Keeping the Why

July 8, 2015 by

TeacherRecently, I found myself at a conference sponsored by the Maine Curriculum Leaders’ Association. The purpose: to discuss where we are as a state in our ability to award diplomas based on proficiency of concepts and skills. Since each district is tasked with defining their own plan, it was a welcomed opportunity to hear the challenges and successes other districts have been encountering. It was a wonderful day of professional collaboration minus the single moment someone shared that they were excited about the move to proficiency since “students will now be ready when they get to me.” The grade level of the teacher who spoke is not relevant because I saw nodding heads of agreement from teachers of all levels. Is this really why we are doing this? So we know that students are ready for us? My mind took off.

I have heard this phrase uttered before. And, in full disclosure, I would be untruthful if I said those simple words never passed over my lips nor that I gave a head gesture in an attempt to emphasize my point that competency-based learning is worth making a reality. That was before I realized the importance of starting with WHY (thanks Simon Sinek). What was the reason we want this shift in education? In my more recent history of the competency-based movement, I have solidified my deeper understanding of why I want to shift from a system that awards Carnegie Units based on seat time and subject grades to one that asks students to demonstrate competency of skills and knowledge. The truth is, competency-based in not about making sure kids are ready for the next level’s teacher. Maybe that is a good why if you think only of how skills are to be taught. But, by simply adding the words “learner-centered” in front of proficiency-based, we make the reforms in the systems of schooling about what the student needs. In other words, we tag a student’s proficiency not because we want to know they are ready for us. We tag so we know what to prepare so we are ready for them. The difference between the two phrases might seem subtle, and at first glance may even be synonymous, but the effects on the system are not the same. The Why and how we teach and assess shifts when we begin with the learner.

Doug Finn, an educational coach for ReInventing Schools Coalition (RISC), has offered a great explanation of the differences. He shared that the teacher-centered structure, common in most schools, starts with a teacher and then assigns age-appropriate students to build the teacher’s schedule of classes. In contrast, a learner-centered approach starts with identifying what the students’ current needs are, grouping them, and then finding an adult to guide them to the next level of the learning progression.

At Mt. Ararat Middle School, we took this vision and decided we need to continuously group our students as they work their way through our progression of learning targets. When a group finishes a unit or a target, they move on to the next, whether with the same or a different teacher. Currently, students spend 50 minutes a day in numeracy workshop and 50 minutes in literacy workshop. Then they spend about two hours daily in Applied Learning Time. During workshop, they build skills in reading, writing, and math. Applied Learning times are spent building concepts in science and social studies through applied learning opportunities created by their teachers.

This coming year, we are looking to adjust the flow of students through Numeracy Workshop to better meet where the students are and what they are ready for. In the past, students, regardless of readiness, started sixth grade doing the level six math found in the Maine Learning Results. We started them there because they had “finished” fifth grade. We found ourselves needing to spend a great deal of time filling the holes we knew existed but were not sure of their exact location in the student’s math foundation.

In planning for the coming school year, we noticed that about one-third of the fourth grade and about three-fourths of the fifth grade Common Core standards for mathematics centered on the building of conceptual understanding of fractions. The sixth grade standards begin using the phrase “apply and extend previous understandings.” Also, ratios and proportional relationships, and statistics and probability, which begin in the sixth grade, are an application of fraction concepts. But were all of our students ready to apply and extend? Could some benefit from having more time to build those understandings? Of course.

We hypothesized that some, if not many, of our students were entering this Fraction Chasm and not coming out before the end of fifth grade, and before we piled on more and buried them in an inescapable mound of fractional misunderstanding. So, we needed a way to identify where students are in the chasm, and then work to get them out. We created an assessment that would give us an idea of their location in the chasm, grouped them accordingly, and then assigned adults to guide the groups to what comes next on the path and lead them out. Since we are now using Empower, we should no longer need the assessment and instead use the level they last demonstrated competency in.

Once they have a starting location, they will move at their readiness level. When they are ready to move to the next learning target, we will be ready to move them by assigning our adults accordingly.

The teachers feel as though we are teaching a whole new curriculum, but in fact we continue to teach learners. We are simply identifying where students are and not assuming that they have all exited the chasm at the same time. We are meeting our students where they are and moving them forward. We are now realizing our WHY. We are ready for our students, not making them ready for us.

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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