What would an education system look like that responded to each student’s needs and interests – and based their progression on their individual mastery of vital skills and competencies? And what would it take to get there? These were some of the big questions at Jobs for the Future’s (JFF) Students at the Center symposium. A diverse audience of 150 leading practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and funders came together to discuss the findings of nine syntheses of research on student-centered approaches to learning, funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF). For two days, we approached education from the perspective of the learner, grappling with how to harness old wisdoms and new technologies to make teaching and learning work for each and every student. We heard more than a few people comment that the Common Core State Standards are providing us a precious but narrow window in which people are paying close attention to what actually happens in the classroom. So how can we capitalize on this moment?
First, the speakers challenged current educational paradigms in which teachers face pressure to lump all students together and teach in a standardized way toward some middle ground along a set pace. To help all students master college and career-ready competencies, and to sustain the engagement that motivates them to be fully invested learners, curriculum needs to be as differentiated as the learners themselves. Advances in neuroscience are revealing that our brains are highly specialized, individual, and plastic — leading to vast variations in areas of strength among learners within a classroom. As much as differentiation is a buzzword, this framework differs a bit from the instructional philosophy that many of us may be accustomed to. While we so often focus on maximizing the use of high-engagement strategies and instructional approaches such as collaborative group work and Socratic circles, David Rose reminded us that a Socratic circle may be perceived as highly social to one student, not social enough to another, and terrifying to a third. The student-centered classroom strikes a balance between encouraging students to learn in the modality that works best for them, while making sure they are competent in all modalities. Developing the accessible, high-quality instructional tools that more easily allow and incentivize teachers to differentiate for each child is the challenge we need to tackle. In the words of researcher Rochelle Gutierrez, we have unmotivating contexts, not unmotivated kids.
Another powerful theme was the potential of assessment not only to allow competency-based progress through an education pathway, but also to act as a powerful learning tool. It’s an often-heard complaint that our testing regime detracts time from teaching and learning, so it was eye-opening to hear so many talk about how high-quality formative and even summative assessments contribute to learning. Good assessments give students targeted feedback about what mastery skills they’re striving for, how far they need to go, and what they need to do to get there. They give teachers feedback about their students and about how to improve their instruction. And they allow students to progress not based on seat time, but when they have mastered the competencies being assessed.
Where we really saw all of these ideas and practices come together was in Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman’s study of teachers at work, in which they explored an expanded and reshaped role of the student-centered educator. In schools across the country—if not enough of them—teachers are using student-centered and competency-based approaches that raise academic achievement for underserved learners. These teachers have strong relationships with students, empowering them to personalize and direct their individual learning trajectories and motivating them to develop positive intellectual identities. One memorable example of a student-centered school was New York City’s iSchool, in which every student takes a course on the psychology and neuroscience of learning, and armed with this metacognitive reflection, creates his or her own learning plan, complete with an academic focus area.
JFF will continue to tackle questions of how educators can use the research highlighted at the symposium through the second phase of the Students at the Center project. With continued funding from NMEF, Students at the Center will consult with teachers, students, and administrators to develop tools, materials, and additional research that enable educators to translate the papers’ findings into everyday practice.
Through a separate, but related partnership with Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), we will help spread BDEA’s well-honed competency-based approaches for off-track youth. BDEA is in the second year of hosting its Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL), a summer institute with year-round follow-up to train others in how to translate the Common Core to a competency-based approach that effectively serves struggling youth.