Defining “mastery”

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

Defining "mastery"

These days, educators are pelted with requirements for “proficiency,” “competency,” and “mastery” — yet few of us share a common definition of those terms. Do we reserve the term “mastery” for those at the very pinnacle of their crafts, for example? Or may I use it when I finally properly use my remote control?

At a workshop last week, I asked a group of teachers what they mean when they use the term “mastery.”

“Think of someone you know who does something really well,” I said. The achievement could be in any field, in school or out, and the person could be anyone, and any age. Then I posed these questions:

  • How long has the person been practicing that?
  • What does “mastery” look like at this person’s level?
  • Where would you put this person on the journey to being an “expert”?
  • What did this person’s skill level look like a few years ago?
  • What might this person be able to do a few years from now?

One man chose his own young son, who for the past two years has spent hours absorbed in fitting together wooden train tracks on the living room floor. The father noted that at four years old, the boy can make “complex, inter-connected branching lines” with “creative use of different track elements to solve construction problems.” Since the holidays, when the child received a few challenging new wooden pieces for his collection, he “suddenly has taken a big leap in complexity and problem-solving” and his dad now estimates his expertise level is “intermediate?”

At two, the boy “could only assemble simple tracks, required lots of adult assistance, and was easily frustrated.” But looking ahead a few years, his father imagines him building “multi-level (vertical) lines” that “incorporate logical, real-world considerations in track layout.”

The Chinese term kung fu, someone told me, means “excellence of effort given over considerable time.” That’s the way I like to think of “mastery,” and

I see this little boy as a small case study of what it requires of educators:

  • Plenty of time to play around and try things out,
  • Encouragement and support when frustration builds up, and
  • Slowly increasing opportunities for complexity, autonomy, and challenge.

I’m posting the exercise, “Defining Mastery,” under this blog’s Resources tab. Give it a try with some teaching colleagues or students, and please let me know what ideas it gives you!

A piece of your mind

Researchers at George Mason University (one a former K12 special-education teacher) have asked your help as they seek to learn more about how teachers apply, or might apply, brain-based research. They write: “We’d like to understand more about what teachers think, and what questions they’d like asked by the researchers (as one issue is that neuroscientists don’t pose the most useful research questions for teaching pedagogy).” You can contribute to this useful work by taking this fascinating 10-minute survey.

It’s the third time this week that I’ve heard this kind of sentiment from educational neuroscientists (who in my opinion are second only to teachers in the intellectual fascination of their field). From the Royal Academy on Neuroscience and Education in the UK, a newly published report in its series “Brain Waves” makes a plea for a “common language” that would bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists. (May we suggest starting with, “What does it take to get really good at something?”) The report also recommends a greater role for neuroscience in educational policy (yes!) and more training of teachers in its concepts, and it discusses the challenges of applying neuroscience principles to the classroom. Definitely worth a look!

Along precisely those lines, the Practice Project has just entered into a fascinating dialogue with a group of master teachers who serve as an advisory panel to a National Science Foundation Science of Learning center at the University of California, San Diego. We spent part of our Saturday yesterday mulling over the essential questions that teachers might ask scientists (and vice versa), if they hope to connect the everyday challenges of the classroom with cutting-edge work in the field. “How does a teacher light a fire in the student’s mind?” one teacher mused. “And what’s the science behind that?”

We’d love to hear your own questions about that! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments we receive.

A researcher’s Rx for “academic wellness”

Patricia Alexander is a professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. But for years she taught in public and private schools, and she finds herself dismayed by the current press by policymakers for the quantification of what students learn in school.

It has become an educational myth, she maintains, that “school achievement” as defined by today’s high-stakes testing equates to learning. Other such myths: that the purposes of education are clear, and that “covering the curriculum” equates to teaching.

In fact, we’re probably headed down the wrong path altogether, she says, if we’re looking to develop “a populace with a hunger for knowledge, the ability to reflect deeply on critical issues, and the skills to deal effectively with the demands of a complex and rapidly changing world made more accessible as a result of a technological revolution.”

So Alexander turned her researcher’s eye on the problem. Developmentally speaking, she asked, what is required for a student to progress from “a state of naïveté” to some degree of competence in an academic domain like history, reading, or mathematics? And what can schools do to promote such development?

