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Strategies for Accelerating Learning: What Educators Need and How Leaders Can Support Them

The Newsela Team
Aug 30, 2021

The paces at which students learn are as diverse as they are — but while learners’ uniqueness enriches the classroom in so many ways, these differences can make it challenging for educators to teach at a pace that supports all students. School and district leaders may not be in the classroom every day, but they play a critical role in supporting educators as they make sure all students learn quickly enough to keep up with their curriculum. 

To explore how leaders can do this, Dan Cogan-Drew, co-founder and Chief Academic Officer of Newsela, was joined by Dr. Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, an educational author and thought leader, and Pat Wright, former principal, superintendent, and executive director of New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. Their discussion focused on defining learning acceleration, identifying four key principles to guide learning acceleration, and key considerations for school and district leaders about these principles and their implementation. 

Defining acceleration

Learning acceleration can be a complex concept, and to promote it, educators and administrators first need to norm on a shared working definition of the term. Drawing on an amalgamation of work from the Council of Great City Schools and the Learning Policy Institute, Cogan-Drew proposed a definition grounded in assessment. To the speakers, learning acceleration means using formative assessments to make data-driven decisions, involving students in the choice about how to proceed with their learning. 

“It's about keeping all students engaged and active,” Cogan-Drew explained, “which often means keeping them together and not isolating them or tracking them. It's about maintaining grade level rigor, taking time to go deeper in the learning.” To fully accelerate learning, educators must turn away from remedial and deficit-oriented approaches, and instead embrace human tutoring over the algorithm-based activities that often set back full inclusion of slower learners. Dr. Hayes-Jacobs added that accelerated learning ultimately means helping students know what they must do to learn without the teacher. 

Four principles that guide learning acceleration 

The speakers identified four principles that guide learning acceleration: 

  • Social and emotional well-being: Wright explained that social-emotional learning (SEL) concepts are crucial, and not only for cultivating the resiliency students need to overcome the setbacks of the pandemic. As she put it, SEL skills are essential tools for accelerating learning; for instance, collaborating with other learners can speed the process, but to do this effectively, all students must have the social and emotional skills to work in a group. 

  • Equitable access: Wright framed the question of equity in terms of “equitable access to grade-level content.” Noting that students arrive in each new grade with different levels of proficiency, she explained that equitable access means ensuring these deficits do not become barriers to accessing the curriculum at their current grade level. Preventing this means schoolwide collaboration and support through professional learning communities and systemic school improvement.

  • Depth of learning: The speakers recommended prioritizing not only curriculum coverage and standards, but also depth of learning — and adopting formative assessments that measure this meaningfully. 

  • K-12 accelerated learning cycle: Accelerating learning to its full potential is beyond the purview of individual teachers. Maximizing the pace of learning for all students instead requires a K-12 accelerated learning cycle that allows educators to continuously identify gaps throughout the school year and the students’ progress through grade-level content. This requires schoolwide coordination on student learning objectives at each grade level and content area, as well as approaches to collecting and analyzing formative assessment data. 

To illustrate these principles in action, Wright shared the example of schools in New Jersey that have adopted the connected action roadmap, a systemic process of school improvement. They have embedded the learning cycle in the entire school, and they understand that the learning cycle is grounded not in teaching, but in student learning. Putting this into action might mean, for instance, breaking down grade-level priority standards into student-centered “I can” statements. Effective instruction happens not only in teachers’ instructional strategies, but in the learning strategies enacted by students. 

What leaders need to consider 

When it’s time to implement a learning acceleration plan, principals have a key role to play in the project’s success. Having explained how a collaborative climate is fundamental to learning acceleration, Wright added that principals provide the structures and tools to achieve such a climate. In this school culture, teachers make decisions around curriculum, instruction, and assessment — building collective efficacy and empowering students to reach the highest levels of learning. 

Doing this, Dr. Hayes-Jacobs added, lays the groundwork for a seismic shift from teaching strategies to learning strategies. Educators become partners with their learners rather than implementing a particular pedagogy “at them.” When done well, this translates into three student-focused statements that all learners should be able to make: 

  1. As a learner, I know what I’m being asked to do and why it matters to me. 

  2. As a learner, I can connect my choices to my outcomes. 

  3. As a learner, I believe in my ability to grow and achieve mastery of what I’m learning. 

When all learners can say these things about themselves, educators will know that as a team, they made the seismic shift to an asset-oriented mindset, one that celebrates all students’ strengths and prepares them to overcome the biggest challenges of this moment. 

Watch the recorded webinar here.

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