Why Mastery Based Learning is a Good Option
Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school English achievement test were deemed college-ready. In math, it was even worse — only 41 percent. Without doubt, we teachers recognize this as a problem but what do we do about it? An option several school districts I converse with are trying is called “mastery-based learning” — MBL. When I read this article about it, I got pretty excited. This could be a solution, if not for all students, at least for those who don’t excel under traditional teaching.
What is MBL
Also known as “competency-based learning” or “proficiency-based learning”, mastery-based learning is described by The Glossary of Education Reform as:
“a system “of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting … based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.”
Learning is personalized, based on school standards. Students who don’t understand a topic and don’t do well on the summative assessment for that subject, aren’t automatically moved on because time allotted for that topic ran out. Instead, they are given additional support and then retested until they have the skills to move on to the next stage.
Purpose Driven Learning: Myths, Problems, and Education Applications
Purpose Driven Learning (or PDL) is a concept coined by Michael Matera and Adam Moreno to summarize the philosophy that each learner’s inner strengths can be unlocked by focusing with purpose and drive. By following the guidelines for Purpose Driven Learning, teachers avoid the biggest pitfall in many lesson plans — that they are theoretic without meaning in the real world. With PDL, resources are relevant, lessons are personalized, and real-life connections are placed under a bright light. In the end, learning is changed from pedantic to powerful and students learn to reliably connect academic studies to the world outside the schoolhouse.
The Goal of PDL
In a phrase:
…the goal of Purpose Driven Learning is NOT about a curriculum that lasts a year. It’s about creating life-long learners who fuel their future passionately with knowledge.
This applies to both 1) education pursued with the goal of college or career, and 2) the critical preparation of students to succeed in life. Purpose Driven Learning, faithfully delivered with buy-in from students, will result in students willingly participating in even the boring lesson pieces (like worksheets or podcasts) as well as exciting applications like simulations and student-devised projects.
Problems implementing Purpose Driven Learning
Engaging PDL in your classroom is seen by some as teaching students what they want to learn at the expense of what they need to learn but this isn’t true. Done right, students come to understand that real knowledge relies on a solid foundation of data upon which they build their personal interests. For example, students who want to join America’s proposed Space Force must first be grounded in the basics of science and math.
Educators who wish to use PDL often run into three roadblocks:
School Standards. Because state and national standards are often devised to serve the majority of students, they may not well-serve your students. But they do provide a necessary foundation without which the goals of your particular group can’t be met. That means that standards are taught first and additional learning is scaffolded afterward. Standards are in fact the foundation that underpins your students’ ability to achieve their PDL goals.
Differentiating with Personalized Learning
Personalized learning is the latest buzzword in an education environment bursting with new ideas but this one is impressive. In a sentence, personalized learning:
“tailors instruction, expression of learning, and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences.” — ISTE
If you think it sounds like differentiated instruction, it does with this caveat: Personalized learning is student-directed, student-paced, and designed for each learner.
Why switch to personalized learning?
There are many reasons to take a deep dive into personalized learning. Some schools realize students aren’t learning to their full potential. They see this not just in test results but in student response to the grade-level curricula. They feel it is unrelated to what happens to them outside of school. We as teachers know that math and science can easily be taught using real-life experiences in lieu of a textbook. The problem in the past has been convincing our learning partners of that truth. Now, anecdotal evidence shows that well-delivered personalized learning encourages excitement about learning, improves test scores, and leaves students wanting to learn even complicated math and science topics.
The Important Morning Meeting
One of the strategies I grew to appreciate in my several decades of teaching was starting my class with a warm-up. A tangible transition between the previous class (or recess) and mine seemed to orient students to my topic and make the entire class go more smoothly. For me, because I taught what is called specials or pull-outs (I taught technology), I did this at the beginning of a class period. When you do this at the beginning of the day, it’s called not a warm-up but a morning meeting.
What is a Morning Meeting
Morning meetings are a time when students and teacher gather together, usually in a circle, for an organized start-of-day activity. They can be as quick as fifteen minutes or as long as thirty. You determine this based on what students need to start their day as lifelong learners. Some days are quick; others, not so much. That’s OK. In fact, it’s good to be flexible with the schedule and responsive to student needs. They learn faster when you’re listening to them and come to believe they are worthy. As such, they begin to believe in themselves.
