Jennifer Gonzalez recently spoke with Kareem Farah on her Cult of Pedagogy podcasts about creating a self-paced classroom. I found it difficult during my first year teaching to differentiate instruction and address the wide range of learning needs of my students. When I implemented a self-paced classroom it allowed me to provide additional support to struggling students while also appropriately challenging students who were ready for more advanced content. Jennifer’s conversation with Kareen discusses several questions and strategies teachers may have about creating a self-paced classroom.

A Shift from Whole-group direct instruction to Whole-group discussions and activities

A common misconception teachers have about self-paced classrooms is that there is no whole-group activities. Instead of whole-group instruction there is a shift to whole-group discussion and activities:

To be clear, whole-group direct instruction is distinct from whole-group discussions and activities. Any effective self-paced classroom naturally infuses collaborative experiences. I will discuss how this can be done later. But the key is reducing—and ultimately eliminating—those times when kids are simply waiting for you to tell them information so they can get started on a task.

Suggestions for Categorizing Lessons

Teachers also worry about some students getting too far ahead in the curriculum or students getting too far behind. Kareem suggests designing your units by categorizing lessons into must do, should do, and aspire to do:

  • Must Do: These lessons cover essential skills and content, without which end-of-unit assessments cannot be completed. These lessons are non-negotiable.
  • Should Do: These lessons give students valuable opportunities to develop their skills or knowledge and include skills that are still considered to be “grade level expectations.” However, when students fall behind and are working hard, they can be excused from these lessons and will still be able to transition to the next unit comfortably.
  • Aspire to Do: These are the toughest lessons in a unit; they serve as extensions for students who are ready and able to learn skills and content beyond the normal scope of the course. You should feel comfortable excusing kids from mastering these lessons if they run out of time.

Helping Students Pace their Work

To increase student accountability teachers can use trackers to let students know what they should work on each day and if students are on pace to complete unit activities before the assessment. Kareem discusses public and individual trackers. I typically used public trackers with my classes for the reasons Kareen described:

In addition to indicating the lesson each student is on, public pacing trackers often highlight the expected pace as well as “lesson all-stars” who have produced exemplary work. It is important to note that public trackers NEVER display grades and given the nature of self-pacing, students have ample time and opportunity to catch up. Also, if lesson classifications are used effectively, the tracker should reflect effort, not ability level.

The self-paced classroom is a great way to provide students with more flexibility to self-direct their learning. It also provides teachers with more time to design learning activities that meet the needs of all learners.