In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about proficiency-based learning, the growth mindset, and student engagement. How does a proficiency-based classroom actually operate on a day-to-day basis? How can we shift students’ mindsets so that they approach school as a true opportunity to expand their abilities and their intelligence? And how can teachers create classroom environments that authentically engage all students?
In all of these conversations, I find myself thinking back to the work of Greg Van Houten, a physics teacher at Prospect Hill Academy (the Boston-area public charter school where I used to work) who shifted his curriculum and classroom culture to a completely proficiency-based system infused with the growth mindset. In doing so, he created one of the most engaging classroom environments I’ve ever seen. And while there are myriad ways of doing this, I think it’s useful to share this example with Burlington and Winooski teachers because it’s one model of how some of these ideas we’re grappling with can actually come alive in a classroom.
(Side note: I know that it’s easy to see examples from outside and say, yes, but our school is different. Yes, but I’m not sure that would work with our population of students. Here’s what I can offer in response: In some ways, Prospect Hill Academy is different from WHS or BHS. It’s in a much more urban environment, and yes, it’s a charter school. But this doesn’t mean that the kids are higher-achieving or more motivated when they come to us – they get in on a purely lottery-based system, not an entrance test. Except in AP courses and leveled subjects like math and foreign language, students are in completely heterogeneous classes. This means students with wildly divergent reading levels and math abilities are in the same English, social studies, and science classes. Like both Winooski and Burlington, the PHA student body is racially, ethnically, and economically diverse: 55% black (predominantly Haitian), 21% Latino, and 14% white; 63% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. While BHS and WHS have a higher proportion of ELL students, many PHA students come from families where English is not the primary language spoken at home and therefore lack solid academic English skills. A majority of PHA students will be first-generation college students in the U.S.; at the same time, some of their classmates come from middle class, highly educated family backgrounds. In short, PHA is a truly diverse school that, in many ways, is pretty similar to the increasingly diverse and urban schools in our little corner of Vermont. So I encourage teachers to read this with an open mind. What aspects of Greg’s classroom structure could you borrow, tweak, and make your own?)
Here’s the context: Greg ended his first year of teaching physics feeling like student engagement was pretty good, but not as high as he wanted it. These were completely heterogeneous 11th grade physics classes, and he felt like some students weren’t challenged enough while others were stymied by their fixed mindsets: I just can’t do physics. I’m not a math person. I’m bad at science. While some of his students had done well, he wasn’t fulfilling PHA’s mission of preparing all students for success in college – which, he realized, wasn’t primarily based on their knowledge of physics, but on their ability to persevere, to seek out and make good use of resources, to work collaboratively, and to ask for help when they needed it. In short, he needed to teach them grit. But this went hand-in-hand with holding students accountable for the explicit physics skills – the proficiencies – that comprise the content of the course.
With this in mind, Greg entered his second year of teaching determined to make these goals come alive in his classroom. What follows is a description of the steps he followed to make this happen.
Step 1: Establish an overarching goal, or “rallying point,” for the class, and build student buy-in from Day 1. Greg’s class rallying point was: You will have the skills and mindsets to succeed in college. (This goal aligned with the school mission; Burlington and Winooski teachers could set any goal they chose or have students help with this – the key to settle on something that you can rally the class around.)
On the first day of school, he spent the entire class period building students’ buy-in for this goal. He recorded phone and Skype interviews with college admissions officers and college deans who spoke about the skills they were looking for, and the mindsets that helped students find success in college once they got there. He gathered statistics from the Department of Labor about income levels of college vs. high school graduates, as well as statistics about the un-impressive rates of college completion in the U.S., which are particularly low for non-white students (this hammered home the importance of succeeding in, not just entering, college).
And he presented all of these in a fast-paced, interactive Prezi presentation that held students’ engagement on that first day. You’ll notice if you take a look that the presentation presents a compelling case not only for individual effort and perseverance, but also for supporting classmates and thus building a real community of learners. (You can view most of this Prezi here.)
Teachers: If you had to set your own overarching goal for your class, what would it be? How would you build student buy-in around this goal?
