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Navigators of Learning

January 8, 2015 by

CompassImprovement comes from knowing where you are going, where you are starting, and the strategic steps to get you there. This is true whether you are retooling a business or choosing towels for a newly redecorated bathroom. When my district began to move to a learner-centered, proficiency-based educational system, we met with the community of parents, learners, educators, and business leaders to set the vision for the school. We now use this vision to create the action plans we will follow to get us to the vision.

But when working with students, we stray from this plan. Teachers’ goals are simple: improve students in their thinking and skills. The execution is the tough part. Giving students a letter grade is not a strategy for improvement. It is as helpful as a coach telling a team they lost without reflecting on why the loss occurred. Athletes know the goal of the game is to win, and reminding them of this is not a strategy.

Tony Dungy, the former head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts (as described in Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders), knew that if he was going to win the Super Bowl, he would need to not just measure how many wins or losses the team had. Instead he would need to measure penalty yards and turnovers. He then gave the athletes strategies on how to improve those areas. If they executed the strategies, he theorized they would win. He was right. Teachers need to do the same. We cannot simply give students a final grade when they are not even sure what strategies they can use to improve – or worse, aren’t even clear on what they are trying to improve. A well-crafted progression of competencies can give the teacher and the student the guidebook needed to create successful strategies for continuous improvement.

Sports references aren’t the only ones that apply in this situation. In Teresa Amabile’s book, The Progress Principle, she argues that people feel their best when making progress in meaningful work. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful than the improvement of one’s own thinking skills. As educators, we need to make the learning visible so students can see their growth. We need to give students clear targets based on where they are starting and provide feedback on how they are doing at meeting those targets. If the targets are embedded in a unit that engages the learner, we have a greater chance of a student choosing to invest his residual energy source needed to demonstrate proficiency.

Andrew Watson, educator-turned-brain-based-learning-consultant, argues that in order to maintain student attention, you need to keep them focused on the conceptual model you are trying to form. In other words, as students work through activities to build their foundational knowledge of a concept, they should continuously be reoriented to the learning concept, outcome, or target trying to be mastered. This will require a shift in the purpose of assessment.

The model we use and are now trying to expand at Mt. Ararat Middle School is one we call applied learning. We want students to apply the knowledge – not simply be assessed for it. For example, when building a concept in science or social studies, we begin by having the students participate in an activity called a Gapper. It is meant to illuminate the gap between what the student knows and what the student needs to know to make sense of what they just saw. This gap is what kicks our brains into action. Just as a reader hates when the book ends with an unresolved conflict, the human mind does not like an unresolved discrepancy in understanding, and will work to resolve it.

After the Gapper, we introduce the learning targets for the unit and the driving question that needs to be answered in the final product. As students work through various input resources to gather background knowledge, the teachers constantly remind them of the learning targets for the unit. Even though the students will use skills and knowledge mastered in lower levels of the continuum and possibly some at higher levels, we focus on two to three targets per content area embedded in a unit. Too many targets and the students become overwhelmed.

As the navigators of learning, our role isn’t to march students to their destinations, but to provide the feedback they need to get there themselves. While we try to keep them all on the path, we know that we will have some who will want to stop to smell the flowers, those who want to go the other way because they hate always being behind the pack, and those who try to convince the group to stop because it is a conspiracy launched by the adults to control their minds. Nothing works for all students. But if we know where we need to get them, it makes it easier to guide them when they are ready. Clear targets that are offered in a well-crafted progression, embedded in engaging units to capture their attention, and designed so we can assess, gather evidence, and provide strategic steps for improvement are key in avoiding the pitfall of students being unclear as to why they are in school.

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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