Insight & Connection: Public Schools in Focus

By February 4, 2020 No Comments


Chris Sturgis, Author and Expert on Mastery Learning

We continue our series of case studies with the stories of two more MTC member schools: Champlain Valley Union High School in Vermont and Pathways High School in Wisconsin. Both are public high schools who are engaging their students in learning experiences deeply rooted in research on learning. What is a common road block for school change? “Too many schools continue to be constrained by the idea that school is separate from the community,” says Kim Taylor, director of Pathways.

Pathways is a young, trailblazing charter school whose seniors are piloting the MTC Mastery Transcript this year as they apply to jobs and to two- and four-year college programs. Champlain Valley is a traditional but extraordinarily innovative public high school, currently testing the Mastery Transcript among faculty, staff, and students. Within MTC’s Journey to Mastery Learning framework, these two schools are among the furthest along. 

These expertly illustrated case studies, prepared by Chris Sturgis from LearningEdge, are key resources for educators plotting or progressing along their own journeys–and inspiring examples of successful mastery-based programs. We encourage our member schools to share reactions, insights, and discussions about these stories with your network of peers on Read on for more!

Case 1: Champlain Valley Union High School

Each semester, a group of students at Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) in Vermont participate in redesigning school. In Think Tank, a class led by instructional coaches Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams, students visit the question of HOW schools should be designed and WHY they need to change.  

In Think Tank, students learn about the brain, learning, motivation, and the latest educational research. They look at innovative models around the world as well as their own experiences to understand the design choices that are made and the impact on learning. The bookcases in Rinkema and Williams’ office are filled with books used in the Think Tank class: The Art of Changing the Brain, Drive, Switch, What Schools Could Be, and Most Likely to Succeed. They are dedicated to bringing new research and ideas to the students in Think Tank…and encouraging students to seek emerging ideas themselves. (Click here to see their recommended reading.)

During the semester, students discover that learning is an active process. Learners need to be actively engaged in learning and thinking; believe they can learn (growth mindset), manage their emotional response to learning (self-regulation), and manage their thinking processes (meta-cognition). They learn about motivation theory and how to design classrooms so that students have autonomy, purpose, and opportunity for mastery. They discover that prior knowledge needs to be taken into consideration to help make connections and to make sure they have the pre-requisite skills…and if they don’t, to help them develop them. Catherine, an alumnae of Think Tank explained, “I learned about how much I didn’t know about learning.” Beckett, another alumnae, said, “I stopped going through the motions and started to think of myself as a learner. I realized that I can make choices about what I want to learn about, not just what is going to help me get into college. I’m excited about what I learn now.”  

Students then select one area in which to go deeper.  Josie, another alumnae of Think Tank explained, “We dived into personalized projects. Each of us tackled something that interested us and designed our own solutions to the problem.” Students have looked at badging and classroom design. Several projects have looked at the stress that develops as part of the college admissions process and the shame that rejection can bring. Their ideas have contributed to changes in classroom seating, increased student mental health awareness, led to the creation of a student congress, and informed the creation of new transcript models…

To read the complete case study “Driving Improvement with the Learning Sciences at Champlain Valley Union High School” you may download it now (total length: 27 pages).

Case 2: Pathways High School

Pathways High School was established because the co-founders saw a problem and responded: the traditional education model was wasting talent. Julia Burns, co-founder and board president, explained, “Each of my five children is different and each have amazing gifts. But the one-size-fits-all system squelches their creativity and their potential. Everywhere I look in our schools, talent is squandered. We can’t afford to let talent go to waste. We are far too needy in this world. The problems we face are far too big. We need every drop of talent there is.”

There is a huge difference between getting everyone to graduation standards, whatever state policy determines that to be, and developing talent. Traditional schools aim at preparing students for graduation by completing a certain number of courses. Some schools, both traditional and modern, aim for college and career readiness. And there are some schools, such as Pathways High, that have set their goals to help students discover and develop their talent. They are designing for success. But what does it mean to design for success?

Believe that Students Want to be Successful

Most schools would say that they want all their students to be successful and point to their mission statement as evidence. The problem is that in the traditional
system, we rank students. Students experience a system that is telling them they are a winner, a loser, or somewhere in between.

At Pathways High they start by trusting that each and every one of their students wants to be successful. Day in and day out, no matter what behavior students are demonstrating, the Pathways High team assumes that all their students want to be successful in their lives. They assume that everyone wants to be a winner. Who wouldn’t want to be successful? Even those who might be coming to school late. Even those who aren’t turning in their assignments on time. Even those who are slumped in the back of the room with their eyes down. By trusting that their students want to be successful, regardless of their behavior, the team at Pathways High flips the traditional school model on its head. This is a big step beyond the rhetoric of ‘all kids can learn.’ Pathways believes that once students find the vision for their future that will inspire them they will all find themselves on a path to success…

To read the complete case study “Designed for Success” you may download it now (total length: 20 pages).

Go Further

Much more to come! To help our members go further in their journeys to mastery learning and the Mastery Transcript, MTC is growing its range of resources and opportunities on Members can stay tuned for more on our case studies series with Chris Sturgis and special invitations to share and connect with colleagues across the network.  If you are not yet a member but are interested in learning more about benefits of membership, please get in touch today.


About Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis is principal of LearningEdge, a consulting firm based in Santa Fe, NM specializing in education, youth issues and community engagement. Sturgis is recognized for her leadership in competency-based education as a cofounder of CompetencyWorks.