Step 2: Explicitly teach the growth mindset. On the second day of school, Greg’s students read parts of this New York Times article, by Paul Tough, on the concept of grit. He then had his student create a class list of growth mindsets. These included: Don’t take the easiest path. Never say never. Don’t think you can, know you can. Be socially adaptive/intelligent. Greg posted these around the room as reminders to his students of how they wanted to behave. (Note: exerpts from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, as well as brain research about neural plasticity, would be other great resources for explicitly teaching the growth mindset.)
Step 3: Set a measurable achievement goal for each essential skill. This is the first piece of bringing proficiency-based learning to life in the classroom: Make each essential skill explicit, and set a measurable achievement standard for determining proficiency so that it’s crystal clear to both teacher and students whether a kid has achieved the goal.
One way I’ve seen this done is with a 4-point grading scale: 1 = Just beginning; 2 = Progress toward proficiency; 3 = Proficiency; 4 = Mastery (above and beyond proficiency). Teachers can then convert these proficiency scores into numerical or letter grades; often, below proficiency is not passing, proficiency earns a B or B+, and mastery earns an A. Greg chose to stick with the traditional 100-point grading scale (at on our school report cards, grades are reported numerically with 65 being the minimum needed to pass), but he set a high goal for his students: 90% or higher for every objective in each unit. Greg measured this with quizzes, and students were required to retake each quiz until they earned 90%. A classroom poster, shown below and described later in this post, tracked each student’s 90% achievements for each unit objective.
Step 4: Instruction aligned with objectives (or “proficiencies”) and responsive to student performance on those objectives. (Note for teachers who are skimming this blog post: this is the section that described the logistics of instruction in a proficiency-based system. Read it!)
Greg’s classroom instruction was, in some ways, fairly traditional for a physics classroom: it involved lecture, labs, computer-based simulations and activities, group problem-solving, and time for individual practice. But his instruction cycle also included some key components that made it highly proficiency-based. First, embedded in the cycle was a system of pre-, formative, and post-assessment that let Greg and his students know how they were doing on each objective, at all times. Second, it was differentiated, with opportunities at many different points in the instruction cycle for students to move to more challenging work or to get remediation if needed.
Here’s an example of his Student Tracking Sheet: (click on it to get a bigger view)
The instruction cycle went basically like this:
- Pre-Assessment (followed by score entry on students’ Tracking Sheets)
- Instruction & Challenge Assignments. This included traditional lecture, labs, readings, mini-projects, and practice problems. During any of these class activities, if students finished early or if they felt they didn’t need to pay attention (e.g. during a lecture on a topic they already felt comfortable on) they were required to work on challenge assignments that included readings and problem sets on related material that was beyond the scope of the general curriculum, or problems drawn from AP Physics and SAT math and physics tests.
- Formative Assessment (entered on Tracking Sheets and checks earned on class poster)
- Additional Instruction or Practice Problems, Tutoring, Mini-Quizzes, and Challenge Problems. If most of the class did not reach proficiency, or all made a similar mistake on the formative assessment, Greg would reteach that particular objective or skill. However, most of the time this part of the instruction cycle was highly individualized – a couple days during which Greg worked with the students who most needed it, many other students completed targeted practice on their own or with a tutor, and proficient students deepened their understanding by tutoring or working on challenging extension problems. For students who didn’t show proficiency on the formative assessment, quick mini-quizzes aligned with each objective gave them the opportunity to test their understanding again and earn “checks” on the class poster before the end-of-unit assessment.
- Post Assessment: Final Quiz or Test (entered on Tracking Sheets)
- Data Day (more on this below)
Above: Students at work in Greg’s physics class (left); the poster on his classroom wall advertising the extra credit challenge problems (right).
Step 5: Make achievement public! Public celebration and public accountability. Greg did this with his wall poster charting student proficiency on each objective, and also with a designated “Data Day” (which wasn’t a whole day, but perhaps 10 minutes of class time) after every unit. On Data Days, Greg celebrated individual students who’d shown the most growth from pre- to post-assessment, as well as improvement in the classwide averages. He celebrated students who achieved 100% mastery.
Above: The public poster tracking students’ achievement of 90%+ on each objective; students congratulating each other during “Data Day;” 100%+ achievement certificates for each unit plaster the walls of the physics room.
Below: A series of powerpoint slides that Greg displayed on Data Day.
