Proficiency is for Hope

February 3, 2017 by

PathwayI recently found myself discussing the latest round of State test scores with a group of Maine superintendents. There was concern that we are not realizing the overwhelming success we had wished for when we began the march to proficiency-based education. As a result, they want to leave proficiency-based grading and return to traditional grading and reporting. I wonder, does how we report student progress truly have an impact on Standardized test scores?

What we are trying to create in a true learner-centered or personalized school is not improvement on a snapshot of academic achievement. We want young people to see a future they desire and persevere to make it real regardless of the obstacles that lay ahead of them. We want a world of thinkers and not simply knowers. Learners who know life’s pathways all have struggles, but see them as mounds to get over or go around. We want students to have hope. The research is clear, the level of hope a student has is a far better predictor of future success in college and life than aptitude or achievement scores. I argue that you cannot get there unless you have clear learning expectations and success criteria. Those bones come from being proficiency-based.

How can schools have a positive impact on a student’s perception of what lies ahead? The answer might be found in a definition created using the brilliant work of Shane Lopez in Making Hope Happen. Shane reports that hope has three core competencies: goals, pathways, and agency. Hopeful people believe the future will be better than the present and they have the power to make it so. Also, people with hope are aware that there are many pathways to their goals and none of them is free of obstacles. A school system that is truly learner-centered, competency-based can help create the goals, agency, and pathways that build students’ hope.

Visualizing what the future can be is the core competency of goals. Students need to practice seeing themselves in the future, set goals to get there, and then work to make it a reality. This futurecasting can be by the end of class, or stretch further to the end of semester, year, or graduation. The important thing is that the students practice seeing the future they want.

In order for students to practice creating the pathways, the second core competency, to meet their goals, they need to be aware of the expected learning outcomes and what John Hattie refers to as the success criteria. At RSU 2, we have a continuum of learning accessible to all students at all times through Empower. If a student wants to create a learning opportunity to meet specific targets, they are welcome to propose their pathway to a teacher. While it is not the norm for students to create their learning opportunities, it is becoming more common. Typically, students choose teacher created opportunities and help to tweak the learning pathway to meet the student’s particular interests and needs. For instance, our high school English targets are all met through theme-based seminars the students choose. How they demonstrate their understanding of the targets in those seminars can be adjusted by the learner.

If students are struggling with goal setting or pathway creation, which is common amongst adolescents, we demonstrate strategies on how to do so and give them time and space to practice. Once they realize success at meeting their goals, they will increase in their belief that they can and take control to make their lives better.

The third core competency, agency, can be defined as the perceived ability of the individual, based upon capacity, to shape their life. A student has to believe they have the power to overcome obstacles. Judy Willis, neuroscientist, teacher, and author, says you increase student confidence by increasing their competence. This increase in confidence, brought on by the increased capacity, strengthens their perceived ability. Schools need to create learning opportunities that allow students to engage in productive struggle so they are the ones who overcome the obstacles and increase in their sense of agency versus complying with a prescribed pathway. Clear expectations and success criteria give the student the ability to visualize the future and not wait to be given the pathway the teacher wants.

In RSU 2 we call our model W2Al because it is a deliberate pairing of two workshops, one for literacy practice and the other for numeracy practice, with Applied Learning time, the AL in the descriptor. During the workshops, learners work within their Zone of Proximal Development, as described by Vygotsky, to practice and become proficient in the skills of reading, writing and mathematical reasoning. Students move to the next level of challenge after they have shown they are proficient.

During Applied Learning time, students are given Applied Learning Opportunities in the form of labs, seminars, or projects, to work with content knowledge to build conceptual understandings. We want our students to apply the knowledge they gain to meet the learning expectations versus simply be tested it exists. A distinguishing factor of an Applied Learning Opportunity is that the learner practices having the power to make decisions that affect the project and not simply as exercises in compliance.

When the student reaches their goal of completing an Applied Learning Opportunity by overcoming the obstacles on their chosen pathway and meets the clear learning expectations using the increased capacity of skills built during the workshop, their perceived ability to shape their lives, their agency, increases. They will have more belief in themselves the next time they face a challenge. This cycle is the fuel of hope.

Are we fully realizing the power of hope because we have a well defined continuum of learning? No. It is about a harmonization of the continuum along with learner-centered instruction and assessment practices. Learner-centered, proficiency-based learning was never about increasing a single point of academic achievement. Instead, it is about increasing the agency in learners so when they are realizing the lives they want, they know they got there because they believed they could. That is available to everyone regardless of circumstances. Once we are using the proficiencies to truly create learning opportunities to build agency, that is when we will see the increase in scores. It will come as a byproduct of hope and not as a result of how we report.

See also:

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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