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Hope, Agency, Mastery, And Other Terms Educators Are Redefining

Illustrations by Drew Lytle for NPR

Every time Bill Zima, superintendent of schools in Hallowell, Maine, sends an email, it has this sentence under his signature: "Cultivating Hope In All Learners."

This is his school district's philosophy. It means something very specific. Zima got it from a YouTube video.

"A colleague sent it to me. It was a guy in a three-piece suit standing in front of a podium that said Business Summit To Drive Education Reform. I thought, ugh, this is going to be a bashing of public education."

Instead, says Zima, "It literally changed my life."

In the video, Brandon Busteed, then of Gallup, spoke about that organization's research on the importance of hope. They define hope not as a thing with feathers, but as a "strategy" of forming goals, understanding the paths to take to reach those goals, and having the energy to set off on that path.

Equipping young people to take on their futures is an unfathomably complex job. Across the country, educators rely on ideas from the worlds of psychology, business, technology and many other fields to fuel their efforts. Here's an attempt to demystify some of the current watchwords in education, especially those that relate to the concept of "personalized learning."

(Previously, I wrote about terms for social and emotional skills, and about ed-tech buzzwords.)


Author Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, cites productivity research that shows that workers excel when they experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

" Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that's important to us; and Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond than ourselves." Proponents of personalized learning say that these qualities are not well cultivated in traditional schools where students are compelled by extrinsic rewards and punishments, simply to get the right answer on a test.


Learning is measured with reference to competencies, which tend to be framed more by skills than specific knowledge or facts (knowing "how" rather than knowing "what"). Competency may be demonstrated in more than one way, such as with a written assessment or a presentation, an online or in-person course. An explicit framework of competencies allows students to understand what is expected of them and where they are heading, which in turn makes it easier for students to move at their own pace.


A lesson is "differentiated" when there are different options for students at different levels of knowledge, ability, or interest. For example, students may be grouped by reading level and given texts covering the same content at different levels of difficulty. Or a particular student with a learning disability may have an accommodation, like giving her answers orally rather than in writing. Whether it's called personalized learning or not, most classrooms are differentiated in some way.


The Gallup organization, which polls students and workers on their motivations in life, defines hope as "ideas and energy for the future." People have hope when they have "Attainable goals, the ability to see multiple pathways to achieve those goals, and agency—i.e., a belief that you can achieve your goals," says Tim Hodges of Gallup. Some personalized learning schools, such as Kennebec Intradistrict Schools in Maine, have adopted this definition of hope as their ideal.


Compared to a curriculum decided by the teacher, students can make choices based on their interests, for example in what books to read or what topic to study in history.


Related to competency-based learning. Students move on to the next topic when, and only when, they demonstrate mastery of a given topic or skill, for example, by completing an assessment.


Similar to mastery-based learning. Proficiency may be understood as a more basic level of engagement than mastery. In some frameworks, students pursue mastery only in areas of passion, and proficiency elsewhere as required. Take photosynthesis, says Bill Zima, superintendent of the RSU-2 School district in Maine: "We all had a basic understanding of photosynthesis in 7th and 10th grade, but you could study it for your entire career. If that's your passion, there's no end to the depth... vs. ok I'm done with it but I'm proficient. I'll try geology, or I want to study politics now."


Projects are a very popular type of school assignment, especially in personalized learning schools, where they're seen as more relevant to the real world. Employers today are more likely to require a speech with slides than a five-paragraph essay.

According to the Buck Institute for Education, "gold standard" school projects may be solo or group; require an extended period of time; are aligned with learning goals; engage with a real-world problem or question; have an element of student choice; go through at least one cycle of critique, feedback and reflection; and culminate in a public presentation of some kind.


Psychologist Albert Bandura coined this term to mean confidence in "how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations." Proponents of personalized learning believe that when we give students more choice and control, their self-efficacy grows.


A concept first introduced by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the early decades of the 20th century. Broadly speaking, the idea is that learners make the most efficient progress when they work on problems that are not too hard and not too easy. It's more difficult to keep each student in the "zone" in a one-to-many classroom.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.