What’s the ‘Big Idea’ at Aveson Charter Schools?

Kelly Finley is the mother of an Aveson Charter Schools 5th grader and editor/contributor of RelevantED, a blog showcasing Personalized Mastery Learning from the perspectives of students, teachers, school administrators and parents.

Aveson Charter SchoolsIn 2007, Aveson Charter Schools opened its doors. Their big idea? To deliver learning that was personalized to every student.

That was a tall order in those days. Education reform was hot but most reform initiatives were focused on standardization – delivering learning at the same time, at the same pace for every child in the room. Accountability was driving the idea that teaching all children the same way regardless of individual needs and passions was the best route. After all, how could schools possibly show results if they weren’t moving groups of learners forward all at once?

Aveson founders believed that personalization, not standardization, was the answer. And they were willing to start a journey that was not widely proven and lacked any real models to follow. Their challenge to create a personalized learning approach started with action research. Aveson was literally a lab where enthusiastic teachers joined administrators to innovate and test new ideas in order to find the best way to implement personalized learning.

Now, almost 10 years later, personalized learning is considered the “next big thing” in education. Research such as a multi-year study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by the Rand Corporation showed that students in personalized learning environments made significant gains in reading and math compared to students in comparable schools and their scores grew substantially compared to the national average.

As successes add up for personalized learning, Aveson continues their journey to perfect it through action research. A once personalized learning focus has now evolved into Personalized Mastery Learning (PML).

What is Personalized Mastery Learning and what has Aveson learned in its almost decade-long journey to pioneer and refine the PML vision?  In its simplest form, PML is conversation and collaboration. It is teachers and students deciding together what will be learned, how it will be learned and when the student reaches mastery.

“This collaborative effort creates an environment where students enjoy the freedom to explore personal areas of interest and teachers can teach to the precise needs of their students,” says Kate Bean, founder and executive director of Aveson Charter Schools. “It also allows students to work until they have truly mastered their learning because mastery is determined when teacher and student agree that mastery has been achieved not simply when a student completes a Friday test.”

In an Aveson PML classroom, you hear teachers regularly ask and answer questions like “Who needs to learn this skill?” “How can I use what my students are curious about to help drive what they’ll learn next?” and “How do I know they’ve learned?” Students are asked to think about their learning and continually assess their own progress. There is constant conversation between student and advisor about when the student has mastered his work.

It’s likely that most adults have no idea what this actually looks like. And it’s hard to fathom that there can be that much conversation and collaboration between student and teacher – even right down to determining when a student has reached mastery. But it happens every day at Aveson.

Walk in to one Aveson classroom and you’ll see that the advisor has placed questions strategically throughout the room that prompt students to ask: “How will you perfect your learning?” “What learning outcome did you master today?” “How did you work on the outcome?” and “How will you positively know you learned the outcome?”

Take a stroll next door and you’ll hear a math advisor actively collaborating with students. When students say they have mastered a math outcome and are ready to leave large group instruction, she asks them how they know they’re ready. Students are able to defend their decision quickly and convincingly, showing the advisor how they’ve mastered the skill. Eventually they agree, together, whether the student is ready to move from the group or stay longer to fully master the math outcome.

It’s this conversation and collaboration between teacher and student that sets Personalized Mastery Learning apart from other approaches, changes the educational landscape for children and provides real promise in changing education for future generations.

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