Monday, July 15, 2013

Role reversal

Mark Barnes's book, ROLE Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student -Centered Classroom, describes his approach on student-centered learning. In it he describes eliminating classroom rules, homework, and grades in favor of student self-governed behavior, intrinsically motivated learning and feedback centering on year long learning projects. He also is a huge user of technology in his classroom with classroom websites, blogs, and resources factoring in for extensive pieces of the program.

It is an interesting contrast with some recent research regarding the different needs and desires of minority learners from middle class white learners (see M.J. Pitrilli; C.E. Lamy; or E. Jenson from the May 2013 Educational Leadership). Those authors suggest that learning differences exist between these groups and more traditional learning systems are not only embraced but more successful for minority and students of poverty. Perhaps one reason is the major difference in background knowledge that persists between the groups and the acknowledgement that to be successful in today's world requires intensive cultural indoctrination into education and middle class values. Catching students up to the cultural "norm" and background requires time.

Mr. Barnes has achieved greater success than his more traditional colleagues in his middle school ELA program which serves approximately 60% minority and 33% eligible for free or reduced lunch and 10-15% students with IEP's (p. 14). While this mix is a minority majority, it is not a high poverty school. It would be interesting to see how the data compares with other population mixes.  In some ways ELA is an easy place to center student centered learning. Classes with a greater specific content "memorization" demand such as science or math would require a dramatically different program from what he describes.

I am a fan of benchmarks rather that grading. All too often I have seen students ignore the feedback written on their papers only to look at the grade and throw the paper away. We have a grade centric society. In graduate school I had a class that frustrated me tremendously because of an amorphous grading system that provided limited feedback, but rated progress based on subjective feeling of what the student was able to do. Everyone passed. Only one person earned an A. I was perpetually frustrated. I suspect some students and families would feel this way under his system. If the feedback were based on standards with the goal of mastery, perhaps this would not be the case.  Giving students multiple opportunities to learn material and revise work allows for mastery to be a goal. However, in some subjects where there is an enormous quantity of material to cover, right or wrong, NY is one such state for our cores of history, math and science, redos can leave some students buried as they try to keep up and fix the missed learning of the past. My special ed students would be likely to fall victim to this problem more than the average student.

I suspect one major reason for the success of his program is the extensive reading that students are asked to complete. Middle school students are required to read at least 25 books on top of completing what appears to be two projects per quarter. This amount of reading, in and of itself, might be responsible for the students' development of vocabulary and background knowledge that enables his students to be successful.

I very much liked the Year-long project guidelines present on page 48. Students are asked to select one item from each part of the menu to respond to for at least three of their books. This promotes thoughtful use of the developing skills taught in mini-lessons, enables choice in assignment and gets students writing. Students then receive feedback and may elect to revise the work to meet the standard.

Feedback is not of the redline through the word with the correction written over it. He describe a four step feedback process called SE2R which stands for summarize, explain, redirect and resubmit. I will make a stab at creating such a feedback statement:

Johnny, you completed a research project on how students in Afghanistan are different from students in America. You described four ways that schools and students are different in the two countries. You did a nice job citing your sources.
Some of your word choices are either repetitive or poor choices for substitutions for common words. You also have numerous run on sentences that interfere with meaning.
Look back at your notes and our class website for how to revise for word choice and how to determine what a sentence is. If you need more help see me.
When you have revised your work turn it back in.

 Without a grade attached, the student is faced with a choice, forget it or redo it to try and master those two problematic skills. There is a plan for learning the material that is unknown and a way to demonstrate that learning. Many times I have had students redo work. Rarely have I had a teacher provide any extra instruction. In mastery teaching, that is a critical piece of the puzzle.

The other piece that I really liked was the performance review directions. He has students annually reflect on their performance in four areas: Reading all year project (25 book goal), year-long projects, participation in ROLE, and improvement (p. 123). While some students might need more scaffolding to be able to effectively complete this task, completing this review facilitates metacognition of the student and his role as a learner. It also allows teachers to reflect on where changes might need to be made.

For additional information, Mark has a blog, websites ( and classroom sites), multiple online courses for technology in the classroom and completed a webinar on ASCD's website.  Mark Barnes ASCD webinar

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