For any organization, including a school district, while a vision is important, it cannot stand-alone. A compelling vision, such as Urbandale’s (to be a school district that brings learning to life for everyone) must have a plan with tactics to make the vision become a reality. Targets and tactics are being created through the district’s strategic planning process. By the end of this school year Urbandale will have a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide the transformation of our school district in order to reach our vision. Yet, transformational tactics are already being deployed at the classroom level.
In Tiffany Roberson’s advanced math class at Urbandale Middle School students are getting a taste of being part of a “learning system” in which they are active members with a degree of autonomy coupled with responsibility. Based on the “capacity matrix” Mrs. Roberson created for the class, students work through a system – actually a flowchart – that spells out each step of the learning process. Students begin each new learning unit with a pre-test; demonstrating for their teacher and themselves what skills and concepts they have and have not mastered. If they demonstrate a high degree of mastery, they needn’t spend time learning information and processes they have already mastered. However, if they do not demonstrate mastery, they begin a learning journey based on the steps of the flowchart.
A visit to Mrs. Roberson’s classroom will reveal students working with “guided” autonomy. Students often work collaboratively, sometimes helping each other with the material. If students get “stuck” they may sign up for an “on-time” lesson with Mrs. Roberson. Some students who have reached mastery may even volunteer to help their classmates in individual or small group settings. While Mrs. Roberson does provide large group instruction, it does not take up the majority of class time. Rather, during the majority of class time students are engaged in increasing their learning. Let me say that again: students are actively engaged in increasing their learning.
Following time engaged in active learning, students have the opportunity to once again demonstrate their learning to themselves and Mrs. Roberson. Once students reach the required level of mastery, they move on to the next learning concepts based on the capacity matrix. Students in Mrs. Roberson’s class are self-directed learners actively engaged in meaningful learning; their proficiency is demonstrated through assessments that require them to reach mastery.
Feedback data is important in working in this type of system. Both teachers and students require feedback in order to answer a very important question: “What should I do next?” So what sort of feedback guides the work of teachers and students? In Steve Mefford’s eighth grade science classes at UMS, feedback has become an important way of life in the learning system he has created.
Using a system similar in nature to what was described for Mrs. Roberson’s class, Mr. Mefford’s students track their individual data as well as data for the entire class.
On a bi-weekly basis Mr. Mefford assesses students on the concepts for the entire course. This may seem odd, given the fact that not all concepts have been covered in class until the end of the course. However, this data becomes a valuable tool in demonstrating how well the class as a whole is mastering course concepts. A weekly assessment is administered consisting of a set number of randomly selected questions from an established question bank based on each concept covered in the course. As each week progresses, Mr. Mefford plots composite class scores on a “run chart” that allows each class to see its progress. Each student understands that his or her progress impacts the progress of the entire class, resulting in a collaborative effort by the class to increase the number of items correct each week. By assessing in this manner, students are compelled to remember their learning along the way rather than “testing and forgetting.” This has proven to be a motivational tool as each class monitors its growth over the course of the year.
Using pre and post assessments for each unit of learning, Mr. Mefford’s goal for the class is to increase the average score and “shrink” the distance between the highest and lowest scored. He monitors and shares this with the class through the use of the “bell curve.” Mr. Mefford plots pre-assessment scores on a bell curve. Following time for learning, which includes teacher and student directed learning, the post assessment results are plotted on the bell curve and compared to pre-test results. This data informs both Mr. Mefford and his students how well they improved the class average and decreased the variation of achievement levels. Mr. Mefford’s use of data as feedback serves to inform everyone in the class, including him, of how well each person and the entire class is progressing on the journey of learning.
Mrs. Roberson’s and Mr. Mefford’s learning systems are strong examples of transformational tactics being used in the Urbandale Community School District. Based on results, engaged students are the ultimate benefactors of these systems.