Category: Resource

Why Making Meaning Matters for Student Ownership

October 5, 2015 by

EmpanadaThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 12, 2015. 

This weekend I decided to make empanadas. I looked to my Chilean cookbook for inspiration, but ultimately determined lard, hard boiled eggs, and raisins did not belong in my version. So, I started to play. I peeked inside the refrigerator to see what ingredients might work, scanned the pantry for additional items with complementary flavors and began mixing, chopping, measuring.

At some point during my experiment, as I was standing there making the empanada dough from scratch, rolling it out, kneading it, and forming it into a meal, I felt this sense of pride and satisfaction settle in over me. I wasn’t just a consumer; I became a creator. I didn’t just heat up a Hot Pocket, I made one. And it felt good.

Learning From Scratch

I think kids feel the same way. Our students learn best when they make the meaning, when they begin to own the learning. When students start to control things like pace, product, even the content, they make more meaning from scratch.

We are simply settling for a shadow of what learning can be when we, as teachers, provide answers too soon and grant little time for students to wonder and make.

Our students need to see-think-wonder their way through new ideas and concepts instead of being told the right answer. They need to use real tools, pull back the bark and discover what is hiding underneath.

Our students need us to stop taking over, grabbing the mouse, the iPad, the pencil, or the paintbrush to show them how it’s done.

Our students need time to think, explore, and be puzzled–time to not know on their journey to knowing. Time to struggle and experiment and test hypotheses.

Our students need to know we, as their teachers, value thoughtful questions over answers. (more…)

Calling All Ideas for Re-Thinking High School

October 1, 2015 by

rethinkThe Super School Project website is super-cool. But I’m always a bit suspicious of the super-cool stuff because it can be more hype than substance. So I searched and searched until I found out that the folks behind this project are super-strong advocates for equity and serving our most vulnerable young people. It ends up that Russlynn Ali (Ed Trust and Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in US Department of Education) and Geoff Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone are some of the brains behind the Super School Project.

The Super School Project is designed to get ideas flowing about what school could look like. It’s designed to help us imagine beyond what we know. And they have $50 million to fund teams that come up with super-duper ideas for new schools.

I sure hope some of you will form teams and put together new school ideas that start with a competency-based infrastructure. Even if you don’t, I think you will find that the resources on this site will be helpful to you in engaging school boards, community members, educators, and students. The quick briefs (scroll down this page to find them) about the Science of Adolescent Learning, Youth Experience and Aspiration, Students in the 21st century, School Mission and Culture, Teaching and Learning, Networks and Partnerships, and the super-important Student Agency and Engagement will all be helpful to you in your work to ramp up and begin the conversion to competency education.

They definitely need one of the briefs on competency education to help others learn to think beyond the wrappings of the time-based system.

Education Re-Imagined

September 29, 2015 by

pic 1Convergence, a national organization tackling big social issues, released a fantastic report titled Education Re-Imagined today. The report “seeks to accelerate the growth of learner-centered education” by highlighting pioneers. Convergence defines a learner-centered education as having five elements: competency-based, personalized, learner agency, socially embedded, and open-walled.

Many of the districts and schools promoted by Convergence are well-developed competency-based models, including Chugach School District (click here for CompetencyWorks case study), Iowa BIG (a visit to BIG by Maria Worthen will be published tomorrow), Lindsay Unified (click here for our case study), Making Community Connections Charter School (click here for our case study), Taylor County School District, and Summit Public Schools. Convergence’s profiles are short one pagers you can easily use with school board, community members, and parents.

The real power of this report is the advisory board, which includes John Jackson, President & CEP Schott Foundation; Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers; Becky Pringle, Vice President, National Education Association; Johnny Veselka, Executive Director, Texas Association of Schools Administrators; as well as principals, former superintendents, business leaders, and foundation leaders. You can use this report to demonstrate that these different perspectives and institutions are all “converging” on a common vision for education in America.

