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Quality Learning Tactics (Part II)

Posted November 13, 2012 in Community Blogs, Urbandale

In my last blog I shared some of the tactics being used at the elementary level to transform our work in the district.  Today I am pleased to be able to share what’s happening at our middle school.

Many of us attended “junior high school.”  These schools which typically served students ages 12-14 were designed as mini high schools.  There wasn’t much discussion about the unique needs of students “in the middle” and how these needs should be best addressed.  I am pleased to say that we have a middle school in Urbandale that is focused on the unique needs of that age group, for they are indeed unique!

However, there are even more unique things happening at Urbandale Middle School that one would not necessarily find in a typical middle school.  To that end is one example I would like to share.

Jon Parrott no longer looks at himself as a “teacher” in the traditional sense.  Rather, he now views himself as the designer and leader of a “learning system” in his classroom through which he expects all students to learn at high levels.  You will not find Mr. Parrott lecturing in front of his students all day long.  Rather, you will find students working and learning in this system with a great deal of autonomy.  Here’s how it works:

Mr. Parrott first divides his subject area (eighth grade U.S. History) into the biggest concepts possible.  He then breaks down those concepts in to smaller learning “chunks” and then further into smaller learning objectives, which he calls “capacities.”  Students are given a copy of a “capacity matrix,” which provides them all of the concepts, topics, and capacities they will need to know about for an entire unit.  The capacity matrix serves to inform students of the exact things they need to know to be successful learners in class.  However, it also serves as a self-evaluation tool.  For every single capacity that is listed, students are required to self-assess using a scale that begins with “I’ve heard of this” and ends with “I could teach this to others.”  Student involvement and self-assessment have been shown to be key strategies to help students better embed their learning in their long-term memories.

With capacity matrices in hand, students begin their learning journeys.  Mr. Parrott provides multiple resources, which students can access to learn content and a portion of this is found on the online content manager called “Moodle.”  On Moodle Mr. Parrott can post a multitude of resources from documents to videos that will help students learn and master course content.  Moodle also provides students the opportunity to interact electronically with Mr. Parrottt and other students in order to deepen their learning.  During the first six weeks of this school year students in Mr. Parrott’s classes accessed Moodle over 16,000 times.  They accessed the system between 4:00 a.m. and 1:00 a.m.  In other words, students had 24/7 access to learning and they utilized it!

Students are responsible for their learning and the way in which Mr. Parrott determines a student’s learning needs is through what is know as “situational leadership.”  Through the process of determining student readiness, Mr. Parrott is prepared to provide each student with the appropriate level of support to meet his or her needs.  Students who demonstrate the need for more direct teacher interaction receive it.  Students who demonstrate a high degree of autonomy are given it.  As students demonstrate the ability to work more independently, they are given greater and greater autonomy.  This is an example of individualized learning: giving each student exactly what he or she needs to be successful in class.

Does working in this manner mean that Mr. Parrott no longer, “teaches?”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  However, in this system being the teacher means something different than the traditional definition of a teacher.  Mr. Parrott does not “stand and deliver” the entire period of each class.  Rather, nearly every day Mr. Parrott holds what he calls “The Big Show.”  During this 20-minute period of time he reviews content that is relevant to all learners.  Following the big show, each student gets to work.  With capacity matrix in hand, each student knows exactly what he or she needs to learn and accesses the appropriate resources in order to do so.  Whether the resource is the textbook, an online video, or direct instruction from Mr. Parrott students have access to whatever they need to best support their learning.

Rather than an absolute “drop dead” date for tests, students take these assessments when they are ready to successfully demonstrate their learning to Mr. Parrott.  The goal is for students to be successful on these assessments, for the focus in this classroom is learning (not sorting students into categories).  In this manner students can progress at their own rates.  However, given the way the class system is structured, there is no advantage to students plodding along slowly and not working hard.  While there is flexibility of time built into the system, there are also hard time frames:  the end of the quarter and/or semester.

In Mr. Parrott’s learning system, students learn content, learn how to learn, and learn how to manage their time.  They also learn how to effectively collaborate with other students, much as adults do in their work lives.  Students also learn that there are extremely high expectations in this type of learning system, for Mr. Parrott’s motto is, “Get an ‘A’ or get busy.”

Student response to learning in this manner has been very positive.  Expectations are clearly stated.  Learning resources are provided to each student, based on student needs.  Students work and progress at their own rates and learn to become independent learners.  Finally, students are successful, for once we unburden them from our current system of education that sorts students, accepts minimum standards of learning, and selects “winners and losers,” we drive out fear and drive in a love of learning.  Multiple student testimonies have been shared, but likely the one that sticks with me the most is the students who said she never felt smart until she worked in the learning system Mr. Parrott created.

Our current system is the culprit for creating large numbers of students who are uninspired and feel they aren’t “smart.”  As we can see from the results in Mr. Parrott’s new learning system, when students are given the freedom to experience joy in learning they realize they can be “smart” successful lifelong learners.

Examples such as this are the beginning of the transformation of the Urbandale Community School District, where we bring learning to life.  More is yet to come!


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