Bigfoot
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Thumb_unnamed_copy Alex Hernandez ·

Spotting Schools’ Version of "Bigfoot"

What happens when students drive their learning

The call arrived late one night from Margaret Angell of the CityBridge Education Innovation Fellowship.

“Alex, we have a sighting!” she told me. “Kids are learning at their own pace.”

I asked her if she was sure. I had been burned before. “I think so,” she said. “The pictures are kind of fuzzy, but they look legit. The townspeople are talking.”

Spotting kids learning at their own pace is like catching a glimpse of Bigfoot. We all know about Bigfoot but beyond a few grainy photos, few can claim they have actually seen it in the wild.

Education innovation is not about dumping truckloads of tablets into classrooms or doing the exact same things we have always done, just with a shinier set of tools. It’s about the the hard work of changing instructional practice and radically improving student experience. It’s about coaxing Bigfoot to come out.

Just ask Shane Donovan, a 9th grade Physics teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington DC. E.L. Haynes currently serves 1,100 students PK-11; 66% of students are economically disadvantaged and 80% are African-American or Latino.

Shane believes that if he lets individual students drive their learning, showing mastery each step of the way, they will become more successful, engaged and independent learners. In summer of 2013, he took his existing curriculum and broke it up into modules: 33 standards and 15 labs. He is now recording videos for each module as an additional student resource. “It’s a huge amount of upfront planning,” he says, “but I don’t need to change my assignments. I just need to give students more control.”

The students have a course worth of materials, resources and assessments that they are now responsible for mastering, step-by-step.

For instance, each day, the 45-minute physics period is comprised of:

  • 5 minutes of  intro / warm-up activity

  • 30 minutes of independent learning block

  • 10 minutes of assessment  

Shane determines what supports students need each period and spends his time accordingly. “If enough students are on the same standard, I might do a large group lesson or pull small groups for 5-8 minutes of instruction.” He spends the rest of the time circulating among the class, working with individual students.

What Shane and others nationwide are finding is that competency-based or mastery-based learning creates a new set of challenges for our most innovative educators. When students are put in charge of their learning: their reactions vary hugely, in almost scattershot fashion.

Some students who had felt constricted or held back by traditional settings rocket through the curriculum. Other students keep the minimum pace needed to complete everything by semester’s end. Still other students linger over the standards they are good at, reluctant to take on more challenges. And yes, some students reject the learning environment altogether; they just want the teacher to tell them what to do.

Given Shane’s newfound flexibility in the classroom, he spends a lot of time coaching students to build independent work habits not just academics. According to Shane, his “biggest instructional skills are in-person differentiation and tutoring” and the personalized environment allows him to play to his strengths.

He notes that mastery-based classrooms value learning over time, affording him more time to talk to his students about learning and less time worrying whether his class will “get through” all the material--a profound shift in mindset for both teacher and students.

Students need much more feedback to set goals and keep pace. Shane helps students keep pace through a Candyland-type game board on the wall that lays out all the course modules (see below). Each student has a marker on the board to display his or her progress. They can judge their progress by comparing it with an Einstein head that travels at the pace necessary to complete all the material during the semester. Rapid feedback and goal-setting tools are critical in environments where students control their learning.


Students have the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a standard at the end of each class session. They receive immediate feedback from their online assessments and, if a student scores 80% or better, she receives a score of 3 (proficient) on a 4-point scale. In order to earn a 4 (mastery), students must complete an additional challenge task, which can reveal soft spots in their understanding and deepen learning. Overall grades are determined by the percent of modules students score proficient or better.

In traditional classes, students who fail assessments take their bad grades and move on. In a mastery-based environment, they get additional practice and instruction until they can show proficiency. “It’s a very different way for students to think about learning,” Shane notes.

Students need support as they learn how to be independent learners. Teachers experiencing competency-based learning for the first time often feel like they’re playing a vigorous game of “whack-a-mole.” Hands begin shooting up one after another as students become paralyzed with the uncertainty of what to do next. Instead of being celebrated as a liberator of learning, the teacher frantically ping-pongs from student to student, trying to answer their onslaught of questions.

Shane created a “pyramid of independence” to teach students how to use the resources around them in order to become more self-directed learners. The pyramid has four steps:

1) review your notes

2) watch the video

3) ask your partner

4) ask the teacher.

The pyramid ensures that students put in effort before asking Shane a question. Students who do consult the teacher are provided question stems such as, “I’ve already looked at __________ and I still have a question about __________,” to reinforce their agency.

While we often talk about the promise of personalized learning, Shane is putting ideas into practice by truly letting his physics students take control of their learning. And not just the kids at the top of class: Shane began his competency-based redesign with a four-week summer pilot that served eleven students who previously failed the course.  

The results of the pilot were promising--all eleven students passed the course--but by no means definitive. As with all new innovations, there is no seven-year, double-blind research study proving the effectiveness of the approach. But leaders at E.L. Haynes were encouraged enough to try the new course with all 140 ninth graders. This year, Shane and his colleague are closely tracking student progress, frequently iterating the model and creating a body of evidence for further evaluation. They will double-down on what is working and abandon what is not.

Shane shows us that educators can begin to personalize learning right now, in meaningful ways, with the resources at their disposal. He gives us hope that “better” is possible for underserved youth in our public schools and that letting them learn at their own pace is more than the stuff of legend and folklore.

Postscript: Under The Hood

Shane uses Google Drive (free) to organize his curriculum and Mastery Connect ($159 / year, shown below) to load his assessments and administer them to students online. 


He creates 5 to 7 minute videos for each of his standards, in some cases capturing live lectures and other times recording screencasts. Each physics student has a Chromebook to use in class. E.L. Haynes also uses a data management system called SchoolForce which the school helped design.


About the Author

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Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks.

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