Laying the Foundation with Culture and Climate

February 21, 2017 by

This article is the sixth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Steve Schultz and Rebecca Midles from Getting Smart

The first of District 51’s five phases of implementation is Laying the Foundation. The foundation they are speaking of is the culture and climate in which personalized, performance-based learning can take root. They describe this as “a culture where each student has ownership of his/her academic, social and emotional learning resulting in readiness for success in life.” This description helps you understand their vision for a personalized, performance-based system – the policies, procedures, school design, schedules, learning experiences, supports, and instructional cycle – that is going to help students build the skills they need to become lifelong learners.

D51 has focused most of their attention on creating a robust, empowered culture of learning with the growth mindset, social and emotional learning, and Habits of Mind at its very core. It’s important to remember that the features of their system and their process are also shaping the creation of the culture and climate. (See The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51.)

There are three things that stood out for me about their efforts that are different than I’ve seen in other districts:

  • Integration of the sixteen Habits of Mind into a Social & Emotional Learning Framework that is organized into developmental bands that will stretch from K-12.
  • Focus on growth mindset that emphasizes helping students learn how to be aware of self-talk and how to create productive self-talk.
  • Growth mindset is also influencing the efforts of designing the elements of the performance-based learning system and personalized support for teachers.

A Culture Rooted in the Growth Mindset

D51 talks about the growth mindset constantly – in professional learning sessions with teachers just becoming familiar with performance-based learning, in meetings with principals to build a culture of reflection as they stretch themselves to strengthen their understanding of their tasks as leaders, and in presentations in the community. It starts at the top – superintendent Steve Schultz models the growth mindset through reflecting on his own learning and a constant fail forward orientation.

Building the Culture and Climate to Support Growth Mindset

D51 has identified five strategies to help people, both students and adults alike, to learn to have a growth mindset. Posters are found all over the district highlighting the five steps: Brain, Mindsets, Self-Talk, Feedback, Goal. I’ve expanded on the third strategy, productive self-talk, as it is the first time I’ve heard a district focus this specifically on it. Click here for the Growth Mindset Learning Continuum.

Growth Mindset

1.Teach About the Brain: Students need to learn about the brain and how it works. Two important points that directly relate to the growth mindset: 1) their intelligence is not fixed and it can change, and 2) their intelligence can get stronger or weaker depending on effort that actually rewires the brain. I heard a facilitator in a professional development session call out with what sounded like true joy, “LET’S REWIRE!” (more…)

Growing into the Framework: D51’s Implementation Strategy

February 15, 2017 by

This article is the fifth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Growing into the Framework

Superintendent Steve Schultz doesn’t ask “How are we going to implement?” Instead he thinks, “We have forty-four schools. How are they each going to grow into the framework?” The job of the district is to help learn, grow, and co-create with schools the new performance-based system (P-BL). The answer is through a more personalized approach that lets schools and educators start where they are in their current learning and move forward from there.

Five Phases of Implementation

Everything is in motion at District 51, and everyone is moving forward with the understanding that the different pieces will eventually need to be aligned. Thus, everything is draft and everything stays open until related work is done. Paul Jebe, Director of Educator Effectiveness, likened it to the whirling tea cups at Disneyland, bringing back that experience of loving every spin while simultaneously praying that it might be over soon.

Still in their first year of implementation, D51 has intensive activity in three of their five phases of work underway – so don’t make the mistake of thinking phase suggests sequence. There is a cohort of seven demonstration schools that are hungry to put the entire model into place as soon as it is ready. (When they sign up to be a demonstration school they are committing to demonstrating to others what performance-based learning looks like – it’s important to understand that they are not pilots.) The trick is that given the simultaneous development of many of the pieces, the demonstration schools might find themselves operating in the third phase even if they are missing some pieces from phases one or two. In a few more years, there will be efforts underway, schools and educators in all five phases as they continue to design, refine, skill-build, and engage.

D51 1

Remember, D51 describes the journey to transformation described in the previous article separately from the implementation strategy. Both are important – the journey captures the new conditions (strong learning culture, shared vision, collective ownership, personalized, transparency, and data-driven) that will shape the system (i.e., the paradigm shift), and the phases are how the work is being organized. Below is a quick scan of the phases and the different sets of work underway. (more…)

Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51

February 8, 2017 by

Holacracy1This article is the fourth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Posted inside the conference space where many of the district-level meetings and gatherings of principals are held is a Managing Complex Change chart that describes the conditions for successful implementation. It identifies five elements to think about (vision, skills, incentives, resources, action plan) with five likely issues that might develop if any are not well-managed (confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, and false starts). Although the chart is very simple, it does provide language and concepts to jump start conversations to identify indicators that something isn’t working well. For example, in one meeting, I heard someone say, “I don’t want to false start them by putting them in a meeting that is too deep in the weeds,” to refer to not having a formal plan to introduce new ideas. In many meetings, attention was given to possible anxiety and angst if teachers don’t have the chance to access supports based on where they are in their own learning.

