Getting kids to own their learning

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Solon High School chemistry teacher Ken Beck used to see two types of students in his classroom.

Some “played the points game,” as he calls it, completing their homework but not doing so great on tests.

Others blew off the daily work but blew him away on tests — they clearly got what he was supposed to be teaching them.

In a traditional classroom, that first student could easily earn an A or a B — although they might be hard-pressed to tell you much about chemistry. The second student would be lucky to skate by with a C, he told a group of legislators and teachers on Friday.

Iowa law requires students spend a certain number of class hours learning a subject, but one idea in Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform proposal is to create a pathway to a competency-based system that would evaluate students on mastery, not time.

The idea has a lot of fans, but would it work? Solon High has been piloting a system that seems to indicate it would.

A handful of teachers this year are taking a standards-based approach to grading — outlining exactly what they expect students to learn and designing tailored assessments that show whether or not students have learned it. Instead of racking up points, they have to be able to show that they “get it.” Instead of copying homework and cramming for tests, they have to practice until the concepts are deeply ingrained.

“It really makes students own their own learning,” Solon High School Principal Nathan Wear told me. “No longer are they just sitting passively in a classroom and the teacher does all the work.”

On Friday, a handful of us headed to the school to learn more.

Standards-based evaluation brings learning into focus, the kids told us. It motivates them, it seems more relevant.

“For [our parents] it was a mechanical process they had to learn ... but it’s a different society now. We need to connect things,” one student said.

Standards-based evaluation rewards learning more than the timing and rote processes of learning. To the students, it just makes more sense.

Of course, that doesn’t answer every question about how competency-based systems might work — figuring out how to manage classrooms and staff when students are coming and going as they learn, not when the calendar dictates, will be no small task.

But after seeing the passion of those Solon kids, excited to be captains of their own learning, I am certain.

Figuring out those details will be worth it.

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