Tag: teachers and teaching

The Project IS the Learning!

December 5, 2012 by

Typically, teachers launch projects after students have learned concepts and skills, or as a culminating activity in a lengthy unit of instruction.  Also traditional projects generally follow a scripted, one size fits all design.  What would happen if a project were launched the first day of a unit of instruction?  What if unpacking that project resulted in students determining what is important to know and do in meeting the criteria for the product and presentation?

Welcome to project based learning that allows students to meet multiple competencies! As teachers struggle to work with the rigorous performance assessment demands of the Common Core State Standards, a well-designed project can be the vehicle for highly authentic, rigorous, and personalized learning experiences for students.

The Buck Institute for Education, one of the preeminent organizations with expertise in Project Based Learning, describes the eight Essential Elements of a PBL Project. Included in these elements is inquiry. We are all familiar with inquiry-based learning as an effective framework for the classroom, and similarly, the Project creates the inquiry to learn targeted competencies that integrate both content and 21st Century Skills. Instead of giving the project at the end of a curriculum unit, the Project is presented up front to students to create the “need to know,” the inquiry to engage in the project. In addition, this work is the frame around the learning while engaging the learner in the driving questions. This work is presented to a public, authentic audience. Students are given voice and choice in how they present their learning of competencies to allow for personalized and differentiated instruction. Students become the centers of learning, rather than the teacher. In turn, the teachers arm students with the skills and knowledge needed to meet competency through a variety of instructional activities. (more…)

Spending Time

November 27, 2012 by

Time is one of the most precious commodities in a school, and students should know how to spend their time wisely.  Students frequently expect their teachers to direct all of their time, and they assume that they are free to hang out or socialize if they don’t perceive that they have been specifically directed. This underlying assumption is so pervasive in many school cultures that it isn’t even recognized as a problem. It is, however, a key competency—and independent time management is almost a requirement in a competency-based classrooms.

Teachers universally agree that there is not enough time in the day to do all of the things that are expected. Part of that time crunch stems from the fact that whole class instruction is still a prevalent mode of delivery, and this method inherently wastes a lot of time. Teachers gravitate to whole class instruction because it offers a sense of control and it is easier to manage. Our experience has told us that kids who aren’t being managed are likely to be off task. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it does require some explicit changes in the way that adults talk to students about time.

Teachers have to understand that kids passively wait to be directed because that’s what they have been taught to do. In order to have kids understand that they are responsible for active learning at all times, they have to be taught this expectation and they have to be taught how to manage their time. In my own classroom, I see students in grade 5-8 for a quarter every year. The first time that they come to my room, they sit down and wait for something to happen. That is probably what they do everywhere, but I want them to learn to get their work out as soon as they arrive. That means that I have to devote time to creating an activity that young students, who possess limited executive skills, can initiate independently, and I have to prompt them repeatedly at each arrival. Eventually, they start to get it, and I no longer have to tell them to get started without me. Of course, they are only in my class for a quarter of the year, so they need a little reminder when they come to class the next year, but, in the end, they know that they are expected to get to work as soon as they arrive in my room. Students who are in other classes where this is the expectation find it easier to become self-directed, primarily because the expectation is reinforced by multiple adults in various situations. Those students come to expect that it is their responsibility to get to work. (more…)

Direct Instruction? That’s the Old Way

November 7, 2012 by

I met with a group of teachers yesterday for our monthly check in. The group is made up of individuals that willingly volunteered to try some of the processes and procedures of a customized classroom. They are omnivorous learners. They are the energetic group that is willing to jump in, give it a try, reflect, and then adjust. They are not concerned about building the airplane while it is flying. They have absolute confidence they can hit the exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star. . .most likely finding Obi-Wan Kenobi’s constant reminders as irritating; Yea, yea I got it. The Force. But, even with their voracious appetite and willingness to find the path through the ambiguity, they can sometimes talk themselves astray.

The issue this month: the role of direct instruction. Somehow, somewhere, someway, the idea that a teacher should talk directly with students has become part of the “old way.” The idea that students need to “learn on their own” is the new way. We want learners who can figure this stuff out. They need to struggle, ask questions, and seek those answers using their own reasoning. “Direct instruction is so old school. I need to get out of their way.”

This was not the first time I had heard that customized learning meant stepping out of students’ way. I was just surprised that it was being mentioned by my colleagues. I had worked hard to not allow that idea to sink in. I firmly believe that the direct instruction of material from the expert (the teacher) to the novice (the learner) is a legitimate and effective means of the transfer of information, data, facts, and skills. While teachers should refrain from giving out answers and allow students the opportunity to struggle, they need to be in the middle, monitoring, prompting, and guiding during all steps of the learning process, especially as the students begin to construct relevance from classroom lessons. It’s what I like to call the “input” step of the learning process. (more…)

Snare Your Students

October 26, 2012 by

Students who are caught up in what they are doing don’t need to be managed, and students who succeed become self-propelling. If you can find a way to make your students’ work personal and meaningful, they will offer extraordinary efforts in the classroom. They willingly pursue challenges that personally matter to them.

I once had a student, Average Joe, who put in no more effort than was necessary for him to ensure that he was eligible to play sports. He was a nice kid, but he didn’t find art exciting. Then I decided to see if I could get my students more engaged by letting them make all of the decisions about their projects. I still identified the concept that they needed to demonstrate, but I let the students design the work that they wanted to do in order to show that they understood the skills and concepts.

