Accelerate Learning by Climbing Mountains

Explore ways to bring every student to the academic mountaintop.

Grades K-12 15 min Resource by:

For most mountain climbers, the thrill of the sport comes from conquering the physical and psychological challenges that they face while climbing up a mountain and then being rewarded with stunning views at the summit. Before putting hand-to-rock, however, climbers must prepare. They study the terrain, gather necessary equipment, practice their skills, check the forecast, and make contingency plans. Without this prework, their quest to the top would be very difficult, if not impossible. Yet, preparation is just the beginning. Climbers must ultimately leave their living rooms, travel to their destination, and begin their climb. They know that they will face unforeseen challenges during the ascent, and they must be prepared to solve problems, collaborate, and take calculated risks as they quest upward toward the summit. If all goes well, they will reach their goal and be rewarded with the grand views from the top. If the challenge is too great, they will be forced to try again another day.

In many ways, learning is like this trip to the mountaintop. For students, one of these mountaintops is academic success. As the teacher, you are like the trainers, guides, or Sherpas who help get the climbers to the summit. You climb alongside your students and get the thrill of seeing them succeed. To get them to the summit, you must plan, gather necessary materials, and review data as you design meaningful learning experiences. Like the climber, you know that you will likely run into unexpected challenges and struggles along the way, and you will need to be a creative problem-solver to help your students achieve their goals.

While you want your students to succeed, you can’t do it for them, and you can’t make success so easy to achieve that it takes no effort. For success to be real and meaningful, the journey should be challenging. Success without effort is neither satisfying nor motivating. On the other hand, accomplishing something difficult can be extremely gratifying and rewarding. The higher the mountain, the grander the view at the top—and the greater the sense of accomplishment. This type of success motivates and leads to future success, too. By equipping your students with the skills, confidence, and opportunities to reach academic mountaintops, you are empowering and motivating them both now and in the future.

As you map out the academic summits in your classroom, it’s important to remember that all students deserve an academic challenge. It may be tempting to leave some students practicing basic skills at the basecamp while you bring the more academically gifted students to the top, but this is not good enough. It’s important to make sure that all of the students in your class get an equitable and rigorous learning experience. All students deserve to reach the mountaintop. Some students might need to start with smaller mountains before tackling Mount Everest, but it’s important that they are challenged, that they work hard on the climb, and that they ultimately experience the thrill of a summit. While your students will come to you with varied skill levels, it’s important to set the bar high for all of them and challenge them with appropriate mountains to climb. In classroom terms, make sure that all students are presented with academic rigor. Academic rigor is not just for the gifted students; it’s for all students.

Because no two students are the same, you will need to provide differentiated levels of support along the way, and some students may need a different pathway to the top. Still, the goal is to get the entire class to the top whenever possible. As you design learning experiences in your classroom, maintain academic rigor for all and provide differentiated pathways, as needed, to maximize each student’s success. It is through these scaffolded academic challenges that your students will stretch and grow. Set high, yet achievable, goals. Then, develop a plan to get all of your students to the summit. Their proud, beaming faces at the top will make all of the effort and hard work worthwhile.

7 Steps to Climbing the Academic Mountain

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on UnsplashAccompanying text added by AVID Open Access

As you begin planning your academic journey, start with priority grade-level standards. As discussed in the AVID Open Access article, Accelerate Learning by Prioritizing Outcomes and Providing Just-in-Time Support, you will need to target the most important grade-level standards first. These should be your primary mountain peak destinations. As Ryan Colon, director of math content design for Teaching Lab, shared with Carnegie Corporation of New York, “Denying students access to grade-level content is counterproductive and further widens achievement gaps.” In terms of mountain climbing, if you only target the foothills for some learners, they will never experience the mountaintop. They’ll be uninspired and left behind.

 

Not every student will be equally ready to achieve grade-level standards. Like with mountain climbing, you won’t want to have your students attempt the climb before they are ready. You want them to be successful, and for this to happen, you need to make sure that they have mastered the prerequisite skills needed for success. To challenge each student appropriately, it’s important to assess their individual readiness. You can find strategies for assessing prior learning in the AVID Open Access article, Accelerate Learning With Meaningful, Targeted Assessment. While the primary goal is to get every student to achieve grade-level academic standards, some students may need to first practice their climbing skills in the foothills or on smaller mountains before taking on the grade-level mountain. Other students will come to you ready to reach the summit with little help. You’ll need to push these students along to the next, more challenging mountain.