Goals of a Morning Meeting
The broad purpose of a morning meeting is to transition students between home and school, to greet them as you would a guest in your house. It’s an informal way to re-acquaint everyone with each other and with the classroom ecosystem. Think of it on par with a family dinner, where parents and children come together in a relaxed environment to do something everyone enjoys. You start by welcoming students, reviewing the day’s activities, discussing changes in the classroom, meeting new students, celebrating the accomplishments of classmates, and anything else that benefits from a whole-group meeting.
Positive focus; Positive behaviors
There’s a lot of chatter about PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) on educator forums I participate in. I don’t have direct experience with it so I jumped at the chance to share Middle School teacher Karessa Parish’s experiences. In this article, she explains what PBIS is, lessons learned rolling it out, and a tool called Hero that helped make it happen in her school:
Studies show that students need a ratio of about five positive interactions to every negative. Up until a year and a half ago, our campus had this ratio all wrong. It seemed like we were giving five negatives for every positive. Our teachers were spending more time on a small percentage of the students who were having trouble or who were making trouble. We were spending 80 percent of our time focusing on 20 percent of our students, who were the ones with behavior issues. But that means 80 percent of our students were excellent and weren’t getting the recognition that they deserve. The result was that the vast majority of our students — students who were doing the right thing — were getting little positive attention from our faculty. We decided to refocus our attention to be intentional in recognizing positive everyday occurrences that had been overlooked for too long and we picked Hero to help us do this.
We wanted to flip the culture at our school. We had two objectives when we created our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program and started using Hero:
- Motivate the students who weren’t following expectations
- Celebrate the kids who were doing what they were supposed to be doing
Hero helps teachers and administrators monitor all forms of student behavior, both good and bad. Using any web browser or an Android or iOS device, teachers and administrators can capture student behavior where and when it happens, keep accurate attendance records, and assign warnings and consequences (or rewards for positive behavior) automatically. We have customized the software with specific behaviors, incentives, and interventions. Our students can track how many points they have accumulated through the Hero app, and they can redeem their points in the school store. We have a variety of incentives ranging from mystery brown bags with three or four trinkets in them to earbuds and t-shirts. We also host parties like student vs. teacher basketball games, Powder Puff games and time on the athletic field with snow cones. These parties are hosted every six weeks that students can use their Hero points to attend.
How to Build Lifelong Learners
If there is a trait above all others that I want to imbue into my students, it is curiosity. Let that include a passion to understand, connect the dots, and answer questions like, “Why?” The first step toward reaching that goal would be opening their minds to fascinating bits and pieces of knowledge, be they about computer games or nature. That Wow feeling is addictive, as is the high of connecting the dots, solving a puzzle, and unraveling the mysteries of life itself.
I respect the job done by education programs around the world, but six to eight hours a day five days a week can only go so far. Teachers get tangled in a web of standards, mission statements, and assessments, and spend too much time on what their institution considers essential. While this is a good starting point, it has to often become an endpoint, something it was never intended to be. John Dewey, one of the most influential voices in American education in the early 1900’s, once said:
Education is not preparation for life. Education is life.
What does that mean? Decades earlier than Dewey spoke those words, John Adams defined them:
“You will ever remember that all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.”
Renowned linguist, philosopher, historian, and scientist, Noam Chomsky says it this way:
“Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own. . . ”
Rephrased, this defines education as not about academic success, learning the 3Rs or graduating top in the class. The goal is bigger, more far-reaching, and more difficult to achieve. It’s about building lifelong learners.
What is the VARK model of Student Learning?
If you use the VARK model of Student Learning, you know why I’m excited about it. VARK started as a questionnaire to help students and teachers understand their best approach to learning but has since become more of a guideline for teaching and learning. The questionnaire is deliberately short (thirteen-sixteen questions, depending upon which version you take) in order to prevent student survey fatigue.
The acronym VARK refers to four learning modalities — Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. Though often classroom lessons focus on the Visual, with a bit of preparation, they can be taught using all four modalities thus accommodating students who learn best in a different way. Why go through this extra effort? VARK’s creator, Neil Fleming, explains it this way:
- Students’ preferred learning modes have a significant influence on their behavior and learning.
- Information that is accessed through students’ use of their modality preferences shows an increase in their levels of comprehension, motivation, and metacognition.
