We work at a school with high expectations for advisors. We promise personalized learning and that we will work towards mastery.
Personalized Mastery Learning (PML) requires a significant paradigm shift in the method and practice of teaching. It requires our educators to shift from expert to collaborator in order to help students actively think about and participate in their learning.
What this means is we ask our staff to get to know each student and their needs well. Of course, knowing the needs of every student is an overwhelming amount of knowledge. This can begin to feel like a weight for passionate advisors who recognize student needs and are working tirelessly to meet them.
This year, we started looking for ways to support our advisors so they can thrive in the midst of these high expectations of delivering on our school’s promise. We also recognized the need to better support them in working with students with intensive needs or with students who lack motivation and self-confidence.
Leslie Hart, a pioneering author on brain-compatible learning, once said that “designing educational experiences without an understanding of the brain is like designing a glove without an understanding of the human hand.” We acknowledge this truth and through PML and Personalized Professional Development (PPD), we seek to understand student brain development.
So, we began our week of summer in-service PPD with the Brain Architecture Game, a game created through a non-profit partnership between three universities and the Framework Institute to reveal how the adolescent brain works.
With nothing more than straws, pipe cleaners, weights and a deck of cards, we set out to learn how experiences in our lives and in our students’ lives impacts individual development and our ability to teach and to learn.
Pipe cleaners were used to build a ‘brain’ that was tall and stable. Straws were placed on the pipe cleaners to act as support for when a team’s brain experienced life stresses. The idea was that straws would help keep the brain standing upright even with the weight of stress.
During the game, we asked advisors to take a wondering stance towards their students – wondering about how they might have come to be who they are and wondering how we can help support them towards their goals. We also provided space for our advisors to celebrate their work and to remember that they are important social supports for students and for each other.
The hands-on experience was impactful. Brains with a weak foundation and very little support collapsed under the weights of stress and advisors were amazed at the visual representation of how early childhood development directly impacts the ability to handle life’s stresses and ultimately to learn. Most agreed that students’ brains are malleable and there is a chance to change them for the better. It was also evident that Personalized Mastery Learning is a powerful support that helps both student and teacher succeed.
Here’s what we found:
Student brains can recover.
Genetic lottery and negative experiences weaken a child’s foundation but educators still have the opportunity to help rebuild a student’s neuro pathways through positive, supportive experiences. PML advisors create connections by collaborating with students to identify their passions and interests, by creating relationships through daily advisory and by acting as activators rather than experts.
How we react to students makes a difference.
If we have a fatalistic attitude about a student’s life experiences, we are subconsciously sending a message that they will have a difficult time at school. But if we approach the student with positive verbal and body language that is affirming and encouraging, we communicate our belief that they can participate in their learning and build better experiences for themselves.
PML provides a basic framework to support this. The five components of PML require advisors to be aware of individual student needs and challenges then foster conversation to establish relevance in their learning and set learning expectations and paths. Those collaborative conversations eventually lead to both student and advisor determining mastery. The very idea of collaboration requires advisors to develop an empathic position toward their students. And continued professional development like the Brain Architecture Game helps advisors develop a deeper understanding of how their choice of words as well as how they communicate and how they act will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on their students.
PML is a straw for both student and teacher.
We understand that PML gives us the opportunity to be a support, not a weight, for our students. Getting to know each student and then understanding our role as collaborator is a cornerstone of PML. Students understand they are a key player in their own education and they also know there is a foundation of support from their advisors. Students have an authentic voice in their learning.
PML for our advisors means they work collaboratively with their fellow teachers as well and it is vital for them to work in teams to support students. After completing the Brain Architecture Game and reflecting on its lessons on how PML is important, one advisor eloquently explained it this way: “It (the game) helped me be more forgiving of myself. And in PML, when we work together as a team to help our students, we all play a role in supporting students. It’s not just all on me and we are not alone.”