Thursday, August 29, 2013

Learner Voice = Authenticity in Learning

Learner voice gives learners a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. There are so many aspects of "school" and "learning" where learners have not been given the opportunity to be active participants. Giving them voice encourages them to participate in their own learning. Some learners, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Because of this concern, teachers have devised multiple ways to give learners their voice anonymously in surveys, group interviews, and in class discussions. Now it is time to look at learner voice and why it matters for all learners.

In the Student At the Center Report: Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice, Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula stated that:
"by the time they become seniors, high school students have devoted over 12,000 hours of seat time to observing classroom decision making. You can bet they have opinions about what they have received! To have the opportunity to say what they think and then be heard by others can help lead students to an awareness of being included and valued as a member of that community."
In this same section on Student Voice, Mitra, and Gross shared in their article "Increasing Student Voice in High School Reform" Educational Management Administration & Leadership 2009,
"When students believe that they are valued for their perspectives and respected, they begin to develop a sense of ownership and attachment to the organization in which they are involved." 
Just think about you, your learners or your own child not having a voice when you are part of some activity, organization, or school. How did you feel? When you have a voice and you are heard, you feel valued and respected. We like to feel we belong and that we have something to contribute.

 What Kids Can Do (WKCD) embraced student voice as one of their guiding principles to welcome youth as crucial investors in improving their schools and communities.   
Kathleen Cushman and Barbara Cervone at WKCD share that there is a lot to learn about the complexities of student voice and that meaningful voice must:
  • Be inclusive, beginning with the premise that everyone has membership
  • Be woven into the daily fabric of school (and reach far beyond after school clubs and "one-off" events)
  • Target substantive issues
  • Involve asking and listening by all parties
  • Lead to constructive action.
Link to "Just Listen" videos from What Kids Can Do

So what does voice mean to a teenager? Check out Ned's Gr8 8 Tips:

This makes sense if you give learners a voice, they'll probably tell you to make it relevant, make it so they can use it and not lose it.

Check out a new site on Student Voice where they have The Student Voice Digital Backpack that provides teachers, students and communities tools to give learners their voice. Some of the tools include:

Suggestion Box Mentality
Student Voice Photobooth
Student Activist Backpack Constitutional Rights

You can follow Student Voice #stuvoice on Twitter and share your voice. Include our hashtag #plearnchat so we can follow you. Back to the report from Toshalis and Nakkula Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice (#jfftweets)
Motivation, engagement, and voice are the trifecta of student-centered learning 
Without motivation, there is no push to learn.
Without engagement, there is no way to learn.
Without voice, there is no authenticity in the learning.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Personal Pathways to Graduation

John H. Clarke has worked for twenty years at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol, Vermont on personalization in several roles. John helped develop the Pathways Program and wrote Personalized Learning: Student-designed Pathways to High School Graduation (Corwin, 2013) - a book we highly recommend. 

We are honored to have interviewed John and learn more about the pathways program so we can share it with you.

Why do you believe all learning is personal?

Each one of us controls the work of our minds. Within the boney fortress of the skull, we can do what we want with our intellectual abilities, slowly constructing simple models explaining how things work – so we can manage the complex world in which we live. Yes, we have five senses that bring in information from the outside, but we don’t let everything get in – or we would be overwhelmed by chaotic impressions. We have to make a decision to learn, to be intentional about the work of our minds.

Learning depends on a decision to engage information, not just to bring it in, but to move it around with other information so it makes sense. Choosing what information to manage increases the commitment to learn. Learning follows a personal choice and, thank goodness, we all choose somewhat differently. Learning lies under our personal control, while teaching is controlled by others. As test scores clearly show, the connection between learning and teaching is pretty loose because control over learning is personal. Personalized learning begins by activating what we already know, throwing it up against new ideas and fashioning a sensible explanation of both together. We do that continuously; our ideas expand so we can explain more and more of our experience.