For me, that extra time and effort is a no-brainer. Let me back up a moment and explain how I got to that point. I realized after a few years of teaching that something was wrong with the methodology I had been taught. Lots of clever, smart kids weren’t getting what I was putting out. I taught in a way that addressed how the majority learned (because that covered most kids, didn’t it?) but that turned out to be more like a plurality. Or less. In fact, where that plurality of kids might be the biggest group in the class, those that weren’t learning in this prescriptive manner was an even bigger group. To say it another way:
What the Bell Curve considers the “typical student” was always far outnumbered by those who weren’t.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Fleming reports that Kinesthetics (the K in VARK) is the most common learning style though not the most common teaching style.
What is a Growth Mindset?
It’s no secret many parents are frustrated with public schools. Are kids learning to think or just to pass tests? Are they spending classroom time wisely or just doing what’s always been done? Are we developing lifelong learners or simply kids who can’t wait to graduate?
If this describes you, you’re not alone in your concerns, but there’s hope. Consider a pedagogy that transcends rote memorization and the stock drills often found in today’s classrooms, expects critical thinking that teaches how to learn anything — not just school subjects. It’s called a “Growth Mindset”. In an Edsurge article by Rupa Gupta, former Redesign Administrator at Burnett Middle School in San Jose, Calif., she summarized the issue like this:
“In a recent national survey, 97 percent of teachers agreed that all students can and should have a growth mindset, and that same number said fostering a growth mindset is an important part of a teacher’s job. Yet only 50 percent said they have adequate solutions and strategies to shift mindset.”
So nearly everyone agrees this type of cerebral approach is important to real learning but few know how to make it happen.
What is Growth Mindset?
Let me back up a moment and define “Growth Mindset” more clearly. Most people believe basic human qualities like intelligence and talent are fixed traits: nature supersedes nurture. Kids are born with the characteristics that will mold their future. They are good at math or they aren’t. They can throw a football well or not. As kids grow, they figure out what they can and can’t do and adjust learning and life as needed to these truths. They come to believe that understanding and adapting to this process equates to success.
In a Growth Mindset, people believe ability can be developed through dedication and hard work. The cerebral and physical traits they were born with are just the starting point. Students are responsible for setting the patterns and strategies that allow them to succeed, by evaluating what they can do at any given point and making a plan for learning everything else.
What is Standards-based Grading?
How many times have you experienced teachers who based report card grades on how well students complete classwork, homework, and quizzes? They mistakenly conflate these exemplars with learning. For example, a book report may require a certain number of written (or typed) pages or paragraphs rather than evidence that the student drew conclusions and summarized knowledge.
That’s changing. Today, many educators want to not only evaluate progress at a point in time but optimize that against the ongoing standards their school mission is built on such as Common Core, International Baccalaureate, NGSE, or TEKS.
What is Standards-based Grading
To accomplish this, many schools and Districts have turned to Standards-based Grading. According to Tomlinson and McTighe, standards-based grading (SBG) “measures student proficiency on well-defined course objectives.” This means students have clear guidelines for how to define success over time, making it easy for all stakeholders in a student’s learning to determine if they are accomplishing what must be done for college and career. It de-emphasizes subjectivity by providing an objective delineation of requirements.
What is #Unschooling?
The first time I read about Unschooling, I ignored it. Surely, it was a fad that would go away.
When that didn’t happen and I read about it a thousand more times, I dug into it. Inspired by the teachings of John Holt (1923–1985), this free range branch of homeschooling promotes learning through nonstructured, child-led exploration. There’s no set curriculum or schedule; students learn what interests them with guidance from involved adults. There are no worksheets, tests, or structure to provide evidence of learning or templates for teaching. The children pick what to learn, when, at what pace. The result — according to unschoolers, is a love of learning, tenacity to a task, and independent thought that prepares them for college and career better than traditional methods. In fact, if you look at the list of traits valued in popular education programs such as Habits of Mind and Depth of Knowledge, the reasons why parents unschool their children mirror the traits included in these lists.
What is it
According to Dr. Peter Gray of Freedom to Learn:
“Unschooling parents do not … do at home the kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a curriculum for their children, do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They may, in various ways, provide an environmental context and environmental support for the child’s learning. In general, unschoolers see life and learning as one.”