Alexander starts with the premise that learning is a lifelong journey. Proficiency or expertise, she asserts, cannot be realistically achieved in a typical K–16 education. “It is not the mission of K–16 teachers to create domain experts,” she declares.

But, she says, given the right conditions, learners can expect to cross the threshold into some level of competence by the time they graduate from college. “And thankfully,” she adds, “most students who have the benefit of a K-12 education can achieve at least fragile competence in most basic academic domains.”

Where do experts come from?

Competence may be the appropriate goal for the formative K-12 years. Nonetheless, Alexander says, elementary and secondary schools must also lay the foundations for expertise that may develop later.

With each year of school, our students should become “not only more knowledgeable, more capable of thinking critically and intensively, more hungry for understanding, and more interested in the domains or topics to which they are exposed, but also more emotionally healthy and socially competent.”

Those very qualities, research in cognitive psychology has shown, describe the journey toward expertise. And so Alexander set out to devise a map of how the learner’s journey looks, at every stage along the way.

Three kinds of systematic changes occur, she found, as we progress toward increased competence within recognized fields of study, or “domains.”

  • We increase our subject-matter knowledge. (This takes place broadly, within a domain of study, and also deeply, within a topic in that domain).
  • We increase our skills of “strategic processing.” That is, we first approach a particular problem at the surface level and gain some initial understanding of it. But then we find ways to go deeper. We may personalize or transform the problem, or make analogies between it and other problems we have seen. With time, we gain deeper understanding, which shows up initially as competence, and can develop into proficiency. Eventually, we may even become experts, contributing new knowledge to the field.
  • Our interest increases in what we are learning. Sometimes that interest comes from the situation in which a subject is presented. (Our physics teacher takes us roller-skating, for example.) In that case, interest might fade over the course of time. But sometimes the interest springs from some individual passion or affinity. Over the long term, Alexander maintains, these interests are more likely to develop into proficiency or expertise.

Across our life span, Alexander says, “the paths of knowledge, strategic processing, and interest interact and intertwine,” as learners journey toward competence or even expertise in an academic domain.

So she wants to see education as a developmental process, an ongoing journey to relish, rather than a year-by-year, course-by-course treatment of instructional content.

A prescription for ‘academic wellness’

Academic development is not “coldly cognitive,” Alexander asserts. It’s the “continual interplay of cognitive and motivational/emotional forces operating within a dynamic sociocultural context.” One might have many reasons for participating in it, including personal fulfillment.

Students, of course, come to school with differences in their knowledge, strategic abilities, motivations, and cognitive capabilities. So we must take proactive steps, Alexander says, to promote “academic wellness” in all students from the outset.

Especially at the start, when a learner is struggling to acclimate to a new field of knowledge, it’s important to have good coaching by a knowledgeable teacher. That coach can help us figure out what a task requires. He or she can explicitly coach us in habits of mind and learning strategies that work, spark our personal interest in the domain, and set goals we want to meet. With good coaching, we put in the effort and “work smart,” stretching beyond what we already know.

It’s easy to see where Alexander is going with her “Model of Domain Learning.” Cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and physical factors, she believes, contribute to the motivation, and the mastery, that students display in school.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to those factors? Why not use student growth, not the school or the district, as our unit of analysis when we talk accountability?

For more, see Patricia A. Alexander’s 2010 article “Through Myth to Reality: Reframing Education as Academic Development,” in Early Education & Development, 21: 5, 633-651.

A researcher's Rx for "academic wellness"

Patricia Alexander is a professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. But for years she taught in public and private schools, and she finds herself dismayed by the current press by policymakers for the quantification of what students learn in school.

It has become an educational myth, she maintains, that “school achievement” as defined by today’s high-stakes testing equates to learning. Other such myths: that the purposes of education are clear, and that “covering the curriculum” equates to teaching.

In fact, we’re probably headed down the wrong path altogether, she says, if we’re looking to develop “a populace with a hunger for knowledge, the ability to reflect deeply on critical issues, and the skills to deal effectively with the demands of a complex and rapidly changing world made more accessible as a result of a technological revolution.”

So Alexander turned her researcher’s eye on the problem. Developmentally speaking, she asked, what is required for a student to progress from “a state of naïveté” to some degree of competence in an academic domain like history, reading, or mathematics? And what can schools do to promote such development?

