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Self-Paced Science

Self-Paced Science - It’s About Mindsets

By Jeff Astor, November 13, 2015

Education has changed forever.

It’s a good thing too, because it’s been a long time coming. Just 15 years ago the only reliable learning resources were books, teachers, and parents. The content came from only a few sources, so the best students learned to make due with limited options.

Today that narrative has shifted. With perpetual internet access, our brains work more like a browser cache - storing information we need to access immediately and using the internet as our extended knowledge network.

Yet for the most part, we haven’t adjusted our teaching styles to reflect this.

Much more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching comprehension, application, and design. The most prepared students are the ones who can identify a problem, understand information about the topic, and design solutions to address the problem.

Kids can look anything up on the internet, so they will. De-emphasizing content doesn’t mean getting rid of it. Instead the content is the medium through which we help students develop positive habits and mindsets. Then, all learning becomes more personalized and enjoyable.

In a sense, the content should almost be incidental. Learning to master any difficult subject independently is the truly valuable takeaway.

My students might not remember or care about AP chemistry content 2, 3, or 10 years down the road. That’s OK. Far more importantly, they’ll have developed routines that will help them succeed in new academic pursuits.

So, how do we make this happen in our classes?

Innovative educators like Physics, Chemistry and Earth Science instructor Jessica Anderson will tell you; transition to a self-paced system. Educators, like this 2016 Montana State Teacher of the Year, continue to redefine their role in the classroom and are handing decision-making power over to the students.

Cut out big lectures and teachers can focus on individual students. Mrs. Anderson says she spends her time building relationships with students, checking on their progress, and facilitating collaborative activities. She loves how students start to own their learning when everything is on their shoulders.

It’s like the old proverb, “Give a kid a fish and she’ll eat for a day. Teach a kid to fish, and she’ll go on the internet to learn from the experts before coming back to show you how it’s really done.”

The power of the self-paced classroom is in the mindsets that emerge from this environment. The three shifts in thinking that make the biggest impact can be summed up nicely:

1. The focus is on mastery, not compliance.

Story after story gets told about that one student who can’t seem to get it. He can’t figure out how to get it in time, performs poorly on the exam, and moves on to the next unit unprepared. Those gaps in knowledge accumulate and many teachers must then spend time getting students to be compliant during class so they can “receive” another lesson.

That kid is fidgety and bored because he’s lost. It’s not the student’s fault, nor is it even the teacher’s fault. It’s the system that needs fixing.

Self-paced classrooms combat this issue by getting students to demonstrate mastery - as defined by the teacher and regional standards - in interesting and engaging ways before they can move on to the next topic. Gaps in knowledge are then much easier to identify and address.

This system also offers a truly sustainable experience for teachers. My favorite part of class is when I sit down with students and have organic conversations around learning. What educator wouldn’t like to do that all period?

2. Self-paced means students call the shots.

Salman Khan, a pioneer in the flipped learning movement, discusses the power that can be harnessed when students are in control of their learning pace. His book One World Schoolhouse stresses the importance of student agency in learning. Kids who move through content at their own speed are inclined to try harder, knowing that if they’re lost they can always review the video lessons and ask questions.

Beyond that, students who miss lessons aren’t under pressure to “learn” it in record time, just to be ready for the next one. They can dive into lessons at their discretion, getting help when they really need it. Students thrive in these low pressure environments.

Both of these factors provide comfort to those students who struggle the most.

What’s more, students who use digital resources to learn independently empower themselves. In a world where video content is everywhere, students immersed in a self-paced system are more confident in their ability to learn any subject later in life.

First, students have to get used to the idea that they dictate their own learning. They can then come to own the progress they make every day. The onus is on the student.

3. Failure and feedback are part of the process.

The mindset here is that success doesn’t come from one day of intensive work. Success comes from continuously improving and finding new ways to approach learning.

When students dictate their learning, failing becomes a part of the process. The state of any assignment is essentially broken. It’s the students’ job to fix it. Failure becomes just another step in the journey towards success. The best startups know that rapid growth and development emerges when they internalize the valuable lessons from their mistakes. The same holds true for our children.

Teachers can help students hold themselves accountable with simple tools. I help my chemistry students build action plans for each learning objective and deliver daily checklists to help them keep on track. This small structural addition promotes students' tracking their own progress and instills a mindset of personal accountability towards their academics.

The concept of the self-paced class is not a new one, but the integration of technology into the learning space has made this system effective and sustainable at scale. Some of the best teachers in the country swear by it - and for good reason. As great teachers start to see the benefits of letting students control the pace of learning, expect to see schools and classrooms shift towards a more student-centered mindset.

I, personally, am looking forward to it.

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Is a self-paced classroom right for you?

By Jessica Anderson, November 15, 2015

Teaching in a self-paced learning environment isn’t for everyone. It takes a growth mindset and a flexible personality willing to take risks, and put relationships at the forefront of learning.  Is this you?

Even if this isn’t you, it’s important to recognize the importance of self-paced learning in the classroom.

Self-paced learning puts students at the center. Learning becomes their responsibility; their job in the classroom.  In the classroom, it opens up the opportunity for students to learn not only the content, but to self-manage their learning and positively collaborate with their peers.

As an instructor, you must redefine your role. If you’re a sage on the stage, you must immediately stop what you’re doing. Being a sage on the stage is counterproductive in a self-paced environment. How students demonstrate their learning and how they learn in the classroom is up to them, not you. A guide on the side is an improvement, as it puts learning into the hands of students, but the teacher still has a prominent role in the classroom. However, if you want to be most effective as a self-paced instructor, you have to hang up your teacher hat and start becoming comfortable with the highest seat in the bleachers. Up in the nosebleeds, you have the opportunity to cheer on your students as they navigate the slippery success and failure slope. However, you are close enough that you can swoop down and help them navigate the slope if necessary.

Self-paced teaching and learning isn’t easy. It takes a lot of patience on both the teacher and student’s part. However, it opens up the doors to building a classroom culture where learning is key.

Students in this Vine are working self-paced on a variety of different activities. Two students are also in the lab analyzing soils. 


strategizing: It's Not Just for Chess Players

By Jessica Anderson, November 28, 2015

At the beginning of every class, students enter the classroom, open up their HP Streams, and complete their goal sheets on Classcraft. During this time, a 4-minute clip of B-Film's Didge plays in the background. The ending of this music indicates that it's time to clamshell devices, which you can hear uttered from my mouth daily. Students immediately half-close their devices and bring their attention to the front of the room. It's during this structured portion of the period that we complete our class event (a random event; adding an element of chance to the game), review students' goal sheets and the class timeline, and discuss strategies to use in the blended classroom.

Our strategy discussion, in my opinion, is one of the most important parts of this portion of the day. In the self-paced blended classroom, strategy discussions center around progression, overcoming challenges, and collaboration. For example, the other day we talked about using experts in our class to help when met with a challenging activity. We focused on how to go about finding theexperts in the class, like individuals who had already mastered the activity and content, and how to ask for help. Discussions like these, although a simple reminder of discussions at the beginning of the year, remind students how to be successful blended students. 

WHAT CONVERSATIONS SURROUNDING STRATEGIES DO YOU HAVE WITH YOUR STUDENTS?