To Experiment, Struggle and Explore

To Experiment, Struggle and Explore

Walking into a classroom with just over 35 students, I felt a little daunted on the first day of school. The vast majority of these students had some exposure to computers and other technology, but only some had seen the integration of said tools into a school setting. Few had seen them woven into the fabric of a school curriculum to the extent we were hoping to establish. Armed with the ability to navigate the websites of our content providers and knowing that things would be in a perpetual state of change (at least for some time), we commenced our very first year at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado Middle School with high hopes, higher expectations, and plenty of sensibility.

A significant challenge we encountered was how to use the data available from different providers to encourage students to use online content to learn independently. We began looking for the data that would let us use blended learning to differentiate content in class and truly make learning and teaching more effective and personalized. What we found, however, was that different providers supply different data, even exporting it in vastly different ways. In addition, content from different providers doesn’t always align perfectly with other school curriculums, or even to the standards themselves. Furthermore, assessment information isn’t always concurring and the ways in which data are reported can be quite different – all of which makes processing information much harder. In short: making data-driven instructional decisions has been extremely difficult, especially early in our first year because the data available to us is not perfect. That said, decisions have certainly been made despite that. Organizing and implementing data driven lesson plans has meant using anecdotal data in conjunction with reported data in a less than scientific ways. It is work we undertake each day, but we’ve yet to stumble upon any easy answers or quick fixes.

One piece of information that has surfaced as pivotal is the progress of students through online content. Even as we work to increase our confidence in the effectiveness of our online providers and improve the ways we match students with the activities and assessments they need to master content, understanding the level of student focus and effort is vital. With time-on-task data, even if there is a level of uncertainty associated with the quality of online content, alignment with standards, or the rigor of the associated assignments, it is still possible to know which students are engaging in the material and making the effort required to learn.

The challenge of student engagement and focus is not new, and the novelty of blended learning only took us so far. We were soon reminded that middle school students are often reluctant learners. Even with careful monitoring of student activity and no-excuses compliance-based approaches, we couldn’t seem to force unwilling students to learn (if you can imagine that). The most promising practice we have identified so far is providing students with their own achievement data, teaching them how to analyze, supporting them as they set SMART goals for themselves, and then having them track their own progress. It’s worth noting that knowing which data to present to students as well as when the tracking and goal setting process for students should start has been a bit of a challenge in and of itself. Goal setting and tracking is only effective and realistic if there is actually data to work from and an established understanding on the students’ part of why the data they are being presented with is important. Ideally, comprehensive performance information would be available for students days after the kickoff of a school year. However, finding the time for students to take a breadth of assessments has its limitations. Getting a good portion of assessment taken out of the way during our summer school session was, without a doubt, a brilliant decision. And now, with just over a month of instruction behind us, we feel confident that our students have the foundations they need to really take ownership of their own progress. Additionally, we are working to establish a culture where data is shared, and where (when the focus is on progress and growth rather than absolute performance) every student is comfortable with this openness. We have found that if students can track for themselves what percentage of content they’ve mastered and compare and contrast that with the progress of their classmates, they are far more likely to actively seek forward movement.

Perhaps our greatest success to date has been creating an environment that encourages reflection and innovation. There are often more questions than answers, and we feel pretty comfortable with that dynamic – not because we like unanswered questions, but because we have the freedom afforded to pioneers: to experiment, struggle, and explore.

Written by Gabriela Rios

Learning Coach and founding staff member at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado Middle School with several years of experience in academic counseling.

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