But how do you make sure that vision + skills + incentives + resources + action plan are all in place and all aligned to bring change? D51 knows, as pretty much any district leadership involved in the conversion to competency education knows, that top-down hierarchical structures aren’t helpful. They force decisions to the top when what we want is to create empowering, flexible organizational structures.

So what’s a district to do? D51 is testing out if holacracy will do the trick. (more…)

The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51

February 6, 2017 by

This article is the third in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Starting with the Four Questions

Guiding QuestionsIt’s feels a bit like a riddle. You see the four Guiding Questions in different places throughout Colorado’s District 51. Everyone knows the district isn’t anywhere close to being able to ensure that students can answer all four questions, but they remind you that this is what they are striving for. This technique sparks reflection and opens up minds to P-BL and the ultimate goal of personalized learning.

These questions go to the heart of what it means to have a transparent system that engages, motivates, and enables students to build lifelong learning skills. Yet, they start with the important question, Do our students feel valued, safe and supported? If that isn’t in place, students won’t take risks, they won’t ask for the help they need, and they won’t strive to do reach their personal best every day.

The Values Leading to the Vision

Transformation MapD51 thinks about their efforts toward building a personalized, performance-based system as a transformational journey – transformational in that it is being grounded in a set of very different values, understanding of learning, and capacity than the traditional education system. (If you are new to competency education and need more information on this topic, see What is Competency Education?) Let’s call these the features of the system they are building.They are also the features of the process by which the district is going to transform their system. In other words, D51 is walking the talk.

These features of the system and the process include a culture rooted in a growth mindset; a shared vision; transparency and alignment; data driven processes; personalized learning, and collective ownership. As you read this series about D51’s journey to date, consider how each of these features may be shaping their strategies and driving their decisions.

Observation and Insight: I came to believe during my site visit that safety, trust, and respect are also a feature of D51’s work and the design of the system. It comes up in conversations along the way, but in general I think it is an operating value (although not one that is explicit as the features listed here). Given that many districts have to overcome years and years of mistrust, specifically rooted in the institutional patterns that have resulted in much lower quality of education in communities of color, I recommend that safety, trust, and respect be considered as explicit features that drive design and implementation.

What Does it Mean to Be Performance-Based?

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Building Consensus for Change at D51

February 2, 2017 by
d51 school board for post about building consensus for change

D51 School Board

This article, the second in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series, is about how the district has built the consensus for change and is engaging their community. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

One of the more challenging processes for medium to larger districts (as compared to the small ones that have led the way to competency-based education) is engaging the broader community in building the consensus for change. In general, when it comes to shifting course or introducing new reforms in larger districts, buy-in tends to be the most common strategy used; there is a single or big meeting with community members, presentation of the new idea, opportunity to react – and then it moves quickly into implementation. Engagement means that there are continued opportunities for community members to shape the “what” of competency education and that there are ongoing structures and processes for two-way dialogue. D51’s Superintendent Steve Schultz explains, “We want to move from a ‘decide and defend’ mentality to one in which we gather information to inform a decision before it is made.”

Below are highlights (and we know there is much more to the story than recounted here) of how D51 is building consensus and shaping community engagement.

A Bit of Background

Schultz had been guiding D51 toward personalization since 2006, when the school established three diploma pathways (normal, distinction, and individualized) with the district expanding the number of options and instructional pathways (IB, concurrent enrollment, STEM, Key Performance Program to demonstrate learning through capstones and presentations, and four alternative education programs). The emphasis was on helping students excel just as much as it was on increasing pathways for students who were having problems earning credits, were confronted with challenging life experiences, or had left school for a period of time to complete their diploma.

In 2013, when Schultz began to engage his team in learning about competency education, the communities within the Grand Valley were still challenged by the Great Recession. A region shaped by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry, Grand Junction and the surrounding towns were having difficulty climbing out of the bust. Vast ideological differences had led to relationships becoming increasingly strained between the teachers’ association, administration, and the school board. Schultz remembers, “It became clear to us that we needed to focus on building relationships and finding common ground in order to move the district forward.”

Then two things happened. (more…)

Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51

January 26, 2017 by

national monumentThis is the first in a series on District 51’s transition to competency education. D51 uses the language of performance-based learning and uses PBL as an acronym. However, knowing that our readers are likely to read that as project-based learning, we are using P-BL to indicate performance-based learning.