Alexander starts with the premise that learning is a lifelong journey. Proficiency or expertise, she asserts, cannot be realistically achieved in a typical K–16 education. “It is not the mission of K–16 teachers to create domain experts,” she declares.

But, she says, given the right conditions, learners can expect to cross the threshold into some level of competence by the time they graduate from college. “And thankfully,” she adds, “most students who have the benefit of a K-12 education can achieve at least fragile competence in most basic academic domains.”

Where do experts come from?

Competence may be the appropriate goal for the formative K-12 years. Nonetheless, Alexander says, elementary and secondary schools must also lay the foundations for expertise that may develop later.

With each year of school, our students should become “not only more knowledgeable, more capable of thinking critically and intensively, more hungry for understanding, and more interested in the domains or topics to which they are exposed, but also more emotionally healthy and socially competent.”

Those very qualities, research in cognitive psychology has shown, describe the journey toward expertise. And so Alexander set out to devise a map of how the learner’s journey looks, at every stage along the way.

Three kinds of systematic changes occur, she found, as we progress toward increased competence within recognized fields of study, or “domains.”

  • We increase our subject-matter knowledge. (This takes place broadly, within a domain of study, and also deeply, within a topic in that domain).
  • We increase our skills of “strategic processing.” That is, we first approach a particular problem at the surface level and gain some initial understanding of it. But then we find ways to go deeper. We may personalize or transform the problem, or make analogies between it and other problems we have seen. With time, we gain deeper understanding, which shows up initially as competence, and can develop into proficiency. Eventually, we may even become experts, contributing new knowledge to the field.
  • Our interest increases in what we are learning. Sometimes that interest comes from the situation in which a subject is presented. (Our physics teacher takes us roller-skating, for example.) In that case, interest might fade over the course of time. But sometimes the interest springs from some individual passion or affinity. Over the long term, Alexander maintains, these interests are more likely to develop into proficiency or expertise.

Across our life span, Alexander says, “the paths of knowledge, strategic processing, and interest interact and intertwine,” as learners journey toward competence or even expertise in an academic domain.

So she wants to see education as a developmental process, an ongoing journey to relish, rather than a year-by-year, course-by-course treatment of instructional content.

A prescription for ‘academic wellness’

Academic development is not “coldly cognitive,” Alexander asserts. It’s the “continual interplay of cognitive and motivational/emotional forces operating within a dynamic sociocultural context.” One might have many reasons for participating in it, including personal fulfillment.

Students, of course, come to school with differences in their knowledge, strategic abilities, motivations, and cognitive capabilities. So we must take proactive steps, Alexander says, to promote “academic wellness” in all students from the outset.

Especially at the start, when a learner is struggling to acclimate to a new field of knowledge, it’s important to have good coaching by a knowledgeable teacher. That coach can help us figure out what a task requires. He or she can explicitly coach us in habits of mind and learning strategies that work, spark our personal interest in the domain, and set goals we want to meet. With good coaching, we put in the effort and “work smart,” stretching beyond what we already know.

It’s easy to see where Alexander is going with her “Model of Domain Learning.” Cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and physical factors, she believes, contribute to the motivation, and the mastery, that students display in school.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to those factors? Why not use student growth, not the school or the district, as our unit of analysis when we talk accountability?

For more, see Patricia A. Alexander’s 2010 article “Through Myth to Reality: Reframing Education as Academic Development,” in Early Education & Development, 21: 5, 633-651.

Students on “value added” – Part 1

Way back in 1994, we learned from Gloria Ladson-Billings that the best way to identify great teachers is to ask the people closest to them: students, fellow teachers, and parents.

So in this era when the data-gatherers are pushing questionable test scores as measures of “value added” by teachers, it’s somewhat heartening to see students systematically questioned about their classroom experiences, and taken seriously.

It’s only one part of a $335 million Gates Foundation effort to overhaul the personnel systems in seven large school districts: Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Memphis; New York; and Pittsburgh. And, being Gates, those test scores are still paramount—the kids were asked just out of curiosity whether their responses would corroborate them.

The early results show that they do. “Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson, who designed the student questionnaires, told the New York Times.

When most of a teacher’s students agreed with statements like “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” or “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class,” guess what? Those students also showed increases in test scores. (Dare I say “duh”?)

