Category: Classroom Practice

Teaching: The Most Intellectual Job in the World

August 24, 2015 by

IntellectualRecently I received the question below. It starts with a concern about choice and agency and then expands to a number of questions about teaching and learning. Although I certainly don’t know the answer to all these questions, I have had several conversations with educators in competency-based schools that might provide some insight. As always, we’d love to have others share their thoughts on these questions.

My concern is that the practical implementation of personalized learning in classrooms can and in many cases, will lead paradoxically and tragically to the diminution of choice and agency for students. An example of this might sound like: Sorry John, but you can’t go on to multiplication until you have demonstrated mastery of two digit addition.

This begs some other questions: Who decides what skills are essential to be granted access to the next series of content/instruction? On what basis (cognitive, research-based) is that determination of sequencing made? Under what circumstances is it helpful for students to have exposure to topics that are beyond their independent or even instructional level? What are the grouping (tracking) implications of the way competency-based learning is, or may be rolled out?

Agency and Choice: Let’s tackle the question about student agency and choice: If we are comparing a personalized classroom to a traditional chalk and talk/pacing guided classroom, I can’t imagine how student agency and choice can be much less. However, I do think as a field we need to be much more clear about what it means to be personalized, the techniques for helping students to build agency, and the different ways to structure learning experiences to enable the three concepts of agency, voice and choice.

Certainly, there are schools that have chosen to use adaptive software programs that provide little personalization other than pace, with students plodding through a pretty boring curriculum, answering questions at the level of recall and comprehension. I’ve seen this most often in credit recovery programs and mediocre alternative schools. However, I’ve also seen it in a school that is touted as an innovative school, described as personalized because of the flexibility in pacing.

However, the example above about John who hasn’t learned two-digit addition isn’t as much about choice (assuming that we don’t consider choosing not to learn something as an option) as it is about teaching and learning. (more…)

When Schools Design Their Own EdTech Platform

May 28, 2015 by
Al Motley

Al Motley

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on May 12, 2015.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series where Matchbook Learning’s Chief Technology Officer Al Motley examines the process his team is using to design, develop, and launch Spark 2.0, a technology platform that integrates multiple tools to create an ecosystem for students, teachers, parents, and administrators that supports student learning. In this interview with NGLC staffer Kristen Vogt, Motley talks about involving the organization’s executive team, the school’s leadership team, and teachers and students in designing Spark 2.0.

How did you launch the design of Spark 2.0 with your team?

We started with a kickoff meeting. It was a really important step for us. We used it to make sure that key stakeholders were aligned on the purpose and goals of Spark, that the groups involved knew each other’s roles on the team, and that everyone understood the steps of the project. The meeting helped us create excitement about this project, and we wanted to make sure to get into classrooms to see how teachers and students are using the tools we have now.

The success of a tech development project like this is often all about process. We are building buzz each step of the way, making it a big deal. We want everyone at the school to know that, “This is for you, to solve your problems.” During the meeting, our CEO, Sajan George, and I both tried to frame the project around what it means to Matchbook, to the education community, and to future students and schools that will use the tool. We set the tone for urgency and what it means for the organization.

“I think the key in framing was to appeal how Spark could and would further each strategic partner’s respective mission. Too often customers with an IT project appeal to vendors in how they can better fulfill a customer’s mission. The relationship can become transactional and cost driven very quickly. Two different missions with two different partners leads to a more strategic relationship that supports and drives Matchbook Learning’s vision for Spark.”  –Sajan George, CEO, Matchbook Learning

Who is part of the team?


Choosing and Organizing Content in the SBSC Environment

May 12, 2015 by

CalendarIn a traditional classroom, the calendar and the teacher’s planbook are essential tools. They drive the pace, the resources, the instruction, and the assessment in a classroom on a day to day basis.

With small adjustments for snow days, these planbooks become archives of the curriculum and pace of instruction within a particular classroom. They can be used year in and year out. For some, this means that instruction doesn’t change unless the curriculum does.

In the SBSC (Standards Based, Student Centered) environment, students aren’t held hostage to the planbook. They can move ahead when content comes easily or take the time necessary to master more difficult tasks. This means teachers have to have larger amounts of content and resources available from the beginning.