D51, tucked away on the Western Slope in Colorado, is fashioning a new implementation roll-out strategy for performance-based learning. I spent a week in the fall visiting District 51 with school visits, meetings, interviews, and in-depth conversations with district leaders. The insights are plentiful but it should be understood that they were collected in the midst of the change process. Thus, there is less discussion in this series about the structure of their performance-based system and much more about the conditions that are needed to support it.

Highlights of D51’s Conversion to Performance-Based Learning

There is so much to be learned from the educators at D51. They are all at that stage of expert-novice – they can tell you about what they are learning, as it hasn’t become fully embedded as routine thinking or practices yet, and they can tell you about their areas of inquiry because they are becoming clear about what they don’t know…yet. Harvesting their bountiful insights was a delight. You can get a taste for their commitment and creativity by listening to Getting Smart’s interview with Superintendent Steve Shultz and Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning. Below are just a few of the highlights from this series:

  • D51’s story of deciding to move to P-BL and building the consensus for change is a fascinating one, as it emphasizes the critical role of school boards and how individual leaders can help move a district forward by engaging in dialogue and joint site visits.
  • D51’s roll-out strategies offer a new way of thinking about implementation. We have documented the implementation strategies used by many of the early innovators in Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders and strategies used by larger school districts such as Henry County, Lake County, and Charleston that have created scaling strategies. However, the early innovators were all very small and their approaches limited for medium-sized districts. And the larger school districts we have highlighted have often had funding through federal or large foundations to support their efforts. D51, with few additional funds, has developed a simultaneous and iterative approach based on carefully managing strands of work, including engaging the community in shaping a shared vision and graduate profile; designing a teaching and learning framework that defines the performance-based learning system; providing intensive capacity building for the first wave of demonstration schools; and re-designing professional development to support any teacher wanting to build their professional skills. They talk about phases of implementation but it doesn’t mean everyone will be in the same phase at the same time.

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What a Summer Prototype Taught Us about Measuring Quality in an Unbundled Education System

December 26, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on December 15, 2016 and EdSurge on November 29, 2016.

In the summer of 2016, a community of educators, research design partners, and over 150 teens and young adults in Colorado engaged in a bold experiment to rethink how quality and impact might be measured in a modernized system of learning. In this relatively small, short-cycle prototype, the lessons we learned were significant. They are informing a set of expanded pilots taking place in 2017. We also hope that the early ideas generated through our summer prototype will spark policymakers to get creative and reimagine quality assurance at a system level, as society shifts to more learner-centered systems of education. Here’s our summer pilot story:

ReSchool Colorado, a multi-year initiative of the Donnell-Kay Foundation to design and launch a new education system, has been testing emerging concepts with willing partners in safe spaces and at safe times, like the summer, where learning is occurring outside the regular school day.

Why focus outside of formal learning time for our design work? Because creating breakthrough, systematic innovations in education is challenging. High among these reasons is justified concern about testing new ideas that could have negative repercussions on students in the United States’ fully developed education system. As a result, finding safe spaces outside of the mainstream system to try out new educational concepts is critical to advancing bold new ideas.

Never were the advantages of this approach more apparent than this past summer when ReSchool partnered with Entangled Solutions and educational providers serving teens and young adults. Our collective goal was to begin to rethink quality assurance in an educational system with an array of learning providers.

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Framework for the Future of Learning (Source: ReSchool)

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Developing a Competency-Based ELA Classroom

June 8, 2016 by
Stephanie Price

Language Arts Lead Teacher Stephanie Price (right) and Dean of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Simms (left) collaborate on DSISD’s around competency-based approach.

This post originally appeared at Springpoint on June 1, 2016.

When I started my journey at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) in spring 2015, I was excited. After nine years of teaching in a traditional model of education, the new possibilities at my disposal sparked my creativity. Little did I know how much I would feel like a first year educator all over again once school started in the fall. I was embarking on uncharted territory, and no amount of summer planning could have prepared me for what was next. Now, a year in, I’m able to reflect on what I’ve learned, and offer a bit of advice to teachers and school leaders who might be interested in this model.

Discovering Pacing for my Students

As I learned what competency based education meant, it was my understanding that students could and should move through acquiring content and skills asynchronously, or at their own pace. Our learning management system, Summit Public School’s Personalized Learning Platform (PLP), allowed for students to access content, assessments, and projects on their own.

