The Schedule of Learning

If you want learning to be constant, make time for growth the variable.

Too often in education, we worry about staying on schedule. We have to get through X so we can get to Y. We have to read this book so you get ready for that book. If we don’t get done with this concept by this arbitrary date, we won’t be able to get to the next concept by that arbitrary date.

An epiphany for me came when I read a beautifully simplistic idea from Ken O’Connor: if time for learning is fixed in a classroom, then learning will be the variable; if learning is fixed in a classroom, then time for learning must be the variable.

This realization re-framed my understanding of how I assess and report my students’ learning. It’s not important that learners master skills on my timeline. It’s important that they master skills by the time the class ends. Often times, I will draw the following diagram on the board to demonstrate what growth might look like:

The top diagram represents students who make consistent growth at fairly regular intervals throughout the course of the semester. These students see continual improvement and as a result they are encouraged by their progress. Their grades are consistent throughout the course of the semester and might even pull out an A by the end of the semester.

The second diagram represents students who do not see early successes. When they do start to see successes, the growth isn’t as big as their peers. They begin to withdraw from the class intellectually as they feel like they aren’t capable enough to do the work. However, when they do start to grow, the growth is exponential. They see big jumps at the end of the semester and reach skill levels that their peers have. However, since they struggled so much early, they have had low grades all semester and fight to scrape out a lower grade than they probably deserve. They are punished because their learning took place after their peers: not on the teacher’s schedule, but on their own schedule.

The best example of this second type of growth is one of my English 2 Honors learners. Isaac often told me at the beginning of the year “I’m just not that good at English. I’m more of a math and science person.” He struggled with reading analytically and addressing author’s purpose and effect in his writing. For months, he would make self-deprecating comments about his abilities in the class and not being able to do the same kind of work his peers could. He had convinced himself he wouldn’t see their triumphs because he wasn’t progressing as quickly as they were.

But…

With less than a month to go in the semester, Isaac made his big jump. He wrote the best analysis he’s written so far this year. He was able to think about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a way that was not possible 12 weeks ago. I made that comment to Isaac and he responded with, “Mr. Lester, I wouldn't have been able to do that ONE week ago!”

Some of the most insightful analysis of the year in English 2 Honors.

It was so cool to see Isaac’s peers be impressed with the quality of his analysis and in turn see Isaac realizing the success that had been eluding him all semester. Now, Isaac is producing his best work of the year and has renewed confidence in his abilities. If I had adhered to policies that penalized Isaac for not learning on my timeline or had averaged his grades from the beginning of the learning with his grades at the end of the learning, Isaac told me he would have felt like he didn’t have the chance to be successful.

We must move past the false belief that all students must learn on our schedule; it’s more important to understand that the learning schedule for each student in your classroom needs to be specific to that student’s needs. Our job as teachers not to teach; it is our job as teachers to insure that all students learn. We can only do that by allowing students the time and flexibility necessary to learn. When we use grading policies that stifle flexibility in the learning schedule, we limit our students’ ability to reach their full potential.

It is time to discard archaic policies founded on fallacious beliefs: policies which must no longer be utilized to teach “accountability.” Late work and zeros for missing work do not teach accountability. Having students continue to work and learn until they have reached proficiency is accountability. We should be allowing students to grow and learn at their OWN pace without imposing Draconian penalties when students aren’t learning on OUR pace.

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