Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Classrooms in the Age of Proficiency

My colleague Tom Ferenc asked me the other day what a proficiency based classroom looked like. The question had come from one of his teachers who raised it in a slightly different form. She stated that it seemed like the teachers were already doing proficiency based education so what would they actually have to change. The dilemma had been keeping him up at night. How do you paint a picture of what PBE looks like? It is a real dilemma I think because PBE is an evolution not a revolution. In many ways we have been evolving to a proficiency based system for years. That evolution really started with the standards movement in the 80's. Teachers have been identifying standards, and developing rubrics for years now. So what is the difference.
I am going to switch metaphors now and talk about PBE as an iceberg. Most of what we know and can see in proficiency based system is above the water. It is the stuff we have been doing in some form or another for years. Teachers have been thinking about standards and assessment. They develop rubrics and give feedback. The changes in this work above the water line is evolutionary not revolutionary. It is a good thing that teachers feel like they are already doing Proficiency Based Education because they are using the elements, the change will be in the ways they pull those elements together.
There is a greater emphasis on teachers knowing the standards. This emphasis is largely necessitated by a change in assessment and reporting of proficiency (grading). The shift is away from giving students grades based on meeting the requirements of the class and towards them demonstrating what they can do. That means that in PBE classrooms the indicators (all of which come from the standards) are explicitly and clearly tied to both formative and summative assessment. In terms of grading, currently we mash work habits up with content knowledge. We often create single grade for a student that includes work habits like how many homeworks they turned, how well the participated in class or how hard we thought they tried on a particular assignment. We end up with kids passing classes but not really knowing the content. In a PBE a teacher will assess and report on work habits separately from proficiency. 

      Image credit Liz Mirra

In PBE classrooms teachers are using common assessment criteria more often than not. This is going to be particularly true not only in broad areas like communication or research, but also in more specific areas like "using evidence" "revising based on feedback".  There will be greater emphasis on connecting skills common across disciplines. Teachers may be building rubrics tailored to specific assignments from a common assessment criteria bank. PBE classrooms will focus more on the iterative process.There will be considerably more emphasis on the formative assessment -- feedback loop. Students will expect to have more iterations and feedback through formative assessment. Students may come back to the same piece of work several times over a time period to refine it. 

These are just few familiar areas where PBE will look different. However it is below the waterline that PBE looks much different from business as usual.

Starting with planning and the use of common planning templates. This planning begins with a common question, How can I...? How can I design assessments that take into account both content and transferrable skills? How can I tasks that are both rigorous and authentic? How can create an instructional ladder that is challenging, allows students to practice and get feedback on specific skills.
I have written about the LDC in an earlier post but I want to again emphasize the need for common touch stones for teachers. Using a common planning template does not mean everyone teaches the same thing nor does it mean writing a curriculum. It is simply a focused way thinking about assessment and instruction. The framework would allow for teachers to more clearly articulate what the skills and outcomes are for their courses. It allows for more targeted cross curricular planning. It could even be used in collaboration with student to develop their own independent pathway.

Focused planning is necessary in PBE but it is not sufficient. Creating time and space for teachers to learn in community will be essential. Standing dedicated time for Critical Friends Groups will be essential. The biggest and most important part of a PBE classroom does not actually happen in the classroom. It happens when teacher meet each week for at least two hours and look at student work, look at the assignments they create and grapple together with the dilemmas they face with their changing practice. So in a PBE classroom deprivatization of practice is the norm. Teachers look carefully at each others work and give specific, credible, actionable and audible feedback.

So while above the water line the changes are evolutionary, below the water line the changes are going to feel revolutionary.

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