This week, our teachers have been finalizing report cards for the end of Term 1, which will be sent home two weeks from today. This will be the first comprehensive report of the year that summarizes student progress and achievement, while highlighting the equally important “areas for improvement” or “next steps”. The use of this term (next steps) is common in more than just education. It is used in medicine, business, family law, and government and usually relates to goal setting. It means that – when it comes to the human person – there is always room for growth and no one is perfect. In our work with children, an honest summary of how well learning objectives have been mastered is the “first step” in articulating the “next step”.
All such steps are unique to the person. Of course we acknowledge this and respect it in our own children, as we see the array of talents, strengths, aptitudes, and interests among siblings. Ultimately, we want our children to be appreciated as individuals in the world and in school because they are not all the same and each requires something different. In a perfect world, individual programming and instruction would address such unique learning needs, but this can seem rather utopian and almost impossible to achieve. Short of one-on-one instruction, one-on-one assessment, and one-on-one coaching, how can this be achieved?
Take mathematics, for example. Students sometimes believe they are bad at math. When they don’t master an exercise or solve a problem right away, they can sometimes give up. They may think they are just not born for math or that they lack the “math gene”. But that is the wrong mindset. Not being able to master material is not fixed.
Yes, some students are slower at mastering material than others, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn it, or that there’s nothing that can be done about it. What if we were committed to the strength and effectiveness of mastery learning, an approach to learning that focusses on mastering a topic before you move on to a more advanced one? Sounds logical, right?
While the mastery approach suggests that every student is on his or her own track, how can this possibly work in a classroom? Education would have to be personalized and you would have to be prepared to differentiate instruction, assessment, and pace of learning for every student.
It sounds really new and impractical, but 100 years ago, experiments in which mastery-based learning was investigated promised great results. The trouble is it can be logistically difficult and impractical – and impeded by the wrong kind of “learning space” and the wrong kind of “thinking about learning”.
When we review our children’s upcoming reports across all subject areas, let’s bear in mind what the author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, Sheila Tobias, advises: “There is a difference between not knowing and not knowing yet”.
Turning personalized learning into “the new normal” is one of our school’s goals and should be the goal of every school.
Ric Anderson, Head of School