Gathering Insights on Mastery-Based Learning from Columbia High School

This is the seventh post in a series on Mastery Education in Idaho. Links to the other articles in the series can be found below.

Throughout the conversations during the site visit to Columbia High School, there were many important insights. Principal Cory Woolstenhulme reflected, “There is lots of failing forward. We are leaning forward hard, learning from our failures. We are learning something new every day about the nature of support that is needed for our learners.”
Here are just a few:

The Importance of Culture
One of the things that Columbia High School has learned is that not everything in the traditional system needs to be thrown out. Woolstenhulme noted, “We know better now. There are lots of good parts of the traditional system. It’s more about unlearning and relearning the purpose and how to implement practices in ways that make sense. It’s important to implement a new culture because you can then make the traditional practices work for you. You can make it your own. The same practice on the new culture can be powerful, but when done on the traditional one it can be problematic. We have to remember we are unlearning what we grew up with.”

Changing Expectations of “A” Students
Columbia has discovered that it is just as important to think about how you on-board students who are used to be high achieving as it is those who have learned to just pass through school. Woolstenhulme noted, “High schools need to be prepared to support the student who is used to getting an ‘A’ and all of a sudden feel they can’t get an ‘A’ anymore in the new learning system. We’ve changed the rules. Now they are operating within a continuum of learning. The focus is on the learning, not the grade. They are expected to actually apply what they are learning, not just memorize content. Suddenly, they are getting feedback that they are incomplete or not yet proficient even if they are working above grade level. It’s hard for them to build up a new identity around learning when they’ve taken pride in being the best. Schools need to help students unlearn and even reflect how they have been conditioned around grading. They need to start to understand that they hold the power of their learning rather than trying to figure out what they need to do to get the ‘A’ from the teacher.”  

The Ebb and Flow of Transformation
“Sometimes I look up and we are doing school again,” Woolstenhulme remarked. “Under pressure we go into survival mode. We gravitate back to what we know to be school rather than focusing on what students need. We don’t think of this as a failure but as opportunity to think about our purpose and recommit to personalizing education.” This issue came up later during school visits in other districts when we went to a school that seemed to have retreated back to some of the traditional norms but still retained the commitment to personalized, mastery-based learning. Thus, we may need to think about “taking the temperature” of schools in where they are in the ebb and flow of transformation.

Questioning Traditional Habits
Sal Khan refers to the ways we organize schools traditionally as “habits.” We do them because we are used to doing them. Kelly Brady, director of IMEN, shared some of the ways she is beginning to question the traditional design of systems. ”Why do we keep organizing around the idea that students move through the system when relationships are so important?” she asked. “Just think, the traditional high school has teachers resetting relationships with eight different classes. That makes it much more difficult to form relationships and to know where students are in their learning. Why not build in more stable relationships, such as through looping? Columbia is going to loop the ninth and tenth grades so that teachers stay with the same students.” She pushed on, “What if we had looping between eighth and ninth grade? As students make the transition to high school, teachers who know them are there to help. What if we started organizing ourselves in interdisciplinary teams that stayed with students the whole time? We’d be in closer proximity to talk about the students who needed more help. We’d know where they started and where there were gaps, and we could work closely together to help students.”

Read the Entire Series:

This article was originally published in August 2018 at CompetencyWorks.

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