You might find parts of the reports helpful to your own communication efforts: (more…)

Going Deeper with New Resources

September 23, 2015 by

It’s helpful to read all the papers that get released on competency education and other related efforts…but they never totally help you understand how to do something. Thus, I keep my eyes out for resources that allow you to go deeper more easily.

There are two new resources that I think could be helpful to educators – Making Mastery Accessible by reDesign and Illuminating Standards at the Center for Student Work. And if you know of others that you have found helpful to you in your work, please pass them on.

redesignMaking Mastery Accessible was developed in partnership with Springpoint and is supported by Carnegie Corporation as a follow-up to Making Mastery Work. It can help you navigate terminology and there are lots of resources from other schools so you can see how they have organized their schools, what they have developed as overarching competencies, and access lots of teaching resources. There are also tools developed by reDesign to help you think about your process of conversion. For example, there are a number of design tools including readiness, adoption process, and grading policies.

snakes are born this way

From the video Snakes Are Born This Way

Illuminating Standards is a project to help people see how they can use project-based learning and performance tasks to help students meet the standards set out in the Common Core. It’s been developed through a partnership with Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (check out the home page, as there are a lot more resources available there). There are great videos about how to teach standards using project-based learning and student voice/choice. You will also find projects and examples of student work at each grade level.

Both sites have a lot of material, so you might want to dedicate an hour or have a team of people look through to find out what might be most useful in your work right now.

See also:

What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

September 9, 2015 by

A documentary titled “Most Likely to Succeed is premiering at the 2015 Sundance Festival. This trailer discusses grades, and this short video clip highlights students creating innovative projects and authentic assessments. Chris Sturgis provides commentary on this documentary in this blog post.

NewsScreen Shot 2014-08-30 at 7.22.41 AM

  • This article provides an overview of the information management tool called Slate, which provides data-driven support to teachers, powering them with the information to provide immediate supports to students in real-time.
  • Most conversations in the education sphere revolve around ensuring students are ready for college and career. This article flips the conversation and asks if our colleges are student-ready.
  • In Pittsburgh, digital badges find their niche through a community effort made possible through the support of Pittsburgh City of Learning. Five thousand learners streamed into 100 (mostly free) summer programs, including digital media programs, drop-in maker spaces, and paid internships, recording their work through badging.
  • California’s Lindsay Unified School District has eliminated grades and grade levels. This article provides an overview of Lindsay’s design, discusses the transition for stakeholders, and explores the changing grading system.

Movement in the States

  • Idaho is moving away from seat time and towards a mastery-based system through HB 110, which was signed into law on March 19, 2015 by Governor Otter, and the law took effect on July 1.
  • Ohio began the piloting process for competency education, made possible through HB 64, which allows five selected applicants to plan and implement competency-based programs during the pilot’s duration (2015-16 through 2018-19 school years).
  • This Op/Ed article by David Kelley provides a wonderful overview of the history of Vermont K-12 education, including bold initiatives toward revolutionary change through personalized learning plans and proficiency-based learning.
  • Nebraska’s State Board of Education started a new study committee on competency education. The first task assigned to the Board is to define competency-based education.
  • Connecticut passed legislation five years ago in an effort to boost high school graduation requirements, including higher standards in mathematics, science and foreign language, among others. Implementation has been delayed due to funding issues, and some say the legislation is now outdated because more credits does not equate to higher standards.

Helpful Resources



8 Ways To Encourage Soft Skills (Core Dispositions) in our Children

September 8, 2015 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 29, 2015.

In this post on soft skills I asked the question: What do we want our kids to be like? When it comes down to it, we parents want more than exemplary test scores and gold stars on papers, we want what will last. We want the kinds of character traits our kids will rely on to pull them through when we aren’t around, like optimism or grit. We want something at the core of who they are that will help them make the right decision when nobody’s looking: integrity. We want them to try one more time when they are ready to give up: perseverance. We want that irreplaceable feeling inside that grins from ear to ear when they accomplish something awesome without taking shortcuts or using cheat codes that only comes from intrinsic motivation and pride in their own efforts. We want them to see through the eyes of others and help those in need, feeling compassion and empathy.


