Three Big Ah-Ha!s for Teachers New to Learner-Centered Proficiency-Based Education

August 5, 2016 by

BulbThat time of year is getting close! Some of us will be back with our students in a matter of days, some weeks. Without a doubt all of us are thinking about how we want to do things this year and starting to get our plans ready. Here are some of the biggest ideas I support teachers through when it comes to learner-centered proficiency-based education. Whether your district is working toward a vision of personalized learning, or you are a curious educator ready to redesign your class, take a think through:

  1. You Will Not Be Writing 25 Different Lesson Plans For Each Class

When some people hear “personalized learning” they immediately imagine a classroom in which twenty-five students are doing twenty-five different things. Twenty-five learners with different needs. Twenty-five learners with different interests. A teacher popping around from kid to kid and never teaching a whole class at once, ever again.

That will never happen in an effective learner-centered proficiency-based system. The odds of it happening in a lone personalized learning classroom are slim to non-existent. Why? Because they, and we, are humans. It is much more likely that in any given class, for any given set of procedural or declarative knowledge, there will be a small number of core groups with a sprinkling of outliers. Further, a teacher who has been practicing for at least three years likely has a good sense about what those different groups will be, in terms of understandings and skills. The same is true for student interests! We can all think of at least five different interest areas that will hook most of our students. Sports, animals, pets, dance, music, visual arts, video games, outdoors, cars, what else? Teachers knows these things about students, and it doesn’t change too drastically from year to year. I am not saying “you already do this” because there are some important differences between this kind of grouping and tracking.

Applying the essential practices of articulated learning targets, pre-assessment, readiness-levels, and choice in demonstration of learning will go a long way in creating a learner-centered proficiency based environment. The learning target should state what it is the learner should be able to do or understand, the expected level of rigor associated with that skill or knowledge for proficiency, the foundational knowledge related to the skill or knowledge, as well as an option for performing at a higher level of rigor. The target itself is task-neutral in the sense that there are a variety of ways in which a learner can demonstrate proficiency. Once a learning target is set, a pre-assessment gives a teacher data about where the students in the class are in relation to that target. From there, groups are formed and students start with where they are and work toward mastery. As they progress in their learning, the groups change. Because students have some choice in how they demonstrate proficiency, once a student is ready to do so they can in a way that makes the most sense for them. Those who show proficiency of the target sooner than the unit or project timeline move on to the higher level of rigor or the next learning target or content strand. Students within the same class can engage in the same learning opportunity while having a learning experience tailored to their personal needs and interests.

  1. You Can Still Set Deadlines and Due Dates

A common misconception is that students get to work at their own pace, so there are never any expectations for when work gets turned in. Students get to do what they want when they want without any consequences. Immediately we can picture a few scenarios, all ending with a frazzled teacher being at the mercy of the whims of still-developing humans. Before going into how due dates still make sense in proficiency-based learning, a word about “pace.” Pace is not the word we want. We want the phrase readiness level. The concept behind “pace” has to do with the Zone of Proximal Development, not the rate at which learners move through the curriculum.

All of the students in our classes, from preK all they up to super-seniors, are still-developing humans. Many of them still need help with the executive functions needed to complete long-term tasks. This is only one reason that deadlines and due-dates are appropriate. Another one has to do with real life, real “adult” life. There are very real external forces that motivate us to get things done within a certain time frame. Winter is coming and there is a hole in the roof. The electricity is about to be turned off. The state needs the certification paperwork by the end of July. Major clients are in to hear a proposal on Friday. The submission deadline for articles is in October. Students will be in front of me in three weeks.

Since part of the personalized proficiency-based education philosophy is to make learning as relevant and authentic as possible for our learners, due dates are completely appropriate. In fact, we should be explicitly teaching the related executive functioning skills to all of our students as if it were photosynthesis or division.

  1. There Is No Such Thing As Free, Unlimited Redoing

This confusion goes hand in hand with the idea of student pace, and is a bit of an iceberg tip. It is a philosophical underpinning of learner-centered proficiency-based education that students have multiple chances to demonstrate competency and receive full credit. Multiple chances does not equate to redos in the sense that if a kid flunks a test they can shrug their shoulders and take it again tomorrow after a cram session. Multiple chances to show competency means that the student has to go back, relearn, and continue to practice until they can do it or show they understand to whatever level or degree is expected for the learning outcome. Schools and teachers need to put some kind of process in place that makes it clear that while it is completely okay to not get it the first time, there is work involved in making sure you get better for the next time.

I like to use a few analogies here, from real life, to help illustrate how redos should work in a learner-centered proficiency-based system. The driving test. How many times did you, or your friend take it? A person can take that test as many times as they need to, and still get a full licence. Nobody gets 80 percent of a licence because they took the test a second time. They do, however, have to pay more for it in both time and money. Taxes. File for the previous year, end of story. Not only can an amendment for the current year be filed, it is possible to make amendments to tax returns for a previous year. Further, if you made a mistake, Uncle Sam expects you to fix it.

Clearly, we are not going to send our students to jail or levy monetary fines on them when they don’t perform as expected on demand. Although, I just imagined a classroom economy scenario in which students had to “pay” for assessment just like we all do for different certification tests out here in real life. The point is that the value of multiple opportunities to show proficiency is not in the ability to redo, it is in the expectation of learning and the message that the learning community with support the student to learn.

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About the Author

Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.

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