FAQ: What if a child is unable to reach the mastery level?

by Chris Sturgis

What if a child is unable to reach the mastery level? What do you think can be CBE’s negative impact on a child’s self-efficacy?

These are one of these types of questions where we hold the new shiny bright innovation up to a number of important questions but can easily forget to ask the same of the traditional system. What do we think can be the negative impact on a child’s self-efficacy in the traditional classroom where they are expected to follow rules, take tests, and then be graded without opportunity to relearn and revise?

That said, a poorly designed or implemented CBE system could continue to have negative impact on learning. For example, if a school slips into a checklist mentality students might be credentialed as proficient because they finished a worksheet not because they demonstrated that they could transfer the skill. Another example is when schools fail to take the early step to refresh themselves on the research on learning and organize themselves around it so that they are seeking to maximize the effort students are putting into their learning because they are engaged, motivated, and feel that the teachers are committed to their success.

Learning is of course different than self-esteem…and I think it is worth reviewing the research on self-esteem as it is a bit tricky. One can have high self-esteem even if one isn’t actually achieving at high levels. And one can have low self-esteem even if you are the very, very best in the class. Students do need to believe that they can learn (slightly different than self-esteem) through a combination of effort, support/feed and opportunity to keep trying.

Now to the question what happens if a student isn’t reaching mastery. First, teachers and schools need to start with the question whether there is something they could do that they haven’t to help the student be successful. This basically requires us to ask what we don’t know …and if we did know it could make a difference. This requires us to find someone who knows more than we do. Benchmarking is a helpful practice to find out which teachers are most effective in terms of specific instructional practices. It’s also helpful to find out if one teacher has been more effective with the student …maybe they have insights into what might help. Second, it’s important to make sure that students have had help in correcting misconceptions and repairing gaps. This means they have had instructional support, feedback, opportunity to practice and revise. Third, teachers need to engage students in talking about their own study habits and how much effort they are putting in. This is an opportunity to reflect with students and coach them in the building blocks of learning such as growth mindset, self-regulation and metacognition.

Finally, teachers need to engage special education to consider what is happening and whether an accommodation might be helpful. Champlain Valley Unified High School came to see the value of competency-based education partially because of the interest of some of the leaders in special education and differentiated instruction. In an article, Standards-Based Learning and Special Education, Sarah Crum, Special Educator at CVUHS, provides a detailed overview of the process and steps in determining accommodations and modifications. Remember: students do not need to be classified as in special education to receive specialized services. In some cases, just helping students get over a hump can put them on a steeper trajectory of learning.

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