Student-paced mastery learning lets students know they matter

You Matter.

Angela Maiers started a movement ( based on these two simple words with a talk at a TEDx about the power of these words.

But it’s about more than those words – it’s the power of showing people that they are noticed.  They are seen.

It’s moving, it’s amazing, it’s heart-warming, and it’s how everyone should feel and should make others feel.

(Warning – this next paragraph is not meant to brag about myself, but to set the context for the difference I saw when I showed every student that they were noticed.  They were seen.)

In 10 years in the high school science classroom, I had a “successful” career by many measures (student assessment, positive “student attitude towards science” changes, I’m an author of a real-life chemistry textbook, the only NCBT in my entire school district, earned a PhD, was an NSTA award winner…and all the other things that people often use as how to determine “successful”).  One of the things I am most proud of is my “rapport with students” – something that many parents, students, colleagues and supervisors pointed out as one of my greatest strengths over the years.  I believe that high students are “real people” and their lives/thoughts/emotions/experiences are just as important as any adults and I treated them as such.  It led to great relationships between myself and my students.

However I just wasn’t satisfied that I was teaching the best way possible (I personally think this is a hallmark of a successful teacher more than all the “credentials” I listed above).  I wasn’t satisfied that I was doing everything I could to meet the needs of every students and to hold every student accountable while teaching them the skills that they would need to be life-long learners (as they were about to graduate and head off into “the real world.”

After much reading and study on cognitive theories, the importance of prior knowledge, the 2-sigma problem, and reflecting on what I’d seen in the classroom, I decided to make a major shift in my classroom.  For my 9th year of teaching I implemented student-paced mastery learning.

I saw the changes in my classroom that I’d expected – increased accountability, meta-cognition, confidence, motivation, autonomy, etc.

But what I didn’t expect was what Angela Maiers discusses so well in her TEDx talk – the amazing transformation that occurs when a human being is shown that they are noticed.  They are seen.  I hadn’t heard of her yet, and I didn’t phrase it in those ways when I described it to others – but it was the same phenomenon she describes.

I know that there are powerful components of a student-paced mastery learning that contributed to many of the changes in my classroom – timely and individualized feedback, shift of focus from “assignments” to “learning opportunities”, use of truly formative and low-stakes assessment, student choice and autonomy, etc.

But what I couldn’t explain were the changes in students that others would assume would be content to “just sit there” or “do nothing” if the pace of learning was up to them (that’s probably THE most common concern that teachers discuss with me during workshops and presentations that I give student-paced mastery learning).

For the first time in my career (and this is from someone that “rapport with students” was one of my greatest strengths) I not only said and believed that each student mattered to me, but I proved it every day in my classroom.

For the student that hadn’t gotten the concept yet:  I let them know they were noticed.  They were seen.  I didn’t move on without them just because other students were ready.  I didn’t give them “once chance” to learn, “one chance” to demonstrate understanding and then move on.  I allowed them to choose the best way to learn (with guidance and advice from me about which choices may be more beneficial based on them as an individual and the content or their struggles with it).  I not only said and believed that each of them was capable of learning chemistry (something many of them doubt), but I proved it and stayed with them as they did.

For the students that got it quickly (or already had it before they walked into the room):  I let them know they were noticed.  They were seen.  I allowed them to move on, to be challenged, to not have to be held back because other students weren’t ready to move on yet.  These students need this just as much as the ones I described above!

And most of all I showed the students that I continued to notice them.  I continued to see them.  Just because they took longer and needed more support on one concept didn’t mean they were labeled, or segregated or tracked.  I continually told them that some students get some things faster and then other things slower.  And they saw it throughout the year…some kids that sailed through the mathematical portions of the class struggled with some other aspects such as drawing molecular structures.  And vice verse.

The changes didn’t happen overnight.  Students didn’t hear me explain how my classroom was going to operate on the first day and instantly became these motivated, self-regulated learners.  It took some students days and others weeks to be convinced that I truly meant what I said…that the class really was going to operate the way I’d described it.  But once they “got” that this was the way things were and that I meant what I said and that I would help each students make his or her way through the content as he or she needed, they realized they’d been noticed.  They’d been seen.

And my classroom was a completely different place.

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