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Moving Through Deeper Learning at Your Own Pace

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

 

In most schools, year-end promotion to the next grade gives students the signal that they're ready to take their knowledge and skills deeper. It's convenient, but we all know it's not necessarily so. Depending on a multitude of factors, the pace of progress in any particular area varies greatly among individual learners.

Why should schools stigmatize as failures those students who take longer to achieve their goals? And when students seem academically ready for early promotion, are they ready in the other ways that matter? Both situations hold potential for the corrosive effects of shame--an emotion that stops learning in its tracks, no matter how smart we are.

In my previous post, we saw how teaching practices can make it safe for students to try for something hard until they "get it" -- without the fear of humiliation. Here, let's look at how the structure of a school's academic program can do that same thing, by honoring the varying paces at which people learn deeply.

One example I know well is the Francis W. Parker Essential School, a Massachusetts public charter I helped to start 20 years ago, along with Theodore and Nancy Sizer and many other wonderful educators. As both a school (grades 7-12) and a teachers' center, Parker strives to demonstrate how the common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools deepen the learning of students.

Although Parker sets common goals for all its students, the school's structures do not assume a common rate of development. Some students move more quickly through its academic program, others less quickly, without stigma. Instead of using the calendar or standardized exams to determine the pace of an individual learner's path to high school graduation, this school relies on portfolios, exhibitions, and other rubric-based assessments.

The school's design features several key structures at Parker that support this emphasis on the individual learner's readiness:

1. Curricular 'Domains' replace subject-based departments. In broad curricular areas (arts and humanities; math, science, and technology; Spanish; and wellness) teachers collaborate on planning, co-teaching, and assessing student progress. (Cross-Domain projects are also common.) Teachers in each Domain plan a "looping" multiyear curricular cycle, with students grouped heterogeneously. All assessment rubrics are based on Parker's common criteria for excellence, which describe overarching school-wide outcomes, within and across Domains. As students advance, they deepen their knowledge base, conceptual understanding, and skills to reach new levels of complexity, autonomy, and contextual awareness.

2. Learners move up through three 'Divisions' as they show readiness. Instead of assuming a common rate of development across the curriculum, Parker students only move to the next level in a particular curricular Domain when they can show that they are ready. Division 1 curricular standards compare to those of seventh and eighth grades; Division 2 standards align with foundation-level high school work; and Division 3 consists of advanced work aimed toward the graduation transition.

"Promotion" at Parker consists of meeting the requirements of a "Gateway" that includes a portfolio of work and an "exhibition" before an audience. Opportunities for the Gateway process occur more than once a year, so students may move up midway in a Domain's curricular cycle. Teachers, advisers, students, and families consult on the best time to advance into a new Division. Students may proceed at different times into the next Division in each Domain; for example, students might be in Division 2 math-science-technology and Division 1 arts and humanities.

3. An elastic Division 3 design allows its students one to three years before graduating. The curriculum here begins to reflect the choices that colleges typically provide. Different pathways through Division 3 math-science-technology, for example, provide modular options that allow students to build their skills in a spiraling rather than a linear progression. That enables students who enter after a mid-year Gateway exhibition to complete semester two without having been in semester one. (See illustration below.)

How does all this flexibility work out? On average, three-fourths of Parker students move from one Division to the next at the two-year mark. For those who don't, however, these structures honor the developmental process. Learning deeply here holds high status--no matter what the pace that's right for you.

Parker graphic.jpg

Depending on how many semesters they will spend in Division 3, Parker students may take various paths through math. Each box represents one semester; each row represents a different amount of time spent in the Division.

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