Three Actions That Will Accelerate Learning in 2021
The past year has stretched and tested educators in previously unimaginable ways. While managing a slew of personal and professional challenges, we witnessed how educators improvised, innovated, and adapted to keep our students learning. Yet, the heroic performance by teachers, principals, and administrators could not tackle the systemic barriers that continued to widen the opportunity gap for Black and Latino students.
With the advantage of hindsight and progress being made to equitably support learners in a remote environment, we can shift focus toward re-envisioning our educational approach to meet the demands of 2021 and accelerate learning. If the pandemic shifts—from in-person to remote to hybrid—taught us anything, it is that we need to prepare for a world in which change is a constant, and we must equip educators to lead at the speed of change.
In 2021, a learning acceleration strategy must empower educators to:
- Diagnose learner needs with surgical precision
- Personalize instruction while maintaining grade-level focus
- Engage ALL learners via social-emotional and culturally responsive practices
Diagnose Learner Needs with Surgical Precision
Diagnosing students’ unfinished learning is one of the first steps in learning loss recovery, and every minute counts when addressing amplified learning loss. While data is critically important, over-testing can deprive students of precious instructional time. A comprehensive assessment system can equip educators with razor-sharp insights and inform a targeted strategy without requiring redundant testing.
A student’s instructional starting point identifies what they know and what they are ready to learn. But what does an actionable instructional starting point look like?
Traditional measures, such as national percentile ranks (i.e., norms), do a good job of identifying students in need of additional support and comparing students against one another. But given the unusual circumstances of 2020, norms may no longer be adequate. A student who began the year at the 23rd percentile may not reach proficiency by year’s end. Yet, what does the 23rd percentile tell us about the student’s unfinished learning?
A better starting point would be to know what grade level the student is currently performing at. Understanding that a third grader is working at a second grade level allows educators to review standards one grade level below and formulate a plan to address potentially missed content. In addition, having domain-level details (e.g., Phonics, Vocabulary and Comprehension in Reading, and Number and Operations, Algebra, and Geometry in Mathematics) will enable teachers to fine-tune their acceleration plans.
Personalize Instruction While Maintaining Grade-Level Focus
While it’s tempting for educators to focus their efforts on helping students learn the skills they may have missed, research on school districts that experienced extended school closures has taught us there is a better alternative. In fact, organizations like The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and the Council of the Great City Schools have emphatically stated that focusing on grade-level content is the right method for accelerating student learning.
So, how does a teacher balance the need to meet students where they are with grade-level expectations?
When educators have precise data that tells them where students are in their learning progression, they can use a just-in-time “scaffolding” approach to personalize instruction and help students master specific tasks. Additionally, scaffolding instruction to grade-level content requires a keen understanding of the prerequisite skills and content standards along the continuum of learning that will prepare students to be successful with grade-level topics. For example, in order to use place value, addition, and subtraction in fourth grade, students need to understand the second grade skills of hundreds, tens, and ones, add and subtract within 1,000, and the third grade skill of using place value to add and subtract.
When scaffolding is used correctly—at the right time, to the right degree, and focused on the right area—students can gain access to grade-level mastery. In addition, by combining data on students’ precise needs with a platform for personalized instruction, teachers can augment their capacity and give students agency over their learning.
Engage ALL Learners via Social-Emotional and Culturally Responsive Practices
The constant and unpredictable shift in students’ learning environments has disrupted the safe and nurturing atmosphere educators have worked so hard to build. Recapturing that safe, engaging, and nurturing space will be paramount.
Educators have looked to the guidance of national organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a leading research and social-emotional learning (SEL) organization, for addressing the needs of both students and adults. Their “Roadmap for Reopening Schools” helps districts and schools integrate SEL into their transition plans.
Re-engagement plans must also acknowledge the grave inequities students have confronted and leverage those lived experiences as a teaching tool. Dr. Sharroky Hollie, Executive Director of The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, has stressed the amazing opportunity we have to validate and affirm our students’ cultures and experiences in our instructional approach and use them as assets to build upon. As such, educators should rely on resources and tools that allow students to see themselves in the stories they read, the passages with which they engage, and the mathematical problems they compute. This shift in mindset will propel the shift we seek in a student's skillset.
The right data, efficient and precise personalized instruction, and a safe environment built on equity and caring—if this all sounds like a tall order, it’s because it is. If it sounds like a lot of work—well, it’s that, too.
However, if nothing else, this pandemic has shown the world how much educators can rise to the challenges. They will not only transition to remote learning in a matter of days, but they will also teach themselves how to proctor assessments via video chat and produce videos to keep their students engaged before you know it.
If you equip your educators with the right tools, strategies, and supports, students will rise to the occasion. Recent history, if nothing else, proves just that!
About the author
Ken Tam is a former teacher and district administrator with more than 20 years of experience in education technology. In his current role as Curriculum Associates’ Executive Director, Personalized Learning and Assessment, he helps educators develop assessment literacy to improve their ability to connect data to instruction. He serves as a thought leader on assessment and personalized learning and speaks widely at regional and national conferences on how districts can “Assess Less, Know More” and “Adapt Teaching and Learning.”