My initial approach prioritized the pace of the learning over the personal needs of each student. Students could move as quickly or slowly as they wished through their work, choosing supports and enrichments as they went along. This student-led approach didn’t account for the fact that students weren’t ready to identify their own needs without my guidance. Many of them lacked the self-directed learning skills and agency. It became messy, and it started to feel like each student was isolated. I missed the collaboration I was so used to in a traditional model. I also realized that about a third of my students were ready for the rigor of Advanced Placement coursework while about one tenth of them were struggling to keep up at an appropriate pace, even with the scaffolds provided for them to choose from. This was all useful learning for me, and at the end of the first trimester, I developed and implemented a differentiated grouping system that I called a “cohort model” in response to these challenges, and influenced heavily by student voice.

Implementing the Cohort Model

The cohort model simply allows students to choose their own adventure in the language arts classroom. Although all students work in small groups at their own levels, they are connected through common themes, tasks, and texts. My class has three cohorts: Introduction to Literature, AP Language Cohort, and AP Language Veterans. An example of a typical day would include the Intro to Lit students reading leveled versions of Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. in preparation for writing a short response on figurative language in the text while the AP Cohort analyzes the whole letter for a rhetorical analysis essay. Meanwhile, the AP Veterans read Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau alongside Letter to Birmingham Jail to write a full compare contrast analysis on the figurative language each author used to support his argument. (more…)

Moving from Theory to Practice: Designing a New Competency-Based High School

June 6, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at Springpoint on May 31, 2016.Screenshot 2016-06-07 08.53.23

Every school leader wants to create their dream school. They want the kind of opportunity that would allow a passionate team and community of learners to cast a shared vision, to side step the bureaucratic elements of schooling, and to create an atmosphere and experiences that educators and students long for. However, when the opportunity of a blank canvas for school design arrives, there are a number of unspoken challenges in moving from theory to practice. In December of 2014 we embarked on this leadership journey with Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD). As we look back on our first year, there are many lessons that contributed to the success of our first year and our goals moving forward. Most importantly, our strong foundational systems and goals allowed our leadership to steer DSISD through the uncertain waters between theory and practice.

North Star: DSISD Vision

Our theory from the start was that a competency-based approach would make our school truly student-centered from startup to launch. Moving from theory to practice inherently means that an organization will need to navigate uncertainty and change. Many of the daily structures that ensure confidence and coherence in an established school or organization do not exist in a startup situation. What does exist in a startup situation is enthusiasm and excitement about new possibilities. However, enthusiasm is a finite resource that can be whittled away as challenges, which are sure to come, arise. To navigate uncertainty at DSISD, we built a compelling vision to anchor decisions in and test designs against.

The DSISD vision is “To empower ALL students to OWN their learning, SHAPE their dreams, and CREATE a better world.” This simple statement paints the picture of what we hope to instill in all of our students. It is also the first test for all of our decisions and school design elements. From identifying staff dispositions, to curricula choices, to student experiences—if the choice doesn’t align to the vision, then we don’t do it. This simple stake in the ground creates unity and confidence among the staff and provides consistency in the midst of uncertainty and change.

Map and Compass: Year One Goals

But vision alone is not enough—leaders also need to provide concrete criteria to know whether the group is heading in the right direction. Having clear benchmarks and goals helps generate momentum and secure early wins. This positive momentum is critical for counteracting the challenges of change and uncertainty. To secure these wins, the DSISD leadership team set three core goals for a strong first year: (more…)

How Might We Ensure Quality and Value Across a Larger Landscape of Learning?

May 6, 2016 by

Design Thinking

For those of you interested in out-of-the-box innovations using elements of competency education, you’ll be interested in this update on Donnell-Kay’s ReSchool Colorado initiative. See Thinking Way, Way, Way Outside the Box at the Donnell-Kay Foundation and Insights from ReSchool Colorado: Ensuring Quality and Equity

We know that Colorado kids and young adults are already learning in many places and in many ways beyond the formal school environment. We also know that often these experiences are not coordinated or valued in the same way as school-based programs. This summer we want to get smarter about how we can determine quality and value to the learner across a larger landscape of learning and how we might be able to capture a cohesive learning journey that ensures every learner is prepared to engage in a dynamic future.

This first stage of working with a larger landscape of learning opportunity for 15-21-year olds is currently in the research phase. Our work has typically followed a design process that begins with investigating assets and gaps that exist currently with partners that find the opportunity to learn together as mutually beneficial.

The main goals of this phase include:

  • Goal One: Gain greater insight towards the needs and interest of learners from ages 15-21 and how those needs are currently being met
  • Goal Two: Begin to understand how learning providers define and ensure success
  • Goal Three: To identify the attributes of a quality learning provider based on alignment towards a set of outcomes that include learning goals, satisfaction of the learner and the culture of the learning environment
  • Goal Four: Advance our understanding of the role the ReSchool Framework for the Future of Learning plays in supporting a shared commitment to student learning and preparation for success

(more…)

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