The first few months of the year were dedicated to setting up ‘base camp’ (i.e. onboarding students, establishing norms, orienting parents to the platform, etc.). Since then, we have experienced some great successes; many of the fifth and sixth graders have shown progress in several areas. They have gained new knowledge about a variety of topics, they have developed their cognitive skills and they have grown as independent learners. While there have been a good amount of successful moments, we continue to encounter some challenges along the way.
The Summit Platform allows students to view the Math, Science, English and Social Studies curricula for the entire year. Accessing the years’ content in just a click gives students the power to select which subject areas they want to focus on each day. Empowering students with choice in their learning has posited some noticeable results. It is quite evident that the fifth and sixth grade students have learned a lot through the Summit Platform; they have demonstrated greater content knowledge in a variety of topics. All of the students have passed multiple focus area assessments and are on a steady ‘climb towards the Summit’. We are extremely proud of our students and all the new knowledge they have gained through the platform. While student choice is important for learning, one of the outcomes (that we have seen so far) is that students continue to gain new content knowledge in subject areas of interest, but are not progressing at the same pace with the subject areas they do not enjoy as much. Several students are ahead of the pacing bar in subject areas they like, yet behind the pacing bar in subjects they find challenging. This can have an effect in the classroom as well; some students may be well ahead of the topic being taught during class time while other students may not have the previous knowledge needed to understand a new concept (especially in math). Classroom instruction has to be adjusted so that the more advanced students are still engaged (they have already completed the unit being learned) and the students who need additional support receive it. We continue to search for a way to balance student learning, while maintaining some level of student choice.
While content knowledge is valuable, I would argue that cognitive skills are even more important. Cognitive skills go beyond content knowledge; in contrast, they are ‘thinking’ skills that are transferable to other contexts. Some examples of cognitive skills (in math) include interpreting data, identifying patterns, asking questions and justifying answers. Cognitive skills for Social Studies may include point of view, selecting relevant sources and synthesizing information from various resources. For science, cognitive skills many entail predicting/hypothesizing, designing processes and procedures, explanation of evidence and identifying relationships. From the above examples, it is (hopefully) apparent that cognitive skills are not topic-specific, they can be utilized across multiple disciplines for a variety of topics. To me, it is more important for students to know how to think than what to think. The Summit Platform provides a wide range of projects, activities and resources which support student thinking (and learning). Many of the activities are inquiry based, which encourage students to think deeply and go beyond the basic levels of knowledge and understanding. The cognitive skills that our fifth and sixth graders are developing will not only support them now but for the future as well. Students may forget content, but their skills will always be a part of who they are as learners.
An underlying goal of the Summit Platform is to promote independent learning. Students build content knowledge and sharpen their cognitive skills by engaging in self-directed learning experiences. Through these experiences, the students have started to develop a better understanding of who they are as learners; some students learn best through visuals and videos, other students learn best by reading a text and other students learn best by making pictures and/or drawing diagrams. The Summit Platform includes a variety of resources that appeal to students’ varied learning modalities, which really helps ensure that all students can be successful, regardless of their learning style. The students have also demonstrated their development as independent learners in other ways. At the start of the year, many of the student would take a content assessment, receive a low score and immediately request to take the assessment again. Little to no time was spent on learning the content, reviewing previous errors, or exploring alternate resources for further support. Over time, many of the students have developed their own strategies to assist them in their journey as independent learners. For example, students regularly ask to view their content assessment (after earning a non-passing score) as a means to get a better sense of which areas need further exploration. Other students have devised their own approaches to learning, such as taking the diagnostic test first to establish a baseline (determine a level of understanding prior to accessing the resources). Other students will view every resource available (taking notes throughout each of them) and then request the content assessment. Most of the children have started to understand what he/she needs to be successful, a critical component of independent learning. However, a challenge we face is how to better support the students who are not quite ready for this type of independent learning. The truth of the matter is that not every child is developmentally ready to engage in this style of learning. Therefore, we need to identify different ways to support students who are not equipped with the skills and mindset necessary to be an independent learner.
As we continue working with the Summit Platform, we are seeing some positive outcomes. The students are achieving success in their focus areas, which boosts their confidence as learners. The children are progressing as critical thinkers and starting to think more deeply about the subject matter being taught in class. Perhaps most importantly, we are seeing the students’ growth as independent learners. Summit has impacted the way we teach and the way the students learn. I will continue to elaborate on our ‘climb to the Summit’ in future posts.