It’s so fluffy!

Parents and teachers alike agree this kind of personal growth and development matters, but these qualities still seem intangible, subjective, and hard to see and measure. I mean, what does (insert soft skill) look like? The very term ‘soft skills’ sounds pretty fluffy and doesn’t command the sense of importance it deserves.  So how might we, as parents, highlight and nurture these core dispositions in our children? (more…)

I’m So Excited…and I Just Can’t Hide It

September 4, 2015 by

ExcitementThe competency education strand at the iNACOL Symposium looks excellent! There are sessions on New Hampshire’s efforts to create a balanced system of assessments, how to convert your schools (both elementary and high school) to competency education, how to meet students where they are and address gaps in student’s foundational skills, strategies for prototyping, and how to increase diversity in the field. And let me give a special thanks to Reinventing Schools Coalition and Springpoint Schools for organizing sessions where we get to hear from students and teachers.

Here is a sampling of the sessions related to competency education. And remember—there are two pre-conference workshops on November 8, as well.

November 9

The Art and Science of Teaching in a Competency-Based System:

Rick Schreiber of Reinventing Schools Coalition (now part of Marzano Labs) will walk participants through a series of interactive tasks to identify essential questions that represent a logical planning sequence for successful competency-based instructional design. They will analyze their current instructional units and review them through a competency-based lens. Learn important teacher behaviors for engaging students in owning their learning as well as understanding essential instructional routines that provide clear learning goals and define levels of proficiency.

Being Honest, Getting Serious: Increasing Racial Diversity Among Staff & Boards in the Learning Revolution Movement

John Branam of Learning Accelerator and I will be leading a discussion on the dynamics of the transformation that is happening in American education today. While our nation’s schools are increasingly black and brown, the overwhelming majority of individuals leading the revolution are white. Are you comfortable with this? If not, join us. During this session we’ll share statistics about the diversity of boards and staff from revolution-leading organizations and, more importantly, identify how you can help address this racial imbalance.

Rethinking Assessments to inform Competency-Based and Personalized Education

In Spring 2015, Member States of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium approved a competency education plan. Smarter also delivered standardized assessments to seven million students in eighteen states during that time. Brandt Redd, CIO of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, will lead an experience with sample assessments, interpretations of sample reports, and an overall vision of how standardized assessments can contribute important insights to their competency-based and personalized learning efforts.

Talk Less, Do More: How Prototyping Can Lead to Successful Competency-Based Implementation

Colleen Broderick of the Donnell-Kay Foundation will share learnings on the power of engaging users to explore a variety of assumptions and unveil solutions where research and replication falls short. This session outlines their competency framework and engages participants as a potential user through a variety of rapid prototypes designed to test ideas and provide fodder to successfully assess the viability of strategies before fully implementing a competency-based model. [See Thinking Way, Way, Way Out of the Box at the Donnell-Kay Foundation.] (more…)

Developing a Growth Mindset at Fraser Public Schools

September 2, 2015 by

FraserThe following is a presentation made at Fraser Public Schools on September 2. Fraser has already invested in integrating technology into their classrooms and developing blended approaches to learning. They are now seeking to develop a competency-based infrastructure that will ensure students get the support they need.

This presentation explores what competency education is, examines how districts are developing their models, and takes a deeper dive into the new values and assumptions underlying personalized, competency-based systems and how they shape new practices. For those of you wanting to skip ahead of the definition, the section on districts starts at slide 10 and the section on the new values starts on slide 25.


There are many ways to open the door to discussion of competency education. We could talk about why the traditional system doesn’t work or we could start with the classroom and expand into policy. Today, we’ll start with a bird’s-eye view of competency education and then go a bit deeper to visit some of the leading districts to find out what they are learning. We’ll wrap up with a look at the new set of values and assumptions that drive competency education.

