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Walk and Learn: Self-paced Education by Emily Spicer

What does it look like to go at your own pace?

In June 2017, I walked four days of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - an ancient Pilgrimage route which runs across Europe in various forms. My four days ran from O’Cebreiro to Ligonde in Northern Spain. Walking around 25km per day with thousands of other pilgrims, I had to walk at my own pace. With aching muscles, a heavy rucksack, and sore feet, I knew that I had no option but to walk to my own rhythm. It wasn’t a race; it was a journey. Had I tried to go more quickly, I might not have made it.

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I might have taken longer than some (and less time than others), but in the end, we all made it to the same destination, satisfied having made it under our own steam, in our own way. The journey was all the richer for a steady pace; I had time to really appreciate all that happened en route, taking in the scenery, sharing stories with other walkers from across the world, and enjoying well-deserved breaks and a chance to recuperate.

Finding our own pace -  taking ownership of the cadence - is part of the journey. But what about learning; what does it look like to learn at your own pace? What does it feel like? Do students get left behind? 

This week I was intrigued to hear Cara Johnson speak on the EdSurge podcast about her work in supporting teachers to introduce mastery learning via a flipped classroom approach in US schools.

She designs her approach explicitly to help students learn at their own pace. Splitting the curriculum into concepts and skill areas, she records a short video for each area, which students can watch in their own time - either at school or at home (or on the bus, at the park, wherever they might choose, as many times as they want or need). This is the ‘flipped’ part; the idea that while students would previously have been forced to listen to a teacher impart knowledge from the front of the class, they can now listen to short, ‘chunked up’ videos in their own time.

So is there any need for class time at all? Yes; a great need, just re-purposed. The classroom is filled with activities to practise each skill or concept, by applying it. 

Students decide how they go about their own learning, with Cara on hand to answer questions, with one limitation: they must demonstrate mastery of one concept or skill before moving on to the next area.

In this way students don’t get left behind as they once might have done in a ‘traditional’ system, as the teacher and the rest of the class rapidly move on, never having understood the basic concepts before more and more complex ideas are layered on top. Students set their own pace.

Clearly some students will learn more quickly than others. Where students fall significantly behind in their learning, Cara intervenes and works with the students to plan their learning over the next few weeks, but importantly ownership of the plan remains with the student.

With this method - which Cara admits only works with careful communication and buy-in from school leadership and parents - the teacher-centred space is transformed into a student-centred space, with the teacher as facilitator and guide. 

This method is no cop-out - not unlike the Oxbridge system of careful questioning of the student to challenge them and stretch them - there is no ‘getting away with it for students’. They can’t pretend to understand or brush over topics; they have to get to the point where they ‘get it’, however long that takes. But the result is deep understanding, with no student given up on.

Here at Oxford Summer Courses, every student is important. We don’t want anyone left behind. Our tutors are trained to adapt their lesson content to different abilities, and with cohorts limited to eight students in person and ten students online (coming soon), groups are small enough for students to go at their own pace. And, via our one-to-one or two-to-one tutorials, modelled on the Oxbridge system, students don’t brush over subjects but learn them deeply in a way suited to their own prior knowledge and experience.

Because, as with a pilgrimage, if you try to go too quickly on a learning journey it might not end the way you want it to. But taking it at your own pace, concept by concept, with the support of a subject-expert tutor, you will not only reach your goal but learn the art of learning itself.

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Walking the Camino taught me the value of going at my own pace. Cara Johnson's mastery learning approach allows students to learn at their own speed. At Oxford Summer Courses, we prioritise individualised learning for deep understanding and personal growth.

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