At first glance, this seems like it requires more work from teachers. Truthfully, it does. The payoff comes in that it provides a way for teachers to better see the big picture of the connections between standards in their class and what they need to provide for each student. It also showcases the necessity to provide sound foundational skills in order to help students reach proficiency on more complex goals.

The process of designing proficiency-based learning begins with a focus on a broad learning goal. This goal, the standard, needs to be “unpacked” in order to determine two things: (more…)

Is Personalized Learning the Gateway for ALL K-12 Students to Attain Agency & Achievement?

April 9, 2015 by
Jilene Dachtler

Jilene Dachtler

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on February 17, 2015.

My recent tour of several NGLC Breakthrough Models schools was an eye opener, a paradigm- shifter and ultimately, shook up a few limiting beliefs I had gained during my experience teaching in traditional educational settings.

As a newly-hired teacher at The Incubator School, an innovative school in its second year, I was excited to participate in a recent NGLC tour. The experience has deepened my understanding of our own blended learning, design model. I now know that large-scale, radical innovation is not only possible, but also probable as word spreads about the phenomenal work being done by educational innovators! True social justice can be achieved through education, where learning is personalized and students develop the agency to unleash their inherent potential to create, innovate and become productive, dynamic citizens of the world.

My optimism for public education has been reinvigorated by observing firsthand the engagement, autonomy and agency of students from a range of grade levels and socioeconomic backgrounds at schools in various stages of development. My personal perspective is informed by a corporate business career followed by 11 years of teaching, as well as my own experience as a parent struggling with traditional school systems that were often unwilling or unable to identify, nurture and support my own child’s gifts.

Since childhood, I have been passionate about working with “at-risk populations” and often volunteered with nonprofits. My experience spans every grade level K-12, every socioeconomic level, in a variety of settings including hospital schools, comprehensive elementary and high schools, a 6-12 leadership magnet, first-year pilot high schools, and a restructured high school where significant gains were made in standardardized test scores and in introducing a “college-going culture”. (more…)

How Do You Measure Competency? Curriculum Can Help Guide the Way

April 2, 2015 by

Specific Standard (CCSS, graduation, exit standard)Competency-based education is not about reformation – it is about transformation. Old processes and models of teaching and learning do not get at the intrinsic value of teaching and learning with a targeted focus on standards and mastery. If how we teach must change, then how we plan for instruction must change, too.

Curriculum can no longer focus solely on content – it must shift to encompass skills. But which skills? What will enable students to attain high standards and expectations? Currently, the most efficient way to understand which skills will result in higher levels of achievement comes from the process of unpacking standards.

Ainsworth (and Reeves before him) realized that no teacher – and certainly no student – can expect mastery of more than fifty educational standards (in English/Language Arts alone) in one school year. When our district piloted a curriculum that encompassed all ELA standards in the Common Core for tenth grade, we found that each standard could only be directly addressed about four or five times a year. No one can master the ability to identify a theme and track its development over the course of a text by practicing it four times a year for about forty minutes per session (CCSS ELA standard RL9-10.1). Not only did we ignore the research regarding how the brain learns (Sousa 2011), we also ignored the interconnectivity of ideas and concepts and its power in acquiring new knowledge and skills (Demarest 2010). (more…)

Keeping the Focus on Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom

March 31, 2015 by

StudentQuite often, the focus of technology use from a student’s vantage point in a proficiency-based system is the production of evidence. Students are encouraged to use their devices to create products that demonstrate mastery of a standard. They do that with creativity and regularity. There are pages and pages of ways you can suggest they do this (check out Andrew Churches and Kelly Tenkley). Students love it and engagement often increases. So what’s the problem?

It’s the focus. Oftentimes, the technology becomes the center of the project. The evidence of learning takes a back seat as students get dazzled with “cool” transitions in presentation software or the multitude of effects they have available when video editing. Content moves from the center to the sidelines.

How do you keep this from happening? By helping students define the role of the technology they will be using. It is either part of the process of learning, or the production of products that show learning. Sometimes these two overlap—sometimes they don’t. In either case, most standards do not require you to assess technology use any more than you would be assessing the use of a pen over a pencil. Here are some tips to keep you and your students on track:

Address the learning goal first. (more…)

Doing It Yourself: From Independent Learning Plans to Organizing Your Instructional Path

March 11, 2015 by


This post originally appeared at Getting Smart and the Huffington Post on March 4, 2015.

