(Originally posted at CompetencyWorks.org, May 12 2015)
In a traditional classroom, the calendar and the teacher’s planbook are essential tools. They drive the pace, the resources, the instruction, and the assessment in a classroom on a day to day basis.
With small adjustments for snow days, these planbooks become archives of the curriculum and pace of instruction within a particular classroom. They can be used year in and year out. For some, this means that instruction doesn’t change unless the curriculum does.
In the SBSC (Standards Based, Student Centered) environment, students aren’t held hostage to the planbook. They can move ahead when content comes easily or take the time necessary to master more difficult tasks. This means teachers have to have larger amounts of content and resources available from the beginning.
At first glance, this seems like it requires more work from teachers. Truthfully, it does. The payoff comes in that it provides a way for teachers to better see the big picture of the connections between standards in their class and what they need to provide for each student. It also showcases the necessity to provide sound foundational skills in order to help students reach proficiency on more complex goals.
The process of designing proficiency-based learning begins with a focus on a broad learning goal. This goal, the standard, needs to be “unpacked” in order to determine two things:
- The ultimate learning goal (What will students end up knowing or doing?)
- The skills students need to have in order to achieve the learning goal
Not all standards are created equal. It is crucial that teachers have a clear understanding of the scope of the standard and are able to scaffold learning activities so students can reach overall proficiency. This means teachers will need to use any means available to determine students’ prior knowledge as they design learning activities.
How to do this? By using the data that is in front of them. This might be data from standardized test scores that indicate reading and numeracy skills. It might be data from special education testing that indicates strengths and weaknesses in student processing skills. (Very often the same modifications and teaching strategies that help special ed students will be beneficial for everyone.) Depending on the time of year, it could be data they have collected about student work ethic and successes to date. Unit pre-tests will provide information on prior knowledge, but when they are used as the starting point for planning, they leave you scrambling if you guessed wrong about where students “should” be.
Teachers also need to have the necessary pedagogical knowledge about their content area. The SBSC model allows you to provide content across a larger swath of the spectrum so you can fill holes in foundational knowledge. A strong understanding of the appropriate scaffold for your standard is crucial and can’t be overlooked.
It’s important to understand that the goal of scaffolding is not just to provide information in an organized fashion. It’s more than “learn this, then this, then this.” The scaffold provides a way to offer information to students in such a way that it encourages strengthening of foundational skills in order to support more complex learning. It involves frequent informal assessment opportunities for both students and teachers—meaning that students have the opportunity to try out their new skills as they work toward proficiency. This differs greatly from what many of us experienced in our traditional classrooms. The end of the unit test was a bad place to figure out that a student hadn’t mastered the content, yet it often was the only time a student knew that things were worse than they thought.
Done well, scaffolding also creates an environment where increased independence in thinking and autonomy in learning becomes available. This allows for students to customize the ways they choose to apply the knowledge they’ve attained and use it to create new connections.
Quality scaffolding will require a firm knowledge of differentiation, and here’s where you have a little heavy lifting to do as a teacher. In a self-paced environment, providing content at a variety of levels and media forms can pay dividends in saved time. Some of these will be in digital form, and some will be classroom resources or manipulatives.
In the past, teachers would use their daily lesson plan to create learning opportunities for their students. There were fewer activities, and all students completed all assignments regardless of whether they already knew the content. Teachers knew the goal but might do planning day to day, causing students to wait for teachers in order to access new content.
In an SBSC classroom, a unit overview will serve you much better. The unit plan needs to be based directly from the standards to be learned. Your plan will need to cover foundational knowledge as well as that content and those skills necessary to reach proficiency. A sample overview might look like this:
Skills for Proficiency
You’ll find that your unit plans become dynamic documents. You will add to them as you find new resources, create new (or improve old) supplemental materials, and create better assessments. Don’t panic about making it perfect. Start where you are and begin to build. You’ll find it becomes a “cafeteria plan” for learning, providing students the elements they need to build a path to understanding.
No longer do all students have to do all assignments. In the SBSC classroom, teachers can customize based on student need. By looking at the foundational knowledge students need and comparing it to what you know they already have, teachers can personalize learning to help move students ahead.
A caveat: Make sure your resources provide opportunities for students to create their own understanding. “Packet-based learning,” where you just take the handouts you had in the planbook and put them in folders so students can access them at will, is NOT a best practice when it comes to standards-based teaching and learning. Tossing out content and then asking for it back in a similar form does not show understanding—it shows memorization.
Teaching is always a work in process, and the move to standards-based learning is no different. Try resources out, adjust plans, confer with students about what works and what doesn’t—but keep the standards out in front.