Even more important, the Gates findings show that teachers who prioritize test-prep drilling actually end up with lower value-added learning gains than those who systematically focus on key concepts in literacy and mathematics.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Gates education director Vicki Phillips told the Times. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Billions of our education dollars are pouring into a testing industry with an iron grip on the everyday lives of students and teachers in our public school systems.

Why can’t we put those dollars directly into supporting teaching and learning those crucial concepts?

Why can’t that money also support a thoughtful large-scale system (like Finland’s) in which we assess student learning growth by watching and listening to students themselves?

And why can’t we trust students—along with teaching colleagues and families—to let us know which teachers help them most?

Stay tuned. In part 2 of this post, high-school-student researchers have some startling findings on what helps them get to college.

Those who know, teach!

What would it take to invest students deeply in helping each other really understand the material? After reading Dan Pink’s post on “flipping homework” (described here), one algebra teacher posted a fascinating comment describing his out-of-the-box approach.

Every class day, this teacher gives a one-problem quiz. Afterward, the teacher readies those students who correctly solved the problem to help those who didn’t solve it, on the board.

Next, each student who still didn’t solve it gets help from those who solved it (either on the quiz or on the board) until all students understand the problem.

Exams are taken by only one student of the teacher’s choice. All students get the grade attained by that student.

The result? “Learning and exam preparation become a group effort, and all win or lose together,” wrote this teacher, identified in the comments only as Durfa.

I want to know more about this strategy of coaching collaboration and academic material at the same time! Do you know someone who has tried it, in any subject? How did it work out? Send in your example, and I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Those who know, teach!

A grade 7 teacher tries "mastery learning"


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
——————————————————————————

1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)

A grade 7 teacher tries “mastery learning”


Because “mastery learning” can be a great way to coach students through deliberate practice, I am always looking to hear from teachers who are doing it. Today I came across several wonderful posts on Edublogs by a teacher named Annette, who (along with her teaching buddy) tried out mastery learning with two 7th grade pre-algebra classes, starting in the second quarter of last year.

Though Annette says they are still fine-tuning their approach, I’m reprinting her reports in their entirety here, because they’re so worth talking about. The first report, from last May, describes in detail how the class worked, and explains how her team prepared. Keep reading to the end, and you’ll find her latest post telling how these students did on their standardized test results. Then please let us (and Annette) know what thoughts you have!
——————————————————————————

1. Students are given assignments for the chapter up front. They know in advance what is required. They also know in advance how far they must progress in the quarter to earn an A, B, or C grade. (We don’t have D’s in our district.)

2. We do whole-class instruction in the form of notes for each section, plus spiraling review or activities. Students keep a composition book with these notes, that serve as their “directions.”

3. Students complete the assignments at their own pace. Solutions and answers are available. Students self-correct.

4. Presenting notes and finished work is their “ticket” to the quiz. We have a quiz after every 1-2 sections, depending on content.

5. A student must pass a quiz at 80% or better to be considered “proficient.” They cannot move on to the next section until they have passed the current one at 80%. If they do not pass the quiz, we take the time to see what things the student needs to work on, and give them additional practice based on that need. They may retest when they have completed the extra practice and are ready. Some will repeat this process a third or fourth time. Especially until they learn that “guessing” on a test doesn’t work.

6. Assignments don’t count in the gradebook until they have passed the quiz. Once passed, all assignments and quizzes are entered into ABI (online gradebook system).

Some things we have found:

• Students took a while to figure out that if they do it right the first time, it saves them a lot of work. They also discovered that just copying answers from the solutions guides, or back of the book was futile, because they need to show their work before it’s accepted. Also, they learned that doing “bogus” work and then just putting the right answer, doesn’t mean they will pass the test.

• We need to have two to three versions of the quizzes (this wasn’t too hard to do). They are short, 8-10 questions. I have the students correct their errors as part of their practice when they don’t pass a quiz.

• It requires some maturity and responsibility for students in 7th grade to take it seriously. In the beginning, many of them thought, “Cool, no homework!” Well, no assigned homework, anyway. Students have to work at home to stay on pace with the course as it is set up. Some do, some don’t. The ones that don’t are those that usually don’t do much homework anyway.

