Over the summer, I learned about self-paced learning from Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy podcast interview with Natalie McCutchen. Ms. McCutchen is a middle school math teacher in Kentucky who conducts a self-paced math class. Most of her students work through the material at their own pace, using pre-assessments, instructional videos, practice problems, and formative assessments to assess their understanding and learning through a particular unit. This idea was interesting to me because I love teaching math, but I find differentiation tricky, as many teachers do. When I brought up this model with my administrator, he was unsupportive, so I tabled the idea. I either had to change my vision for a self-paced classroom or let it go.
As the year progressed, I found that the more traditional math class structure was frustrating both me and my students. No student was really getting what he/she truly needed because they were either being pushed along at an unsustainable pace or being held back. I was annoyed that my favorite class–the part of the day I most look forward to–was not actually working very well.
While all of this was hanging out in the back of my mind, I had a meeting with a parent of a high-achieving, eager-to-please, genuinely good student. She told me that her daughter was unhappy at school, for a variety of reasons. This was disheartening for me because she is such a happy, enthusiastic, eager participant in class; I immediately started thinking about how to improve her classroom experience. Her mom then made a throw-away comment about how she felt that her math partner was “holding her back” in class. There it was. Something I could change, something I could do to make math class better for her (and hopefully other students as well).
After that conversation, I made the change. I decided to have a self-paced math class. By troubleshooting with some colleagues, I launched the idea to my students on the next Monday. And the rest, as they say, is history. It has been wildly successful, and math has again become my favorite part of the day. While managing individual students’ movement through our curriculum can be challenging, I feel like I am supporting all of my students so much better than I was before. For some students, I just had to get out of the way. For other students, they needed so much more than I was able to give before. Now, I can do both of those things at the same time.
Advantages of my self-paced system so far:
- I get to teach individual or small group minilessons as needed by my students, instead of generally ineffective whole class lessons. I prefer this for its immediacy, effectiveness, and individuality.
- Students can spend an extra day on a concept if they need more practice. They aren’t “holding” anyone else back.
- Students can fly through a concept if they get it right away. They don’t have to “wait” for anyone to catch up.
- Absences are no longer a big deal because I don’t have to “catch them up” with the rest of the class. They just pick up right where they left off before they were gone.
- My fast-moving students provide me with “beta-testing” as they move through a particular unit. If they get stuck on a particular concept or skill, it is likely that their classmates will when they get there. This gives me extra time to prepare different strategies as students move through the unit; I am a better math teacher because I have the opportunity to explain a concept in different ways to reach different students.
Change can be hard, but it can also be exhilarating. I feel that I have breathed new life into my math class, and my students have experienced a lot of confidence and success with it. I have escaped from the idea of a “traditional” math class, and my students and I are all better for it.