Student agency changes the nature of the educational process. As students build their habits of learning, they can take on more and more responsibility of their own education. The more experiences they have in managing their education, the more opportunities they have to strengthen their skills in time management, project management, pacing management, and executing with professionalism. At it’s very core, this is what GenDIY is all about—students taking responsibility and ownership of their journey to a career of their choosing.

In many of the competency-based schools across the country, educators are creating opportunities for students to co-create or co-design their education. At Chugach School District in Alaska, all students have the opportunity to create Independent Learning Plans (ILPs). The ILP is a structured opportunity for students to build or apply skills outside of school. It’s a chance to focus on high interest contexts or inquiries. And, it’s a chance to learn the skills they will need in college as self-directed, independent learners. (more…)

Using Blended Learning in the Classroom

March 9, 2015 by

ChairsYou don’t have to be part of a proficiency-based learning (PBL) environment for very long to see the benefit of using technology. PBL shifts learning from the “sage on the stage” method to one where students are direct stakeholders. They are asked to be in charge of their learning, making decisions about how, where, and often when they will work through content.

Many schools in Maine are making this transformational leap. My district is one of them. We recognized right away the importance of providing an “anytime, anywhere” learning platform that gives students access to standards and content around the clock. What we haven’t given enough time to, however, is dealing with the difference between posting information in the school’s learning management system and structuring the blended learning environment to maximize learning rather than access.

Blended learning is more than just making a website, posting assignments, and waiting for the magic to happen. It’s a model of teaching and learning that helps move the walls of the classroom and provides learning opportunities (as opposed to homework opportunities) both in and out of the classroom. It is designed intentionally to require students to engage with the content in a variety of ways that suit their learning style. Collaboration is essential. Good blended learning uses strategies that provide opportunities for students to revisit their learning, reflecting on what they’ve learned, and that allow time to think about how all this becomes personal. It helps students apply what they learn rather than memorize facts. The tools and resources available in a blended learning environment maximize learning, plain and simple.

In a perfect world, developing a blended learning environment would look like this: (more…)

Out on a Limb: Holding Ourselves Accountable

March 5, 2015 by
Lydia Leimbach

Lydia Leimbach

This post originally appeared at Teacher Tech on November 30, 2014.

I had a conversation with a colleague on one of the last days of school that has stuck with me ever since. We were discussing classroom management (I had just posted my “Distracted by Tech” article). My colleague said, “I get so tired of listening to complaints from some of our staff. All I hear is what the students haven’t done or won’t do and what they (the teacher) isn’t going to do. I’d love to hear how teachers hold themselves accountable for student success.”

I write often about strategies for holding students accountable when using technology but rarely have I thought about my own accountability when teaching.

This post isn’t really about tech integration and may offend some people. It’s not my intent. My intention is to spur thinking for those who are stuck and frustrated and perhaps are thinking laptops and phones are the cause of the learning blockage.

Teacher accountability isn’t easy. It’s not about how detailed my lesson plans are or how clear my directions for projects are. It’s not about how much kids like me. It’s about how effective I am in my teaching practices. In a nutshell, teacher accountability means that I take a regular look at my teaching practices, my classroom management, and my personal pedagogy and see how well it is meshing with student achievement.

For me this falls into four segments: (more…)

How Can I Tell if a School is Using Performance Assessments?

February 23, 2015 by
Laurie Gagnon

Laurie Gagnon

Project-based learning, problem-based learning, projects, tasks, performance tasks, performance assessments…

When visiting schools over the last several months, I’ve found myself a bit confused about the variety of terms used by teachers to describe their pedagogical philosophy, instructional approaches, and assessments. It becomes even more complicated when teachers start talking about the variety of instructional strategies they use to develop a “personalized approach” for all of their students.

I turned to Laurie Gagnon, Director of Quality Performance Assessment at the Center for Collaborative Education, to help me figure this out. Below is a summary of our conversation:

Question: Laurie, how do you make sense of all of these terms: project-based learning, problem-based learning, projects, tasks, performance tasks, performance assessments… (more…)

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