• We found that if we tied progress to grades (i.e. “By report cards, you have to be at section 3-7 for a “C”, 3-9 for a “B”, and 4-2 for an “A”) and posted that in advance, they knew exactly how much they had to accomplish. That was a really good incentive. It did make for a lot of last-minute work at report card time, but they learned it . . . isn’t that the goal?

• We found it was way better for us not to have to constantly grade homework and record assignments. Now we just record them when they pass the test. Homework is only worth one point. The test is worth double the number of questions (8 questions = 16 points). Next year, we are thinking since grades are based on how far you have progressed, we are only going to use 0, and 1. Pass/fail for the most part. Since passing means you have accomplished 80% or better, that’s all we really need to know.

• This year, we input every assignment into ABI so parents could see them at home. Next year, we think we will only input the quizzes. We have a Chapter Assignment sheet for the kids, and will get parents to sign it that so they will be informed. Still debating that one.

• We found that grading is both easier, and more informative for us. We have to stay on top of the quizzes, daily. This gives kids immediate feedback so they know the next day where they stand. But, usually I have about a dozen quizzes a day to grade, sometimes more. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t feel like I’m slogging through 80 of the same test over and over.

• Off-task behavior is consistently a challenge.

• Students are learning more from each other! They are consistently forming little groups and working together, without our intervention.

• We let kids who pass tests put their names on the board as “Movin’ UP!” Seventh graders love this. We also post the names weekly for all to see.

Best thing . . . we know our kids really well. At any point in time, we can tell you who struggles with what, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And the kids know what they know . . . isn’t that what we want?

What about teacher preparation?

Much work went in up front. I had to determine exactly what I was going to cover, and how I was going to assess it for each section. Based on the assessments, I made a list of assignments for each section, usually two or three, some of which were done in class. To facilitate students keeping up or working ahead, I had to be at least two sections ahead of the highest kid.

I also put copies (PDFs) up of any assignments that were not in the textbook. This was made easier by using the CD-Roms that came with the textbook and uploaded easily. The supplemental materials had to be scanned and uploaded. A bit time consuming, but again, as long as I was a few steps ahead of the highest kid, it wasn’t too bad.

Grades: the same had to be done for the gradebook. All the assignments for the quarter were entered into the electronic gradebook in advance. This gave students and parents the list for working on assignments in a centrally located place kids can’t “lose.”

For kids who successfully finished early, it’s easy. Move on to the next section, use the examples from the book and try to figure it out on your own (which many could do) and I helped when possible, and they taught each other.

For the kids who were lagging behind, I tried to work with them in small groups or have advanced students work with them. But no matter what system, some kids just don’t do squat.

The Results Come In

As it turns out, my teaching partner and I had the HIGHER scores in the 7th grade department. Compared to the district as a whole, we were slightly above the average in every category. Not way above the average, but enough to be significant. And compared to our fellow teachers’ kids, we were significantly higher in several areas.

Because we started the model in the second quarter, mandating that some students start back at square one, we didn’t get as far in the curriculum as we were “supposed” to, but we felt we got through the stuff that was most important for the Algebra 1 concepts they needed as fundamentals. It was another reason to expect that we might be the cause of the decline in scores. To our surprise, the “Honors” Pre-Algebra class, which was whole chapters ahead of where we were all year, had the LOWEST scores on the state tests. We were floored.

On a personal level, my individual kids did OK. Almost all of them remained at the level they came in at, meaning they learned a year’s worth of material in the year that I had them. I had about a dozen who went up a level, and one kid went up two. I had two who went down one level, and I’m not sure why, as they were excellent students during the year. Four others went down, but I know why — they didn’t do a lick of work most of the year. My partner had very similar results for his class. Our colleagues had fewer moving up a level, and a few more moving down.

While it’s really too soon to make definitive statements, we feel like we did what we set out to do. We are still fine-tuning the system (more on that later) and are hoping that starting off at the beginning of the year will show more dramatic results on this year’s tests. Plus, we are anxious to see how our kids adapt to the Algebra I curriculum and if they were prepared enough to be successful as 8th graders. So while the jury is still out on that, we are thrilled that our kids didn’t go down, or cause the majority of the decline department-wide, and it has strengthened our resolve to continue improving how we teach and how kids learn.

(photo courtesy of Will Okun)