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As our school makes the shift to proficiency-based learning or PBL (aka standards-based grading), I am reminded about the struggles of big, systematic change. Changing a system is easy on the surface when you have a hierarchical structure. A top down edict is made and those below follow because their job depends on it. This kind of change often appears deeper than it actually is. Most people will comply with rules they don’t understand or do not agree with, but such change is fragile.

Right now we have teachers who deeply believe in PBL as a system that helps learners know where they are in their learning, where they need to go, and how to get there. Other teachers are open to trying this system and are starting to see the benefits, but are feeling the burden of the front-end work that the system requires (it is a ton of work). Still others are trying to fit their old system into the new one to have the appearance that they are complying with a administrative decision.

I’ve been in all of these stages more than once in my 13 years of teaching. In this instance, I am a teacher who has jumped in to the PBL water and has learned to swim. To me, I believe in PBL as both a reflection of the latest cognitive science around learning and as a system of agency and accountability for the learners we serve.

I am where I am not because of an administrative decision, but through the genuine struggles of my own action research, reading the research of others, and lots of trial and error (shout out to the poor students in my first iteration of PBL…thank you for your patience and honest feedback). I came to this because I saw problems in my practice that I wanted to solve.

Problem #1: My students didn’t see or understand the structure of the class and how to use the structure to help them be successful. 

So many of our students physically move themselves from class to class. They sit down and do the thing that is asked of them and then move again when the bell rings. They go through the motions and likely struggle to see the point of it all. Teachers in the mean time, work to incorporate the science of learning, the science of engagement and motivation, and the art of incorporating the lives and thoughts of the young people in our class in creating a curriculum or lesson plan that is meaningful. Yet, many of us rarely share how all of these things went into our lessons with students.

This year, more than any other in the past, I am trying to make the structure and shape of the class more clear and share with students the art and science of it all so that their brains can use the structure to help them learn. With freshman in my AP Human Geography, the structure is more overt and teacher created, but in my Honors Women’s Studies class students help create the structures as we go and learn to independently assess themselves on their learning. It is the long-term way to practice gradual release of responsibility.

My freshman learned through this first unit how everything I create works to help prepare them for the assessment at the end. I give students a “student guide” (thanks Myron Duerck for this idea) at the beginning of each unit. This is essentially the road map for the unit and the study guide for the assessment. Each learning document we use in class helps students create pages in their own “textbook” to help them prepare for the assessments.

The brain is a lot more useful when it knows where it is going. Give your students road map.

Problem #2: My students didn’t understand how the brain learns at a deeper level and how to help themselves move through the levels of understanding.

Another aspect of my teaching that has changed with PBL is that I work daily with students to help them understand how knowledge moves from learning to knowing (from working memory to long-term memory). We often start class with a warm-up that is meant to connect to their prior knowledge or prior experience. We move from there to the recall/remembering part of the class–for APHG this is the terms we will focus on for the day. Then we learn to work with the terms using visual or examples and we end with applying the terms in a new way to see how well students understood them. I also formatively assess students at these levels to help them see assessment as a check-in or learning tool and not an evaluation.

I also ask students to create questions at different levels so they can start to use this kind of thinking when they review for assessments. So many of our students enter Lindblom (in 7th or 9th grades) with a belief that learning is memorized and then tested. Your intelligence came from memorizing and answering questions that could be promptly forgotten minutes after the assessment was completed.

In APHG all of our summative assessments are cumulative. It sends the message to students that the concepts are important enough not to learn just for one month and then forget, but that they can become a part of them. Students can literally own their learning and use it to learn more.

For my Women’s Studies class, I go even further and talk about the act of creating new information/interpretations to contribute to the world. Our biggest questions are what does this mean for me? What should I do/make/say with what I know?(With freshmen, we get there by the end of the year, with a lot of scaffolding and structure)

These kinds of questions and this kind of classroom model was influenced by my experience at the Educon conferences I’ve attended and through the wisdom and humility of the people with whom I work at Lindblom and follow on twitter. A special shout out to Chris Lehmann the principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I am certain he does not know the influence he has had on my teaching. You can find more out about his amazingness here, here, and here.

Problem #3: I was working A LOT harder than my students (and, as a result, I was likely the one learning the most in my classes)

I know I will get a lot of “amens” with this problem. It seemed I was spending all my weekends and after school hours planning and giving feedback and planning and giving feedback. I was exhausted and did not get the full joy of seeing students own their own learning. It sucked.

My first shift away from this was in reading Robyn Jackson’s book Never Work Harder Than Your Students. It taught me to explicitly teach students how to practice metacognition and reflect on their own learning in order to improve. My students never had to do this because I did it for them. So when I passed them on to their next teacher or professor, they were still passive learners.

Now I make time for regular reflection and as the year progresses, students are able to identify where they need to improve and offer ideas for how to show me their new understanding of newly developed skill. They also learn how to study effectively in order to limit the amount of revisions and relearning they have to do. I think I used to see reflections as tangential instead of as a core part of the learning process.

For Women’s Studies, students are creating their own projects to show their learning and assessing themselves on the project (with my guidance and through conferences).

I created my PBL system to address these problems of practice and increase my ability to use assessment as a conversation starter rather than an evaluative end number or letter.

When we are making systemic changes, it is critical that we identify and largely agree upon the problems of practice we share and how the system works to solve those problems. Without the why of the system, the how is often another form of passive compliance rather than a transformative event.