When athletes in any sport struggle, their coaches will often have them go back to the basics. A focus on the essential skills can refocus the athlete. In your classroom, these fundamentals are the prerequisite skills that students need for future success. They are the core tenets upon which future skills will be built. Whether climbing a large mountain or scaling a smaller hill, students will need these foundational skills. Therefore, be sure that all students master the core skills needed for future success. This strong foundational knowledge will set them up for success regardless of the mountain they choose to climb.

It’s more important to get all students to reach the summit than it is to get them all there on the same path or at the same pace. The view from the top will be the same for everyone, regardless of when or how they got there. As you plan the ascent for your class, you will need to assess skill levels, learning styles, personal interests, and more. Then, differentiate by choosing the most suitable and motivating path to the summit for each student. Some students may be ready and eager to take the shortest, most challenging route to the top. Others may need a little extra encouragement or a more gradual ascent, with skill-building and reminders along the way.

Your students will never climb a mountain by simply reading about it. Skills must be applied in authentic ways and contexts. Therefore, it’s important for your students to actually start climbing. It’s also important that they are not left to practice basic skills in the foothills forever. They need to move toward the mountain: their grade-level academic standards. We cannot be satisfied with students mastering only preliminary skills. This is not good enough. In some ways, it’s like a climber only getting to basecamp by the end of the year. While the mountain may be awe-inspiring from the base, students who never reach the top would miss out on experiencing the fulfillment of the successful climb. We must strive to get them up the mountain.

To do this, we may need to teach students the skills they need as they climb. This just-in-time support can be efficient and motivating, since it allows them to learn in an authentic context at the point of need. To make this work, you will need to determine which skills are required before beginning the ascent and which skills can be taught along the way. As much as possible, embed reinforcement of key prerequisite skills into the learning experience and let your students learn as they climb. This will accelerate their ascent because they’ll be climbing as they learn.

Every summit deserves a celebration. Give each other a fist bump. Take a picture. Shout out in triumphant exultation. No matter what you do, students should feel a sense of pride and accomplishment for reaching a goal! If you are scaffolding the learning experience for some students, you can celebrate smaller victories along the way to the top of the grade-level mountain. When they finally reach the big peak, celebrate even more. It’s also important that students reflect on what got them to the top. What skills have they mastered? What did they learn about themselves along the way? What role did hard work and perseverance play in their success? What would they do differently next time? This self-reflection can help them understand how they learn best. This self-understanding can reinforce and accelerate their ability to apply these skills in the future.

For additional celebration and reflection strategies, explore the following AVID Open Access articles:

When your students get to the mountaintop, the view will be amazing. It may also be eye-opening. Quite often, our perspective is limited by our current view, and we think that we are climbing the biggest mountain in front of us. When we reach the top, however, we become aware of other mountains that we didn’t even know existed. In fact, we might discover a whole range of new mountains to climb. This is a good thing! It provides our students with new perspectives, new goals, and a new understanding of where they are at in their personal learning journey. If they successfully conquer one goal, they are more likely to be motivated and confident to take on the next mountain.

Despite best efforts, some of your students may not be able to reach grade-level summits in the time that you have with them. In those cases, it’s important to help all students reach a mountaintop of some kind. Every student needs to feel success if they are to be motivated to continue learning. Once students give up on learning or lose confidence, it becomes much harder to convince them to climb another mountain. It’s also important to challenge students to climb the highest peaks possible. If they are stuck in the foothills practicing basic skills over and over (think rote exercises), they will never reach the peak. They might gain skills, but because they’ve never applied them in an authentic context, they will be left with a backpack full of tools that never gets opened or used. All students need skills, and they also need authentic ways to apply them.

If you empower them, challenge them, and let them climb, your students can thrive and grow—both now and in the future. Of course, take time to celebrate the summit with them. Take pride in the accomplishment, and then inspire your students to climb the next peak.

References

  • Hirsh, S. (2020, September 1). How to accelerate learning for all students in the 2020–21 school year. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

AVID Connections

  • AVID Framework Overview: The AVID College and Career Readiness Framework helps educators reframe how they see student potential and reframe how they create a learning ecosystem with existing talent, resources, and systems.
  • Advanced Academics: Access and Support: All students should have the opportunity to be prepared for college and career success, even if they ultimately choose a different path to follow. The preparation for this success must occur in every grade level and course prior to high school graduation. Through this activity, educators are able to evaluate student access to, and support in, rigorous academic courses at their campuses.

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