Personalized learning emphasizes the beliefs, talents, interests and aspirations already in place, using them to probe deeply into the questions that the individual finds meaningful or useful. Personal questions then become tools for analysis and creative work. Personalized high schools use this dynamic process to make learning more effective as well as more applicable. Learning is a personal process that produces all the different skills a society needs to adapt to change. In a personalized high school, each student learns to design and revise a personal pathway to adult independence, assembling knowledge, skills, perspectives and connections that allow  her to achieve goals that become increasingly clear as the process unfolds.

Why is it necessary to consider personalized learning as a feasible approach to secondary reform?

In a large, comprehensive high school, personalized learning seems almost impossible to imagine. High schools are built to manage large groups – divided into grades, subject areas, “tracks” for people that we can treat the same way.  As teachers facing 20 – 40 students in one room, we crave order above all else. High schools are monuments to predictable order, but predictable order does not allow all kids to learn. They learn quite differently. Smaller schools – such as charters, pilots, magnets and model high schools such as the Met in Providence and other Big Picture schools are showing how personalized learning can work – but few large comprehensive high schools have managed to personalize themselves. That’s why I wrote about personalized pathways to graduation – to show how a relatively large high school could develop reliable processes for personalizing the experience of all its students. The transformation is feasible, but surely not quick and easy.

Can you explain what these pathways entail? What led to Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School to consider personalized pathways to graduation?

Pathways at Mount Abe engage each student in looking at their talents, skills, interests and aspirations with a skillful faculty advisor to discover the things that drive them forward. The student and advisor begin to ask questions and set goals that open a desirable pathway to the future. Then the student begins to test possible pathways – doing site visits to professionals in their interest area, finding a mentor for in-depth experiences, taking college courses or virtual courses – while also searching widely for ideas from the widest possible array of choices -- conventional courses, community experience, reading and other media. Invariably, students change direction as the semesters unfold, but they are gathering evidence from all their explorations to show that they are meeting the school’s graduation standards. Each student has an “e-portfolio” web site where work is developed and stored, assembles in collaboration with the advisor. Each student web-site contains all the program graphics, guides, models of acceptable evidence, assessment rubrics and timetables, accessible to the student, advisor and anyone else the student invites in.

The Pathways Team at Mount Abraham designed a sequence of guides to help students move forward, each of which produces a “product” created by the student. As learning projects take form, the advisor introduces the standards and criteria that will be used to assess student work. As a semester ends, students and advisors refocus their energy on revising and refining the collection of evidence to show they are evidence of competency in five areas: 
  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • collaboration
  • global citizenship
  • independent learning

Each area is to be presented in an hour-long exhibition at the semester’s end. Revised and refined, the evidence, reflections and assessment become part of the student’s “best work” e-portfolio, to be used in college and job applications. The same process continues each semester with increasing focus as a student moves along his or her personal pathway.

Independent work at Pathways usually takes the form of a personal project – clearly defined processes and products. Kids have designed an enormous array of pathways: film-making, music production, medieval weapons, fire-fighting, computer programming, blacksmithing, game design, emergency rescue, nursing, film, theater, architecture, forestry, taxidermy… The list goes on. Last year, I took two kids to the Adirondacks to mine for iron or they could smelt down to make steel for the tools they hammer out on an anvil.  None of these pathways has been straight and orderly. Dead-ends, wrong leads, boring internships, deep reading, sudden inspiration and plain old discouragement can bring an inquiry pathway back to the beginning. Some kids start with three projects that slowly fuse into one.  The process is cyclical so a student is always moving toward some compelling purpose that evolves with further learning.

Pathways evolved over 15 – 20 years of exploration into a school-wide option, driven at the start by an appalling dropout rate. Twenty years ago, too many kids were leaving the secondary pathway entirely. Others were bored and resentful. Some listless. Others energized by clear prospects. In the following years change has accumulated incrementally. An early principal pushed block scheduling into place, moving classes away from lecture/recitation. Thinking skills, writing-to-learn, differentiated instruction, an advising program, team teaching, problem-based learning, portfolios, standards-based transcripts and other student-centered strategies washed through the school, leaving useful residue for later application in personalized learning.

