The following post was written by Bill Zima who has been working as the assistant principal at Massabesic Middle School in RSU #57, Waterboro, during their beginning transformation to a “standards based system”. Bill recently started a new job as principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in MSAD #75, Topsham. Bill has contributed earlier to and you can access his other posts. He serves on the Maine Association for Middle Level Education board.
When I reflect on what is meant by student-centered, performance-based classrooms, “voice and choice” often comes to mind. This then prompts three questions; (1) Are students given the choice to use their special gifts, interests and desires to demonstrate understanding of a concept or skill? (2) Are students given the voice to help shape the curriculum and the learning path? (3) Do we actively engage the students in a conversation about what is working and not working in their schools? I know there are bright spots throughout Maine, but as a system, yes is a rare answer. The curriculum is often set, placed in binders and stored on shelves. Learning outcomes are defined by grade levels and are not easily adjusted. If we want to answer yes to the above questions, students must become active owners of the curriculum and their learning. They will not be able to do so until we develop systems of instruction that are transparent allowing them to see the path of learning required to become proficient in a concept or a skill.
The first of the Bright Futures Core Practices calls for a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory while being accessible to all students. Does this mean all students need to do the same activities and pass the same assessments in order to demonstrate understanding? In recent years, some have suggested uniformity is the only way to ensure all students learn the same curriculum. This approach however conflicts with the findings of neuroscience. Studies of the adolescent brain confirm what educators have long thought, students learn in different ways and at different times. So why do we continue to make statements like “all 7th graders should be able to…” We need to move away from the traditional approach of grade-level defined curriculum and look to true learning progressions. The challenge lies within our outdated instructional system. That system makes or even forces students to move to the next grade-level whether they are ready to or not. “Sorry we finished 6th grade curriculum. You need to go to seventh grade. You passed with an 80 percent, which is good for you. The missing 20 percent, well, that may not matter.” I ask students, “Have you ever felt left behind in the classroom, because the teacher had to move on?” All the students I have spoken with have said yes, they are frustrated when things move too quickly and they miss concepts. Teachers often talk about the impediment of students coming to their classrooms without the necessary skills to be successful. Yet, we have a hard time identifying which specific skills those are. Why do we continue to do this?
We need to work with parents, teachers, community members and students to get at what we want our students to know and be able to do. Once we recognize the learning outcomes, we can create progressions of learning that will lead from the introduction of the concept or skill through to being proficient or advanced. Once these progressions are created, it will be clear to student, parent and teacher which skills or concepts are prerequisites. This will make the curriculum appropriately challenging. To make it engaging and meaningful, teachers can provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency using their gifts and interests. This in fact makes the curriculum uniform but but the details varied. That is mass customization.
The Red Cross Aquatics Safety Program is a wonderful example of this approach. They have made their curriculum completely transparent by defining what it means to be proficient at swimming and then designed a program to help students get from water exploration to being a safe and efficient swimmer. The skills associated with each level are clear and must be demonstrated before one is allowed to move to the next level. http://www.altamons.com/pdf/redcrossswimlevels.pdf
Some swimmers will inevitably move faster through the program. Yet we do not think less of those students who need more time to demonstrate nor do we tell them they have been here for 175 days and must now move into the deep end regardless of skill or readiness. We recognize that different swimmers have different personalities, experiences and body types that all affect how they first meet the water and develop a comfort level for success. Why is this not possible for our students? Do they not come to us with different experiences, personalities and gifts? The Aquatics program can be applied to anyone, the masses but tailored for the individual needs, customization. Hence, a system of mass customization.
The Common Core attempts to build learning progressions for language arts and math but then places them back into arbitrarily defined grade levels. As long as we continue to allow grade levels to dictate the curriculum (oh that is taught in 7th grade, you will have to wait) we will never make it accessible to all students. We must not “teach” the Common Core but instead use the Common Core to guide what we teach. In my conversations with students, they have described curriculum as a “big, secret book” the teacher looks at, teaches a concept and then flips the page to the next unit. Students see the concepts or skills as unrelated chunks of learning. Never truly grasping the relationship. Learning progressions, however, show students that once you finish this skill or concept, we will move on to this skill or concept. The curriculum becomes clear. And then when they choose how they will demonstrate understanding using their interests, it becomes real and they will engage. I believe we should be able to ask any student 3 questions that help to see the accessibility of our curriculum; (1) What are you working on, (2) how do you know when you are done, and (3) what do you do next. We need to open the curriculum to our students and let them in on our secret. They have asked me for it. Have you asked them?