Today’s students are more connected, more aware and more in touch than any earlier generation. They’re connected to technologies that personalize and empower independent learning. Developing skills to navigate the wealth of knowledge and resources available to them today; they often become their own best teacher. They learn to love learning again. We see this every day at the Delphian School; other proficiency-based programs report similar results. Students want schools that put them in the driver’s seat of their own educational journey.
From this perspective, schools must change from an early 20th century factory-model, group-batch approach (where time is the constant and learning is the variable) to a proficiency-based, independent-student model where learning is the constant and time is the variable. A proficiency-based educational program ensures success for all students by knowing that each student needs a different amount of time to learn and understand a subject. Proficiency-based programs let students progress through their academic studies at the pace that’s right for them, giving them time to fully understand what they’re studying before moving on.
Timed-based schools using a letter-grade system prevent students from restudying and mastering what they missed on exams. Ready or not, students must move on to new topics so that teachers can “cover it all.” This creates many educational gaps and what Sal Khan calls a Swiss-cheese education–i.e., full of holes. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning’s “Prisoners of Time” report acknowledges that one major flaw in the system is the rule: “Learn what you can in the time we make available.” The report notes that “students are caught in a time trap–processed on an assembly line scheduled to the minute. Our usage of time virtually assures the failure of many students.”
The Delphian School has been delivering proficiency-based education for 40 years. To meet the needs of today’s generation, we developed individual academic programs for all students and an assessment and information system that replaces letter-grades and report cards. These elements are critical to shifting our broader educational culture to one where all students can thrive and cross the finish line with a complete personalized education they can use. ComptencyWorks notes that “Learning is best measured by mastery rather than time spent in the classroom.”
Delphian’s program involves guided individual study, small seminars and a wide range of project-based learning (including real-world practical activities)—all carefully designed to help students connect what they’re studying to how they’ll use it in life. Online information systems chart each student’s course through the materials and are accessible 24/7 by the student, their parents and the school.
Students in the Driver’s Seat
Moving from report cards to real-time monitoring of student progress gives families up-to-the-minute information on what the student has mastered and what they’ve yet to learn. This puts students in the driver’s seat of their own educational success. Students see how they’re doing, what they’ve accomplished and what is left to do at any given time. They can map their own educational paths through the materials and the program. Delphian School students commonly plan out their academic day, their week or even their entire month of study and projects, setting priorities and developing goal-setting skills.
Having access to their own academic programs encourages students to take responsibility for their progress; they own their educational program, they know where it’s taking them, and they understand why they’re studying each subject. Even more relevant in today’s workplace, with this proficiency-based model, students learn how to study and learn the practical skills needed to apply their education towards the betterment of their lives.
Students value this real-life aspect of education. It encourages them to work on each step until they achieve mastery and competence. Self-motivated students working at high standards that they themselves set become a reality. Restudying material that was missed on a test becomes a positive experience, because students finish each step with certainty about what they know and can do.
When students no longer compete against each other, the teacher, or the “system,” everything changes for the better. Without letter-grades, a student’s purpose for studying becomes simply to understand and apply each subject to his or her life—the real value of an education. In proficiency-based schools, students compete against ignorance, not each other. They become excited when they can demonstrate new skills and abilities and are equally excited to help their fellow students do the same. It’s a game where everyone wins.
A Different Reality
If today’s school programs focused on success for all students and made it a reality, the resulting shift in culture would change the face of education.
Putting students in the driver’s seat and ensuring they all cross the finish line requires a major shift in today’s educational culture. Today’s students need a new set of 21st century skills. Proficiency-based education is the operating system that allows the sea-change needed to move schools from “fully educating a few” to “fully educating all.” It totally rejects the bell-curve approach in which only a few students can succeed, where many are unacceptably average and some fail completely. Educating all students fully in all subjects takes time, but the accumulated payoff is both efficient and priceless. All students can achieve amazing results in educational settings where they’re free to study independently, to move at their own pace and to learn in ways that may be unique to them.
All students can achieve amazing results in educational settings where they’re free to study independently, to move at their own pace and to learn in ways that may be unique to them.
Delphian students continually describe how amazing it is to truly enjoy learning, often for the first time in a long time. They share how life-changing it is to be able to move quickly when they understand something and to be encouraged to take time to understand a subject that’s difficult for them. We see their interest re-ignited for subjects that once showed promise, but that had become difficult and often abandoned. This resurgence of educational interests is priceless and well worth the effort to move to a proficiency-based system.
It is vital to remember that parents are important teammates in this change. When parents can track, understand and appreciate not just their child’s progress but the underlying reasons for their child’s success, they become active teammates. It opens up productive communication within the student-school-parent team.
At Delphian School, we’re working hard to perfect this new paradigm and make it a reality for our students as well as for others. We’ve learned a lot since 1974, and our learning will never end. We know that individual academic programs, new student assessment and information systems, and comprehensive progress reports can work within a proficiency-based program to improve each student’s likelihood of success. This is the educational model that 21st century students, families—and indeed, the world—need to meet the demands of an ever-changing future.