The school then received a small grant from the U.S. labor department to start a program called “Futures”, giving students credit for self designed explorations of life after high school. A new department called Horizons gathered “Futures”, dual enrollment, service learning, senior projects and personal learning plans under one roof and laying the foundation of a new department called “Personalized Learning”, where kids could use computers and to put all these options into a framework based on their hopes and plans while showing that they had met the five graduation standards. A second grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation began the process of developing a comprehensive way to support student-designed pathways that could combine academic courses with all the available options for learning in the community. Students could design their own curriculum, or self-design a few interesting choices within a conventional program to check out career choices. Personal pathways gives a great deal of control over learning to students and their parents.

What are the new roles for teachers when learners take more control of their own learning?

Advising, mentoring and team leadership are new roles for teachers at Mount Abe. The Personalized Learning Department depends on four teachers with much of their time devoted to advising and program development. Recently, the Pathways Team Leader was asked to split her time between Pathways and consultation with teachers who are personalizing their courses within the conventional curriculum. Several courses now follow a personalized format, including physical education, human development and a senior course on citizenship, all of which are required. Two teachers now teach a middle level course initiating PLPs for each student, and another middle-level course introducing the Pathways design process, project based learning and the high school’s graduation standards. Two Pathways faculty teach a graduate course for teachers in the County’s four districts.

Teaching roles develop as the need expands. Rather than changing teacher contracts to define these fluid roles, all are identified as “teaching.” Like much of the secondary experience, teaching roles faculty loads have become standardized, trapping teachers in old conventions and preventing pioneers from exploring new ways to work with kids. Redesigning high schools to meet the needs of each student depends on having the freedom to expand our profession, making room for program development, faculty development, leadership, virtual teaching, mentoring and research within any teaching assignment. To grow and adapt, this profession needs flexibility and the authority to propose fundamental change. With information and creative power distributed universally on computer networks, failing to change is no longer a viable choice.


In 1966, John Clarke taught high school English and writing in Massachusetts, then moved to the University of Vermont where he focused on improving secondary teaching and redesigning high schools.  He has written, co-written or edited eight books on high school teaching and the process of educational reform. At the Education Lab at Brown University, he wrote two books about personalized learning and a research study of change in five Vermont high (Dynamics of Change in High School Teaching, 2001) With Joe DiMartino, he wrote Personalizing the High School Experience for Each student. (ASCD 2008). 

When we read his latest book: Personalized Learning:Student-designed Pathways to High School Graduation, we believe the strategies and tools provided can help all ages of learners personalize learning. We really love the stories he shares of the kids at Mt. Abraham and their journeys.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Competency-Based: It's All about Learning NOT Time

Fred Bramante is a former 8th grade science teacher in Stamford, Connecticut, a former candidate for governor, and the past Chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education. Appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors, he served on the State Board of Education longer than anyone in the state's history. In 2003, Mr. Bramante led New Hampshire's first full-scale effort to redesign public education since 1999. His book "Off the Clock: Moving from Time to Competency" has received rave reviews in education circles around the nation. 

It is a great honor for us to have had the opportunity to interview Fred Bramante and to share his journey with you. His Ted Talk video (below) demonstrates the passion that he has in competency-based learning and extended learning opportunities (ELO's). He wants every learner to find their passion and have a mentor that can help them realize their hopes and dreams. At the end of this article, read Fred's bio and discover how he plans to revolutionize education.

What personally drives you to change education as we know it?

What drives me to change education is that I was a terrible student. I finished 206th out of 212 students. School taught me that I wasn't very bright. Life taught me that the school was wrong. I felt like too many other students like me that go through the system. They get taught bad things about themselves, and, in most cases, things that are not true. I know what personal pain I went through. As I was seeing more and more success in my business life, it became more important for me to find a different way to do school so that kids like me do not have to go through what I went through.

You co-authored "Off the Clock" with Rose Colby. Could you tell us why competency-based systems will make the difference for all learners?

A good competency-based system will make a difference for all learners, because kids will be learning what they love instead of trying to jump through traditional school hoops. They will be the primary drivers of their learning.

Imagine a student saying I would like Mrs. Jones for English, but I was to use my karate lessons for my physical education. I want to play in a rock band for my music and do world history online. I want to learn automotive at the car dealership and want to learn space science at the planetarium. All of these become possibilities in a competency-based world where learning can take place anytime, anyplace, anyhow, and at any pace. I've always said that if kids can own how they learn, where they learn, when they learn, then why would anyone drop out of school?

