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Did They Learn?

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The following is a guest post from David N. Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

It's actually a rather simple question that elicits incredibly passionate responses on both sides: Is the role of the education system to ensure that all students master the content we expect them to know regardless of when they learn it, or is it the role of the system to choose a point in time and say that whatever each child knows on that date determines their success?

When I have asked that question in groups, I received an equal split on the answers. Many educators, especially ones who have been at this for a long time, see the role of education as it has been seen for one hundred years -- to teach content, assess that content at a point in time (usually the end of a school year), and to expect that some will have learned it and some will not. The next step is to move on to the next set of kids and teach the content to them. This group of folks would argue that it is unfair to those who got it the first time to allow others another or multiple opportunities to achieve the same results. This group would see the learning formula as time being the constant and learning as a variable. They enter each school year with the belief that not all kids will master the content.

The other group says that the role of the education system is to ensure that EVERY child masters the content PERIOD. This group would argue that the educator should provide facilitation of learning so that mastery of content can be achieved by all students. Personalization of learning to align with each student's learning style and pace is their mantra. They would say what is best for the child is that we support them in mastery of the content, including providing additional time to help them understand the content and re-assessing them until they demonstrate mastery. Their response would include the opposite view of the learning formula: time is the variable and learning is the constant. Time constraints must be removed at all costs; that is the only way to ensure that mastery occurs.

Can you guess which camp I am in?

First, I don't think there should be limitless opportunity to achieve mastery. I don't think we can have 30-year-old students sitting in our schools, but I think it is imperative that we put an end to our fascination with assessments that are given only at certain points in time. These assessments, supposedly created to close achievement gaps and increase the number of students college/career ready, actually have the opposite result because kids do not learn at the same pace. So, schools and kids are in essence labeled winners and losers, and the cycle continues. Our current assessment systems will never accomplish this primary goal.

We aren't talking about additional years of instruction. Bottom line is that most students who don't master the content in the traditional semester or school year won't need an extensive amount of extra time to demonstrate mastery. The key, however, is that our system must be transformed so that they can have extra time and support.

When we transform our current time-based system to one based on mastery of content, then and only then will we reduce achievement gaps and truly increase readiness for college and career. Without a mastery based system where time is a variable, those two goals are impossible to achieve.

One of the best analogies I can give to help illustrate this concept is one that many people will cast off immediately - a coach's approach. We need to take a long, hard look at how sports teams prepare. A high school football team prepares all week for a Friday night game. When that game is over, the coaches don't say, "Well that game is over and we didn't do so well. We are going to give you a whole new set of plays to work on for next week and dump the others." Instead, the coaches go back the next week and provide additional instruction to their players on the things that didn't go well, and then they revaluate them based on the next week's game.

This notion of working on tasks until we master them seems many times to be foreign to education. Our system is still in the 'gotcha' mindset. With our incredibly misguided focus on high stakes testing we have created a system forcing a teach it and move on mindset, one in which teachers are still checking off long lists of standards in an effort to 'cover' them all. For once, we should take a lesson from our coaches and teach it until they learn it.

"If kids don't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn" - Ignacio Estrada

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