Saturday, October 29, 2016

Proficiency Based Learning Update Series - Post #2

So, What Does This New System Look Like In The Classroom For Our Students?

First, it is important to remember that good teaching is simply that - GOOD TEACHING - and we have some of the best teachers right here in our schools!  The best instructional practices from our traditional systems of education remain the core of useful tools and strategies that teachers will use in a Proficiency Based Learning System (PBL).  The key difference is that in a PBL system, the primary instructional focus is on being clear with students what standards they are learning, why it is important to learn them, providing multiple ways in which they can be successful in demonstrating their learning, and in helping students understand what comes next in their learning once they have. While in the more traditional systems, often what drove instruction was the end test, or final assessment, or what came next in the textbook series.

One of the false rumors that float around out there about PBL is that somehow the role of the teacher is diminished in this new system and nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the role of the classroom teacher is enhanced and set free to be more creative and to be more "artful" in facilitating learning and in tailoring that learning to the individual needs of students rather than being stuck reading from too many scripted lessons, or having to make sure the class is on page 214 of the textbook by December 15, so that they are ready to do well on the latest and greatest state test.  What becomes very tight in a PBL system is the standards that students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in . . . what becomes more "loose" is how students and teachers together decide how to successfully get there!

Traditional instructional tools do not disappear in a PBL system, they may simply look slightly different, or take on different prominence in the work based upon the types of learning that are being undertaken, and the skills that are being taught.  For example, in traditional models of schooling the lecture was a primary instructional methodology used to deliver vast amounts of information to students in relatively short periods of time.  This was a primary tool in the traditional system when the goal of public schools were to "fill up" students with the names and dates, and mathematical formulas they would need to be successful as adults in their jobs.  I personally remember many such 45+ minute lectures and the associated writing cramps fondly!  Really, I'm not kidding.

The world has now changed.  It is no longer as important for students to be able to recite the presidents of the United States, or to know that the capital of California is Sacremento whenever they are asked.  Today, technology has changed our world, and we no longer need to pay so much attention to this knowledge recitation (now don't get me wrong. .. that doesn't mean there aren't still things students need to memorize - like multiplication tables for example).  Today's skills around knowledge are better focused around teaching students knowledge utilization such as knowing when to question the answer they get when they "google" something, or knowing when a source of information may be biased, etc.  Because we no longer focus on knowledge recitation, the lecture format for instructional practices are not as necessary as they once were.  However, that does not mean they disappear.  There are still times in today's learning environment when teachers need to simply share a large amount of information to a large group in a short period of time and in those instances, lecture is still very much a useful tool and one that teachers will continue to use moving forward - just not to the primary degree they may have when you and I were in school!

Another great example of a traditional instructional approach that will still very much have its place in our PBL system is that of group or collaborative learning.  In fact, the skill of being able to work with others in a collaborative setting to accomplish a shared goal has become even more important today than it was even just 10 years ago!  Today's businesses expect employees to be able to come into the workplace, to independently identify problems, to communicate those problems, and to work together with teams of fellow employees to problem solve and implement potential solutions to those problems.  Today's workplace no longer wants "yes people" who basically do not think on their own and instead just follow orders from the boss each day.  Today's workplace requires students to be creative problem solvers, collaborators, and clear communicators and what better way to learn those skills than in group learning situations in the safety of our K-12 classrooms?  It is in these situations that students will be able to challenge themselves and others to creatively think, explore, try out possible solutions, possibly fail, and learn how to persevere together to try again until they have accomplished what they set out to accomplish.  Clearly group learning situations are not going anywhere as we move our system from more traditional models to our PBL learning system!

So what might our classrooms actually look like?  Well, let's take a look at some things that would likely be happening in our classrooms K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 in our PBL learning system:

In a K-5 PBL classroom, you would see teachers taking time to "unpack" learning standards with students.  This means they would spend time talking with students about what they are learning and why, bringing our students into the learning process vs. doing it to them.  You would see students being grouped and regrouped frequently according to their skill levels in specific standards.  you would see lots of student inquiry and flexible structures that allow small groups of students to learn the same skills in different ways and to demonstrate their learning in different ways.  You would see timely interventions for students who need an "extra boost" and you would see opportunities for student enrichment of learning as well.  You would see a combination of all good teaching practices such as mini-lessons to introduce topics, workshop models to allow for students to learn similar skills in different ways and to practice their knowledge.  You would see guided reading and writing centers, and the use of engaging hands-on learning opportunities.  You would see the teacher interacting with students, asking guiding questions that encourage students to ask even more questions and investigate for themselves potential answers.  You would see classroom teachers working with large and small groups.  You would see teachers' assistants and other outside supports "pushing into" the classroom to provide specific instruction rather than pulling students out.  You would see technology being utilized to allow students to explore ideas on their own.  You would see clear connections to our community.  Basically, you would see highly organized and purposeful learning.

In a 6-8 PBL classroom, you would see teachers taking time to unpack learning standards with students because it is always important for students to know what they are learning and why they are learning it.  You would see students learning in multiple ways and beginning to take the reigns of their own learning.  You would see inquiry and questioning by teachers and by their peers.  You  would see built in time during the school day for students to enrich their learning and explore their interests in unique and meaningful ways.  You would see those same good teaching practices with whole group mini-lessons, projects, research and experiential, real-world learning opportunities.  You'd see technology integrated within all of this in meaningful ways.  You would see maker spaces and opportunities given to students to apply their knowledge in real-world, community-based situations.  You would see high expectations and excitement about learning.

In a 9-12 classroom, you would see students taking the reigns of their own learning more and more.  Students would understand the expectations required of them in order to graduate and they would be given multiple pathways to move through the next four years in order to meet them in ways that fit their learning styles and strengths.  Students would be challenged to reach their full potential as learners and to take their knowledge to new and higher levels of analysis and synthesis, applying their learning to real-world problems.  Time would be built into every day for students who need support to get that support in a timely manner and not wait until it is too late.  Students would also be given time to enrich their thinking, to dig deeper in their understandings and to explore their own interests for learning.  There would be multiple opportunities for students to develop aspirations and to experiment with post secondary learning with community conversations, job shadowing, internships, Career and Technical classes, co-op opportunities, college visits, personal career plans, AP and Dual enrollment classes, and more.

This just gives you some examples of what you would see and is not intended to list all of what is possible.  Overall, our new PBL system will be much more "laser-like" in its focus on individual students and on ensuring that their learning needs are met in meaningful ways.  Students will be asked to demonstrate proficiency in our performance indicators and graduation standards as well as in the areas of our state's guiding principles - all of which are aimed at making sure our students ultimately graduate "Prepared" and "Inspired" to be successful in any post secondary learning they wish to pursue beyond our great schools!

In my next blog post, I'll focus on helping parents and others to better understand how our PBL system is structured.  I'll define and talk about what Performance Indicators are, and what graduation standards look like, and how a student would move through their learning successfully within the Gorham Schools.  Til next time!  THANK YOU!

P.S. - As always, if you have any questions, or seek clarifications on any of the information contained within this blog, please do not hesitate to email me at