Constructing a Common Language of Learning

October 18, 2016 by

Art SuppliesThis is the tenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

What are the explicit and measureable learning objectives to describe what students need to learn on their way toward meeting the graduation goals?

Districts and schools start with a different mixture of concepts and create a variety of structures to define the learning continuum. It is important to take your overall pedagogical approach into consideration when shaping the overarching competencies. As Kim Carter, founder of Making Connections Charter School, explains, “Designing competency frameworks is a creative process. We gather together the tools we will need the same way a painter might choose brushes and paints.” For ELA and mathematics, most turn to the well-developed Common Core continuum of learning or their state standards. Others will start or embed the essentials of a discipline, asking, “What does it mean to be a mathematician, a historian, a writer, a scientist?” Still others may be designed around themes or career pathways that rely on a structure that starts with the needs of industry. In some cases, states may have even already set a broad framework within which districts and schools can further structure their learning.

There are five components that guide this work:

  1. Knowledge Taxonomy
  2. Structure and Characteristics
  3. Developing the Continuum of Learning
  4. Rubrics and Calibration
  5. Habits of Learning

Knowledge Taxonomy: How do you know the depth of learning and that students are developing high order skills?
Knowledge taxonomies are a cornerstone of the learning infrastructure. If districts haven’t already selected a knowledge taxonomy, it is important they do so in order to design their I&A model. There are a variety of taxonomies, each designed for different purposes and complexities, to choose from: Webb’s, the New Taxonomy (often referred to as Marzano’s), and Bloom’s. The knowledge taxonomy will provide teachers with a common vocabulary to talk about student work. It will also facilitate the introduction of higher order skills into conversation. Professional learning communities (PLCs) will be able to use the knowledge taxonomies to look closely at the level of instruction and assessments. In some cases, the decision about knowledge taxonomies may be considered a state decision. For example, in New Hampshire, the state selected Webb’s and uses it as a foundation in creating a system of performance-based assessments.

Knowledge Taxonomies

As teachers become more comfortable with competency education, there will be more and more discussion about depth of knowledge. Rose Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist, points out, “In many districts, teachers begin to realize they are not assessing at higher levels of knowledge. They begin to build their assessment literacy as well as create more performance tasks and assessments. Some realize that even though their assessments may be at higher levels of rigor, their instruction isn’t. Thus the knowledge taxonomies create the conditions for a cycle of learning for teachers.

Structure and Characteristics: What are the units of learning and how are they organized?

The structure of the units of learning is the spine of the competency education system, enabling transparency and alignment between standards, instruction, and assessments. It has also been referred to as the “blueprint for personalized learning,” as the explicitness and transparency of the learning objectives allow teachers and students to create highly personalized learning experiences. It is by having a unified, transparent system of what students are expected to demonstrate in order to advance that schools, teachers, and students can have the freedom to use different instructional approaches and ways to demonstrate learning. In competency education, with its emphasis on transparency, this becomes even more important. Students and parents are going to know when an assessment is assessing something beyond the standards and the curriculum. Some districts use the Common Core and state standards after rewriting them in user-friendly language. Some narrow the number of standards by focusing on the power standards, while others expand the structure to include bridging standards for even more specificity about what students will need to succeed in mastering a standard.

RSU2 and Lindsay have developed a three-level structure of overall competencies, measurable topics, and learning targets with the support of Marzano Research. Forming clusters of standards, or learning targets, into measurement topics focuses instruction and assessment and creates a “vehicle for learning” that teachers can use to keep track of the progress of individual learners.

Measurement topics clearly identify the level of knowledge that students need to be considered proficient. Students are expected to reach the designated level of knowledge to be determined proficient. Levels of knowledge are not synonymous with rigor. A student memorizing the alphabet is working hard at Level 1. However, as skills are developed, it is likely that the appropriate level of knowledge is Level 3 or above. Level 3 is what the New Taxonomy (Marzano & Kendall) would refer to as Analysis, including Matching, Classifying, Error Analysis, Generalizing, and Specifying. Level 4 is considered to be Knowledge Utilization, in which students apply the skills in ways beyond what was taught in the classroom. All Level 3 knowledge and skills are formally assessed, scored, and reported, whereas Levels 1 and 2 may be tracked but not formally assessed when they are steps on the way to Level 3.

Something to Think About: Create an innovation opportunity for your organization by engaging a discussion around the questions, “What would your school look like if you did away with grade levels? How might you organize and flexibly group students? How might you deploy teaching staff differently?”


At this point in the development of competency education and the availability of technological tools to support it, there is little consensus about the level of granularity that should be used in organizing and assessing standards. Smaller learning targets may be easier to assess and provide students with a sense of progress. However, there is concern that the number of standards and the degree of granularity is unmanageable within the current budget and time designated for schooling. This line of thinking argues that teachers need to spend time on assessing at larger units of learning rather than every standard because it keeps the focus on the most important skills and creates the opportunity for deeper learning. For example, at Sanborn Regional School District, competencies and essential standards are equal. Teachers design units based on Understanding by Design to identify the most important anchor standards and write them as “I can” statements. By focusing on the anchor standards in this way, they reduce the chance that the vast number of standards (kindergarten alone can have as many as 100) will become overwhelming.

Some suggest that it is the creative tension generated from holding ourselves accountable to teaching students the standards with greater granularity that will create the conditions for innovation, forcing us to seek other ways of organizing learning so students can learn more within the current frameworks, budgets, and timeframes. Certainly, with greater technological solutions designed for the competency-based classroom, we can imagine that one day teachers will be able to assess and track student progress in real-time.

A second decision related to the structure that districts make is how they are going to talk about academic levels as being different from grade levels. If you are going to break the link with advancing students in age-based cohorts, regardless of their level of learning, then what type of language and construct do you need to determine advancement upon mastery? Most districts retain age-based grades for a number of reasons—parents are used to it, there are developmental issues that are logically related to age regardless of academic learning, there are some disciplines in which students can work together without concern for their academic levels, and there is a social context to learning, with students eager for a sense of belonging. Certainly, in high school there are a number of developmental benchmarks (getting a car, prom, and graduation) that are traditionally based on age.

Districts have organized academic levels in a number of ways. Some have the same number of academic levels as grades. Some have tried to create approximately two academic levels for any grade level to differentiate between the two as well as provide a greater sense of progress for students. Some use the Common Core academic levels for ELA and mathematics but organize social studies and science in age-based grade levels. As described in a previous post, Chugach School District created a unique set of ten levels with very specific determinations for graduation requirements. Adams 50 in Colorado tried organizing academic levels so there were two for each grade level, but returned to alignment of academic levels to grade levels after finding that a separate structure of academic levels created confusion among parents. Now if a sixth grade student is reading at level 7 but doing level 5 math, parents have a very clear sense of how their students are doing.

Something to Think About: If your culture of learning is strong, students will be comfortable talking about their grade levels and academic levels even if they are on academic levels below their grade level. Pay attention to language about progress—emphasize efficacy, depth of learning, and working harder to tackle challenging material rather than falling into the trap of referring to students as fast or slow.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

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