Educators will often point out that when time and resources are constant, as in the traditional educational system, learning is the variable.
But a current effort at the Arizona Legislature recognizes this reality and seeks to correct it by allowing flexibility in how schools account for time. This flexibility will, in turn, unbridle technology resources and make learning the constant - and at a very high level.
House Bill 2862 would allow public school districts to offer a mastery-based model of instruction, which is an instructional approach where students need to demonstrate a deep level of understanding of a topic or subject area before progressing onto another topic or subject area. This is in contrast to the current model, in which all students typically progress at the same pace, whether they’ve mastered material or not. The bill would also permit school districts to deliver required instructional time through both direct instruction – in person or remote – and project-based learning.
This represents an important shift in education. It allows schools to focus on the mastery of learning rather than how much time a student spends in a chair or in front of a screen. Students who need more time to master a concept will get the time they need instead of falling behind. Those who master a concept earlier than their peers can move on to the next standard without waiting for classmates to catch up, or spend their time delving deeper into topics of passion or interest, at the grade level that is most appropriate for their demonstrated level of learning. Time spent completing hands-on assignments in real-life environments may also count towards learning.
These forward-thinking changes are timely and needed, and align with shifts our district has made to meet the needs of individual students in response to the pandemic and through our work with the Arizona Personalized Learning Network. The pandemic has underscored the need for change in education and has taught us many important lessons about the future of learning.
During the pandemic, as learning occurred through recorded lessons, older students managed their jobs and family responsibilities without being forced to miss instruction. Younger students received support from older adults at any time that worked for the family, such as after work. Some students watched lessons more than once, in essence self-tutoring. Students without family support still had traditional, school-based support. A proactive approach to learning drove the problem-solving and growth mindset that we strive to instill in all of our students. Instead of waiting for teachers to drive learning, accountability increases for all students as they are guided over time to greater self-advocacy and ownership of their own learning. The flexibility allows us to finally use technology to its fullest potential by removing time restrictions to better serve students. Teachers remain essential, facilitating learning and guiding students to mastery.
Making these changes permanent will empower our principals and teachers to begin planning proactively how they will best support each learner post-pandemic. Every student would have a period built into their schedule where they would be able to devote their time to their own area of greatest need. Staffing could be streamlined such that rather than monitoring students in a lab or study hall, educators could provide instructional support to students at their immediate point of need.
Schools were granted flexibilities over the past year during the pandemic to meet the needs of our students in new ways. As we look to the future, we have an incredible opportunity to use the lessons we have learned to transform teaching and learning permanently – breaking away from a centuries-old model of schooling. This is a bright spot amidst all of the challenges the pandemic has presented. We must take this opportunity to maintain the flexibilities granted to schools during COVID-19, which HB 2862 allows us to do, and keep the focus on student learning and the success of every child.
(Schadler is assistant superintendent at the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District.)