Slide 17

Competency education is called different things in different states – ME and OR call it proficiency-based; CT calls it mastery-based; IA and NH call it competency-based. As soon as we update this map, we hear of another state taking a step forward. In June, it was Idaho and Ohio. I just heard that Nevada is starting a study group to learn more about it. It is spreading across the country because educators believe it is the best thing for kids.

I am confident that we are going in the right direction because many districts, without enabling state policy, are converting their schools to competency education. Examples include Lindsay in California, Warren and Springdale in Arkansas, Charleston in South Carolina, Henry and Fulton in Georgia, Freeport in Illinois, and Lake County in Florida.

Competency education has started in smaller districts in rural areas and inner ring suburbs. We think smaller districts are better positioned to make the change because it’s easier to engage community and easier to have more dialogue rather than resorting to memo/email for communication. (more…)

What’s More Important, High Test Scores or Self-Direction?

September 1, 2015 by

Child StudyingThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 17, 2015.

The education technology discussion is fraught with false dichotomies. One that I find particularly troubling is the false choice between improving test scores and preparing for life and work in the 21st century.

The argument on one side is that the United States is falling behind other countries with evidence offered such as our 30th place showing in math on the PISA test. In order to be competitive, we need to increase our scores on such international benchmarks. To achieve this we should:

  • Shift the focus in schools from what content is presented by teachers to what content has been learned by students. In order to ensure that focus changes, teachers must be held accountable for actual student test scores rather than just presenting the curriculum.
  • Ensure students have technology available for digital learning and collect data for real-time feedback to focus more on the needs of each individual student.
  • Use technology and blended learning to enable students to move at their own pace and progress based on mastery rather than seat time.
  • Personalize learning by providing an optimal path for each student through the core content they need to know for college.

On the other side, the argument is that the focus on test scores is unbalanced and has replaced meaningful learning with the rote memorization of facts and procedures with little critical thinking involved. This has unintended consequences of hampering great teachers’ ability to teach, while driving the best out of the profession while failing to improve test scores. The reasoning is that such rote decontextualized pedagogy is ineffective because it is irrelevant to students and gives them no context in which to place the new information in order to both understand it more deeply and remember it more effectively. This leaves students unprepared for college, but more importantly unprepared for a constantly evolving workplace. To prepare students effectively we need to: (more…)

Non-Cognitive Skills: Bad Name, Really Important

August 27, 2015 by

BlocksThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 15, 2015.

The research is clear, so called non-cognitive skills are key to success in college and work.

  • A 20-year study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that kindergarten students who are more inclined to exhibit “social competence” traits—such sharing, cooperating, or helping other kids—may be more likely to attain higher education and well-paying jobs.
  • A University of Chicago literature review funded by the Lumina and Raikes foundations said, “Students must develop sets of behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies that are crucial to academic performance in their classes.”Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners outlines categories of non-cognitive factors related to academic performance including behaviors, perseverance, mindsets, learning strategies, and social skills. It’s not just struggling students that benefit, “all students are more likely to demonstrate perseverance if the school or classroom context helps them develop positive mindsets and effective learning strategies.” The report outlines five key learning strategies, 1) study skills, 2) metacognitive strategies, 3) self-regulated learning, 4) time management, and 5) goal-setting.
  • Research done by Penn prof Angela Lee Duckworth determined that grit and self-control predict success in life. On the other coast Stanford prof Carol Dweck found that a “growth mindset”–the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—was critical to success compared to a belief that intelligence is fixed.
  • Bill Sedlacek partnered with the Gates Millennium Scholars Program (GMSP) to study what attributes were predictors of college degree attainment for students of color. He found eight noncognitive competencies that were higher predictors of success in college than either GPAs or SAT/ACT scores. The non-cognitive competencies include realistic self-appraisal, navigation skills, focus on long range goals, leadership, work experience.


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