Importantly, as shown in the slide above, Greg didn’t gloss over the places for improvement. He called attention to the fact that often, few students had checks across the board for a particular unit. He reminded them of the class goal (90%+) and the reason for it all (having the skills and mindsets to succeed in college) and encouraged them to keep working on getting those 90%’s even as the class moved on.
How did that work? This is where…
Step 6: Continuous remedial work comes in. Greg encouraged students to retake any mini-quiz on their own time (before or after school, or during lunch or study hall). The mini-quizzes could earn checks for individual objectives, but didn’t affect students’ grades until they had earned checks for every objective. Then, their unit quiz grade would go up. So I often saw students studying together during study halls or after school in preparation to retake those quizzes and earn their checks. It wasn’t absolutely required of students, but it worked.
What’s the evidence?
Greg could see and feel the difference that this explicitly growth-mindset, proficiency-based approach made in his classroom – but we were interested in getting some quantitative data to bolster the anecdotal evidence that it was working. Here’s what we found:
- Students’ science grades improved relative to their overall GPA. Often, students’ grades in science are lower than in other classes (because science can feel less accessible and more overwhelming and “hard”). We looked back at Greg’s students’ transcripts from their 9th and 10th grade years to calculate their overall GPA’s in comparison to their grades in biology, chemistry, and physics (required courses in grades 9,10, and 11, respectively).
As these data show, students found significantly more success in physics than they did in biology or chemistry. And this was not just because Greg’s course was easy. One of my top AP Biology students, who was taking my course concurrently with Greg’s, said of his course: “Physics is no joke. You have to be on in that class.” Having observed in Greg’s classroom, I knew what she meant. He expected every student to be engaged 100% of the time, and held them to this by randomly calling on them to answer questions, report out from their group work, and respond to each other’s answers. Further evidence of the rigor of Greg’s course comes from the data below showing that his students did better compared to peers across the state. The “I’m just bad at science,” mantra was beginning to be unraveled.
- PHA students significantly outperformed their peers on the statewide standardized physics test. In Massachusetts, all students must pass an MCAS test in science in order to graduate. While most students at PHA take and pass the biology MCAS test at the end of their 9th grade year, we frequently used individual test questions on the midterm and final exams in other science courses in order to benchmark our students’ learning against statewide performance. Greg used 16 of the MCAS physics test items on his 2012 midterm exam. The percentage of his own students answering the question correctly exceeded the state average on 15 out of the 16 questions. Overall, his students scored an average of 83% correct on those questions, while the statewide average was 63% – a 20% margin of victory.
- Student surveys revealed significant belief in the growth mindset. Interested to know how much the explicit instruction on the growth mindset had sunk in, we surveyed Greg’s students to find out their beliefs on intelligence and what contributed to success in physics class. (Unfortunately, we didn’t get this project going early enough to do a before and after survey, so we only have the “after” answers. Still, I believe the results are compelling.) We found that nearly 80% of his students agreed or strongly agreed with growth-mindset statements such as “No matter who you are, you can significantly change your intelligence level.” We also found that students felt the power of the proficiency-based system: 95% of students consistently agreed with statements that the measurable goal of 90%, the multiple opportunities to raise quiz grades, and the public accountability influenced their effort. Finally, when asked about the strongest internal influences on their physics grade, a majority of students ranked commitment, focus, and time over natural ability, intelligence, and luck.
To summarize – How do you use proficiency-based learning to increase engagement and the growth mindset? Greg did it by creating a classwide goal and then building buy-in for that goal by explicitly teaching about grit. He linked this to a measurable achievement goal, and then created a cycle of instruction and assessment that was differentiated, targeted at specific proficiencies, and that built in repeated opportunities for remediation and re-assessment; in short, strategies that optimized and rewarded continuous effort. A big part of Greg’s strategy was the public accountability piece, which not only motivated students but, in fact, was key in creating a positive, collaborative classroom culture.
No two classrooms are the same, but my hope is that teachers will be able to take elements of this model and make it their own. What measurable achievement goal could you set in your classroom? How would you bring it alive? What assessment data could you engage your students in? How could you make achievement public in way that motivates individual achievement and promotes a collaborative class community?