we can find opportunities to create something together. Each of us can identify what we need our students to demonstrate on a particular performance task, and we can build on each other’s ideas in a way that textbook teaching doesn’t allow. As a result, our students have a richer, more diverse experience and we become better teachers. My favorite example of this is the emergency response plan we have our students write for all three of our classes. In English, they read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston about ebola in the United States; in Your Government, Your Money (a social studies class), we look at government agencies that are tasked with protecting the public from emergencies; and in Biology, they study how viruses and bacteria can be dangerous. This work is all happening at the same time in our classes, and students are totally immersed in the project.

Lesson #2: Get students excited about their learning.

Student engagement is one of our school district’s three pillars, something we are all focusing on and working to improve. This pillar is one of the reasons for doing this type of interdisciplinary work. They are more invested in what they are doing in each class because it is relevant to what they are learning in other classes and it’s not just another assignment done in isolation. Students have the opportunity to make connections between their classroom experiences and apply what they are learning in biology to what they are reading in English and what they are studying in Your Government, Your Money. Educational research tells us that making connections is a fundamental piece of learning for the long term, not just for now, and this is a natural way to help students connect to what they are learning and to increase their curiosity. For example, during our interdisciplinary units, it is not uncommon to overhear students in the hallway talking about the gross new information they learned about their contagion or the new facts about discrimination (the focus of another project we do) that have them outraged. (more…)

What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers?

April 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on March 28, 2017. 

As families, communities, parents, teachers and students around the country have deep conversations around how to transform schools to better prepare each student for future success, many schools are implementing personalized learning models to best meet the unique needs of each student and prepare all students for a lifetime of success (simultaneously).

Good teachers have always sought to match their teaching to the unique needs of each student – by offering options to dig deeper into an assignment for advanced learners or by offering additional support or a modified assignment to struggling learners.

Yet, doing so for a class of 20 to 30 students has been simply impossible for every student, in every lesson, every day with a single teacher and a single textbook.

It’s time for empowering educators to personalize learning. Now, thanks to new designs, tools and approaches, teachers can provide every student with powerful, personalized learning experiences. Teachers find this empowering and motivating.

In personalized learning models, educators’ roles are more important than ever as they design customized approaches, their professional expertise is valued and respected. In fact, many teachers explain that one of the biggest benefits of personalized learning is that they can “get back to the reason I became a teacher.”

Teachers prefer personalized learning for these reasons: (more…)

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