How do you see competency-based systems the norm instead of the exception?

I see it as a two-tiered strategy, both top-down and bottom-up. The top-down part is that you change the state regulations. You take out time requirements: 180 days, etc. and put in competency-based regulations that make learning flexible. I always tell people you mandate flexibility which is an oxymoron. You make it so that the regulations pass much of the control of who owns the system from the system to the parents and the kids. And then, the bottom-up part is that you have to make so that the kids and parents actually know what's inside the regulations, know that they don't have to do it the way they've always done it. 

When the kids know that they have options that are fun and exciting, they will take advantage of this type of flexibility and more and more kids will start taking ownership of their learning. This thing will spread, and the system will never be the same. The National Center for Competency-based Learning is to establish a unifying sense of purpose in our communities by fully engaging the resources and talent to transform education in America from a system structure of time and place to an anytime, any place system designed to optimize the potential of every learner. The mission is to advance and implement competency-based learning by serving as a prime catalyst and harnessing community resources, influencing public opinion, and changing education policy at the local, state and national levels. That's a pretty ambitious undertaking, but I am convinced that we can make this happen.

Can you tell us about your National Center for Competency-based Learning organization and it's vision?

There are organizations and individuals around the country that are committed to moving in a competency direction. There has to be some type of an organization that ultimately can start connecting all these people together so that we build the army that is going to change the dinosaur of an education system we currently have. I'm confident that the National Center can help serve that purpose.

Can you tell us about the ELO project in New Hampshire, it's goal and how this can be a national model?

I also started a group called New Hampshire Extended Learning Organization. It's similar to the National Center for Competency-based Learning (NCCBL), but it's really doing it at the state level. What we're trying to do is to ultimately make it so that the world becomes the classroom for every student. In order to do that, we are working with manufacturers, marketing people, farming, software developers, chambers of commerce, higher education, and non-profits who are all working with public school educators.

We are going to take on the task of identifying and enlisting the services of 10,000 mentors in New Hampshire. These mentors include doctors, lawyers, accountants, surveyors, guitar instructors, sculptors, farmers, etc who will provide opportunities for kids to learn in real world, hands-on ways. Things that never could have been offered by schools so learners can choose from online offerings, traditional classrooms, and experiential opportunities. If we can successfully pull this off, it can be a model for other states. I'm very excited about it. This will take us a while, but I have confidence that we will get there.

Fred Bramante’s Ted Talk - It's Not About Time; It's About Learning”

In this Ted Talk, Fred Bramante shares that in 1964, he graduated 206th out of 212 students in his high school; that year his application for admission to both colleges were rejected. Refusing to give up on himself, he persevered and received his Bachelor's Degree in Science in 1970.

Fred left teaching in 1976 to dedicate his full-time effort to the fledgling music business he started with his life savings of $600 in order to supplement his teaching salary. At its peak, Daddy's Junky Music was among the top 20 music retailers in America. But he never stopped being a teacher. Education was in his blood.

In 1992, Fred Bramante was appointed to the New Hampshire State Board of Education. After unsuccessful runs for governor on education platforms, he was appointed Chairman of the New Hampshire State Board and was charged by the Governor with the responsibility to lead New Hampshire's first full-scale education reform effort since 1919. In 1995, Fred received the Alumni Achievement Award from Keene State College where he received his Bachelor's Degree. In 2009, he was awarded the Alumni Achievement Award from Plymouth State University where he received his Masters Degree in Educational Leadership in 2006.

The results of Fred's efforts led to landmark changes in New Hampshire's education regulations including the move from credit for seat time (the number of hours a student spends in class, known as the Carnegie Unit), to credit for demonstrated learning (anytime, anyplace, anyhow, any pace). Following New Hampshire's lead, the concept of a competency-based model is now being considered by virtually every state department of education and is high on the agenda of the Council of Chief State School Officers. In 2012, New Hampshire won the Frank Newman State Innovation Award from the Education Commission of the States.

Thank you Fred for all you do for our kids and learning!