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Student Centered Learning: Creating a Culture of Accountability

Posted in Ed Tech on February 25, 2014 by

Here at Knewton we’re dedicated to supporting innovative educators. This post is written by Kaylie Reed. Kaylie was the founding teacher at Acton Academy and helped develop and run their Elementary program in its first four years before leaving the classroom this fall to launch a campaign seeking entrepreneurial educators and parents interested in replicating the Acton Academy model in their communities. She is currently consulting for blended learning programs around the country, including several new Acton Academies slated to open this fall. Check out Kaylie’s first guest piece, Student Centered Learning: Math in the Blended Learning Environment

Ensuring that each student is engaged at the appropriate level of challenge can be accomplished through adaptive, gamified software. Ultimately, though, what happens offline is what truly determines whether the learning experience is effective and well-rounded.

A student’s ability to set and track goals in order to evaluate his progress is essential to his success in a mastery-based, individualized learning program. Students need lots of practice setting specific, measurable goals that are challenging, but realistic. In this area, I’ve found that the three core tenets from Verne Harnish’s well-known business book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits are especially relevant: priorities, data, and rhythm.

A young student or one who is unfamiliar with goal setting can begin by simply recording what he or she accomplishes each day and in what amount of time. This attention to productivity may be something entirely new for the student. Encouraging this daily reflection allows students to become familiar with patterns in their own productivity.

From here, students can move on to daily goals. A younger student might benefit from more time just observing and tracking activity, while an older student might move to daily goal setting in just a week or two. From daily goal setting, a student can build up to weekly goals and then to monthly and quarterly goals.

Understanding individual patterns of productivity is a major factor in a student’s ability to set appropriate goals. The S.M.A.R.T. goal framework, in conjunction with this personal reflection, can help students arrive at truly compelling goals that will galvanize them on a daily basis. There are many variations on this acronym, but I like to use Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Tough. Here are the questions associated with each term:

Is the goal achievable? Do you have the necessary time, tools, and prior knowledge to achieve this goal?

Is this goal specific and measurable? How can you tell if you’ve reached this goal?

Is the goal relevant? Does it reflect your six-week goal and your long-term vision for your future?

Is the goal tough? Will you be challenged by this goal? Will it take you out of your comfort zone? If you do not focus intensely and work diligently will you fail to accomplish this goal?

Once daily priorities are set, they can be further defined by data. Students clearly identify what success means in terms of their priorities by tying a key metric to each priority and tracking this daily. Students should have a way to record their daily goals and time to track their progress and quickly reflect at the end of each day.

This is a great opportunity for students to practice graphing. These graphs can then provide lots of rich material for conversations about growth curves. Below are the kind of conversations these activities can help stimulate:

“Look at how steep your learning curve is! Why do you think that is? Did you focus intensely on your work? Did you find a place to work where you were not distracted? Were you in flow? Did you make extra time for this goal? Is this goal challenging enough? Is this the right goal for you? Do you think you will continue to progress at this rate?”

“Hmm, you haven’t seen any progress in the last few days/weeks. It looks like you have hit a plateau. Did something change in the way you were working? Did you allow yourself to get distracted? Did you hit some new, challenging material? Do you think you need more time? Do you think you need to change the way you are working? Is this goal too challenging? Is this the right goal for you?”

Students begin to ask themselves and each other these questions, and these questions are infinitely more powerful when they come from within or from a peer than when they come from an adult.


The rhythms within the classroom come in the form of daily huddles and weekly meetings in peer accountability groups. Students meet each morning with a small group of peers to set their priorities for the day. They give each other feedback and clarify the priorities before brainstorming potential roadblocks to achieving them. From there they come up with ways to overcome or avoid the roadblocks and identify the resources within the classroom they will seek if they need help.

Each of the small groups has a student facilitator who is trained to run the daily huddles and weekly meetings. The training is simple with an explicit agenda for the meetings that they follow. each group also has a designated area where they meet and the class as a whole has a clear signal that the meetings are taking place so that they start and end on time.

The questions repeated when students are setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and reflecting on progress can be explicitly given to the facilitators as part of their training, in addition to a handful of other questions that they can repeat consistently in these daily meetings:

“What do you think contributed to you having such a successful week? What specific things will you do again this week based on last week’s success? What will you change this week in order to make more progress towards your goals? What can you do to ensure you have a successful week? Is there anything you think might prevent you from reaching your goals? What resources are there in this room if you hit that roadblock? What can you change in order to avoid that roadblock?”

After a month or so, other students will have learned the questions from hearing them repeated consistently, and the facilitator role can begin rotating.

For more on collaborative learning, check out this helpful Ed Tech 101 glossary.

Peer Accountability
This practice of focusing on priorities, data, and rhythms leverages some pretty powerful motivators — the alignment of students’ daily actions to their long-term goals; a clear definition of success with key metrics tracked visibly; and peer accountability, which is, perhaps, the friendliest form of pressure. The result is a classroom full of students who are learning how to set goals and to hold themselves and others accountable.

Stay tuned for the next post in Kaylie’s series.