Slaying the Dragon: A Conversation with Cory Woolstenhulme on Mastery-Based Learning

Cory Woolstenhume

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

The conversation with Cory Woolstenhulme, principal of Columbia High School, was rich with insights. He is reflective and candid, a learner-leader if you will. Here are a few of the insights he shared:

Repairing Gaps
“Filling the gaps is new to us. It’s never been an expectation that a high school should do that. What we’ve been doing as an education system has been a not-so-funny joke. As long as no one blew the whistle, students got passed on. We say to students that as long as you behave okay, I’ll pass you. If you do enough homework, you’ll pass my class. Retention has been our only tool, but it can be miserable for students. They have to go through an entire year of the same material but still not actually get the help they need. Now we begin with the idea that we need to start students exactly where they are, and that means finding out what they know and don’t know. It means we have to figure out how to organize school to respond to every student being in a different place rather than pretending that they are all are at the same starting point.”

A New Social Contract Between Students and Teachers
He continued, “We have to form a new contract. As a school, we have to operate with the philosophy, ‘We are going to believe in you if you will believe in us.’ This is the starting point for everyone, but it is particularly important for the students who feel overwhelmed emotionally by the things going on in their lives or by sitting in class every day, not able to do the level of work and feeling they aren’t smart. Just coming to school and going through the motions can take enormous amounts of energy.
“Now we want to do what is right by each child. We are starting with the belief that you can succeed and that we can figure out how to help you get there. After years of being passed on, we are asking the learner to take a risk in believing that things will be different. This is the power of the data about where students are. No one can hide anymore. Students getting ‘B’s because they’re helpful and turn everything in but don’t understand the concepts aren’t going to get passed along. It becomes visible immediately if a teacher is passing a student who hasn’t met expectations. It is possible that the teacher is the one who needs to learn to ask for help. 

“For the first time, we are saying to a new cohort, we are going to make sure you learn. You aren’t going to be passed on or passed off. You are going to finish ninth grade English even if you are going to keep working into the summer. We aren’t going to fudge the system, and the diploma isn’t going to be perceived as a free hand-out anymore. It means we have to follow through on our beliefs. It means we have to figure out how to instructionally meet students where they are.”

Slaying the Dragon
Referring to the challenge of meeting students where they are and fully repairing gaps as a dragon, Woolstenhulme continued, “Our new MO is to slay this dragon. We believe that we are going to keep having this conversation twenty years from now. There just aren’t enough districts and schools committed to making sure students learn and not passing them on until they’re ready. High schools are going to keep having the kids coming in with large gaps. Therefore, we have to figure out the tools we need to slay this dragon. Our new MO is to be clear about expectation. Here’s the bar. Here is what mastery is and what it looks like.”

In Summit Learning, teachers are holding students to higher levels and then working with them to repair gaps. (This is a strategy that I’ve started to use the term anchoring to describe. Based on a grade level learning target, teachers work with students to dive deep to fill in the missing skills. It may take more time, but it’s not that students are slower learners. They are actually learning more.) Woolstenhulme explained, “Teachers can see the holes in student learning now. That’s a bonus for us. The kids and teachers were both hiding it before. The new contract requires us all to be honest about where students are.”

He then turned to formative assessment and feedback. “The key to all of this is to provide more feedback to students,” he said. “Learning happens when students get the right feedback at the right time. Things click. They move forward. Our theory of action is that with clear, high expectations of grade level mastery, instructionally looking for and addressing gaps, much tighter feedback loops, and ensuring students revise until they are successful, students will be learning more. We are already seeing some indicators in benchmark assessments that students are writing better, are computationally better, and are applying skills better.”

He continued, “What’s critical is that teachers offer the confidence that even if students aren’t there yet, together we are going to find a way for them to be successful. The mentoring and conferencing is the glue. reDesign has helped us understand where this fits into the theory of action. Teachers are going to be ‘warm demanders.’”

When the Gap is that Students are Missing Some of the Building Blocks for Learning
Woolstenhulme offered the insight that even though we focus on the academic gaps, the underlying problem is that somewhere along the line, students didn’t develop some of the building blocks for learning, such as growth mindset, social and emotional skills (including self-regulation), metacognitive skills, or traits such as perseverance. Or if they didn’t get help along the way and started to feel that they were never going to be successful, they developed ways to defend against painful feelings that may be counter-productive to learning.

He reflected, “Last year, sixty-seven kids dropped out. We know we can do better. We can personalize instruction. We can create enhanced learning experiences. We can provide high interest electives and opportunities like sports, choir, and band. However, most of all we need to make sure that when students come here, they feel as though they are part of a community. We want them to feel like they are a family.

“One piece of this is having smaller programs within the bigger schools so that students and teachers work together over four years. We have discovered that mentoring and conferencing around the habits of success is also an important part. Teachers need the ability to know students academically, socially, and emotionally. They need to know the whole child. There is a huge difference when teachers and students bond around high expectations. Strong relationships are forged and the community becomes a family.

“We know that we have to be very intentional about creating this culture. Across the entire school, we are thinking about what it means to become more student-centered and offering ways for students to have more voice in their daily lives.” Columbia High School recently did a survey asking students to suggest one word that would best describe “the wildcat way.” In the resulting wordle, family is the biggest word.

“I don’t know if we can save them all,” Woolstenhulme said. “Sometimes students need to leave but will want to come back. I know we can do better.”

Read the Entire Series:

This article was originally published August 2018 at CompetencyWorks.

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