The result was that most of the students did better quality work than they had ever done. Average Joe’s engagement was the most startling because he had to publicly defend his change of attitude to his peers. Some of his classmates were perplexed by his sudden dedication to art, but he told them plainly that what he was doing was “his” and because it was his, he wanted it to be “right.” That day, I saw the real power of engagement. I saw Average Joe intrinsically motivated. (more…)

Q&A: It’s About Time For Proficiency-Based Learning

October 16, 2012 by

The following is reprinted from GettingSmart.

Diane Smith for the Business Education Compact (BEC) released “It’s About Time: A Framework For Proficiency-Based Teaching & Learning”this year in response to a need expressed by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), which identifies the ways that eliminating seat time and moving toward proficiency-based teaching and learning can improve student achievement.

The workbook provides a roadmap for proficiency-based learning with formative and “just in time” assessments, grouping, learner profiles, personalized learning plans, learning targets, and more. It couples activities in a blended learning environment to offer in-class review time, online learning tutorials, study packets, quick reviews, extended learning time, and flexible schedules for students.

Similar to the personalized learning plan outlined in the DLN Smart Series paper “Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles” produced by Digital Learning Now! (DLN), the workbook suggests Common Core aligned assessments stored electronically for district-wide use among administrators and teachers. DLN points to the ways that “Data Backpacks” and “Learner Profiles” can help teachers improve personalized learning from Day One with assessment data, learner preferences, etc., taking the concept of Smith’s electronic assessments steps further. (more…)

Avoid Hit-or-Miss Professional Development

October 9, 2012 by

As a former principal and curriculum director, I can easily tell the difference between good and bad professional development. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have had my hand in delivering some poor quality events in my career. Some of my colleagues refer to past trainings as a “spray and pray” approach to learning something. In other words, we offered a one-time event and hoped that teachers would walk away with some great idea to use. Fortunately we have seen the error of our ways and now use embedded professional development options that have teachers collaborating with peers to learn new skills. Implementing proficiency-based learning options for the long term requires purposeful and specific components to ensure that practices can be sustained and result in a new learning culture that improves student achievement.

Approximately 150 Oregon secondary teachers recently completed an 18-month period of professional development that focused on implementing proficiency-based practices. Their activities resulted in the publishing of It’s About Time – A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning. This teacher self-evaluation workbook highlights the six major areas Oregon teachers recognize as critical elements in any proficiency-based experience. Teachers use these elements, called “constructs” in the book, in any order based on student needs. It’s worth looking at each of these constructs through the lens of effective and regularly scheduled professional development.

Construct #1— Target In a standards-based classroom, teachers TARGET the standards as their primary instructional foci. A strong professional development plan has districts scheduling summer collaboration time, as well as regular meetings of content area specialists to identify which standards teachers will address. During these events, teachers practice how to break down a standard into manageable instructional chunks and focus on designing activities around the smaller learning targets.


Student Learning Objectives: Insights into Using Competencies as a Growth Model

September 4, 2012 by

I’m a TQM-freak. I admit it. I think Total Quality Management and continuous improvement is just the best management practice ever developed. So I distinctly remember the moment ten years ago when I realized the power of competency education when the great team at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School walked me through their management reports.

By tracking the progress of students mastering learning objectives in their management information systems, YWLCS could generate two powerful sets of reports. In addition to individual learning progression for each student, YWLCS would generate:

Exception Reports: By knowing which students haven’t yet mastered specific competencies, YWCLS can organize groups of students to work with specialists in the classroom or afterschool or Saturday programs for extra help. This allows teachers and the school to organize supports and opportunities during the semester rather delaying interventions. (more…)

A Key Support For Students: Supporting Adult Learning for the Sake of Learning

July 18, 2012 by

There is a fairly settled body of research that links the quality of the teacher to the success of the student.  As we move into a more personalized, competency based and increasingly decentralized learning environment how do we build the competencies of adults to better support the learning of students?

For the past year, I have been a student in Harvard University’s new doctoral program in Educational Leadership (Ed.L.D).   The first year involves an intense focus on one’s own “adult development” which I skeptically approached with somewhat of a “been there done that” attitude.  As a leader of a fairly large non-profit, I had my share of 360 evaluations, professional development seminars, executive coaching etc.  I was secure, almost cocky, in my understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and how they did or didn’t support the outcomes that I was hoping for in my own organization and more importantly for the almost 22,000 youth under our watch each year.  As a leader in the sector, I had grown fatigued from all of the efforts that I made to tie the “professional development” that I was being given to the goals that I was striving to achieve.  It felt like work and I had to WORK to feel personally or professionally “developed.”

But low and behold this time the journey was different and something funny happened on the way to “adult development.”  For the first time in years, I reconnected with myself as an adult learner.  Not the kind of adult learner who was trying to learn something to either be in compliance or to improve the various metrics on which I was being evaluated, but as an adult learner who had my own interests and passions, anxieties and questions.  I was asked to actually be curious, to better understand myself, and to pursue new ways of learning that often stretched me beyond my comfort zone and towards my learning edge.


Competency-Based Education: Learn From My Follies

May 21, 2012 by

I had a conference with a parent this morning. I love meeting parents and talking with students, and I try to avoid the typical rhetoric that goes along with these interactions in favor of rawness.


Measure What Matters

May 18, 2012 by

Teachers need to make sure that they are measuring the right elements of student work. Teacher training places a lot of emphasis on curriculum, but not a lot on assessment. The result is that we teachers become comfortable, invested even, in the materials that we design for instruction. We share lesson plans and ideas, but there is little discussion about what we are measuring.

Those of us who routinely create rubrics for our students’ lessons are moving in the right direction, but we need to make sure that we are actually measuring competencies. Too often, our rubrics are nothing more than quantitative lists that don’t really articulate the complex thinking skills that students are being asked to learn. (more…)

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