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CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency-based education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge, and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues, and a wiki with resources curated from across the field.

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Learner Variability in the Classroom through Micro-credentials

October 15, 2019 by

Teacher With Students“I’m not just a math teacher; I’m a teacher of the whole child,” Bethany Orr, a fourth grade teacher in North Carolina and Iredell-Statesville Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year, reflected after earning a learner variability micro-credential on self-regulation.

Orr spent a semester digging into the research behind how learners vary and tried several strategies tied to self-regulation, a key learner variability concept, to support two of her students. She demonstrated her understanding and use of strategies such as mindfulness breaks by collecting artifacts that showed how her students benefited from these changes in practice.

Orr said one of her biggest takeaways from the micro-credentials process was the importance of leveraging students’ strengths, which she did not do initially. “Having them write was not their strength,” she explained. “Both of the students are very verbal, and so I got audio recordings of them reflecting. I got so much more from them when I didn’t ask them to write.”

Because a diverse student population brings varied experiences and abilities to the classroom, teachers must understand each child’s strengths and challenges in order to create a learning environment where each student can thrive. Micro-credentials, a natural extension of the formal and informal learning activities educators engage in every day, provide teachers with personalized, competency-based recognition for the skills they learn throughout their careers.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation produced a stack of 15 Learner Variability micro-credentials—including the Self-Regulation micro-credential—in collaboration with Digital Promise Global’s Learner Variability Project. These micro-credentials are steeped in learning sciences research, providing insights into how best to support and engage the full diversity of learners found in every classroom.

After earning her Self-Regulation micro-credential, Orr reflected that her “relationship with [her students] is much stronger now than it was at the beginning of the year.” She added: “They started to see that I was working to understand them better and that they were important to me, important enough to learn something new to try to help them, and I think that really changed things.” (more…)

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Sustaining and Sharing Cultural Heritage at the Tatitlek Community School

October 10, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Student Making a Kayak Paddle

Making a Traditional Kayak Paddle During Cultural Heritage Week

Almost all students in the Tatitlek Community School are Alaska Natives. One of the village elders, David Totemoff, who is also a recent past Chief and Tatitlek Indian Reorganization Act Council President, spoke strongly of the need to promote traditional tribal values and the importance of the school in supporting that effort. The school and the church are the main community centers in Tatitlek, a village of about 65 residents on Prince William Sound that I visited with Mike Hanley, Superintendent of the Chugach School District and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Two projects from Tatitlek are described below that build community, cultural competence, and community service experience within a competency-based education framework.

Cultural Heritage Week – Peksulineq

Activities to build students’ cultural knowledge are infused throughout the school year, according to Jed and Nichole Palmer, who have been the school’s two teachers for 16 years. The ongoing learning gets a tremendous boost from Cultural Heritage Week, a week of cultural immersion every spring that involves many members of the village as well as students and adults from other schools and districts. The week is called Peksulineq, which means “things are coming to life” in Sugt’stun, the native language of the local Alutiiq tribe.

Peksulineq SignPeksulineq runs from Sunday to Saturday, with more than 80 students arriving by boat and bush plane (there’s no road access) to join the Tatitlek students, along with chaperones, instructors, and other visitors. From Monday through Friday, the older students rotate through several workshops on topics such as sewing animal skins, beading, dancing, carving wood or soapstone, making traditional kayak paddles or miniature kayak models, and processing salmon or sea lions. Sometimes there are classes in Sugt’stun, which also take place during the school year. The younger students mostly stay with one teacher and do smaller-scale versions of some of those projects, as well as participating in story-telling activities related to local culture. The instructors infuse historical knowledge to help students understand how each activity fits into the village’s culture.

To take fish processing as a project example, the students might catch salmon or start with salmon caught by a village member. Then they go through the process of cleaning, brining, smoking, cutting up, and canning the fish. By the end of the week, the students have canned salmon that they can bring home, give as gifts to people who helped with Cultural Heritage Week, or auction off at the fundraiser that happens at the end-of-week celebration.

Processing a Sea Lion

Processing a Sea Lion

In addition to the goal of sustaining Tatitlek’s cultural heritage, the week helps Chugach students fulfill the district’s Culture and Communication standards, which include the following:

  • Students will understand and participate in the cultural heritage and traditions of their own cultural community.
  • Students will understand and appreciate the unique aspects of their own culture.
  • Students will understand and respect the unique aspects of other cultures.
  • Students will participate in a variety of art forms (dance, music, theater, visual arts) and appreciate the arts.

Depending on the student’s level, these standards include learning targets such as :

  • (Level 2 out of 8) Listens to and discusses a variety of stories from oral traditions (i.e., myths, legends, fables, folk tales).
  • (Level 7 out of 8) Appreciates the arts in three or more ways, including practicing their skills as an audience member (e.g., listening, providing positive feedback); participating in one or more forms of art (e.g., dance, music, theatre, or visual arts); studying artwork from other cultures; and learning artistic techniques from one or more artists.

(more…)

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Pathways, Pacing, and Agency Are Intertwined

October 7, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Seven Whittier Students in Tie Dye ShirtsThe Whittier Community School provides many opportunities for three core components of competency-based schools: different pathways, varied pacing, and student agency. Before sharing some of their strategies, it’s worth revisiting the nuances of those terms:

Different Pathways – Students in competency-based schools can master learning targets in different ways, in different orders, and at different ages, reflecting their unique needs, strengths, interests, and goals. These differences should not be mistaken for the inequitable, traditional practice of tracking.

Varied Pacing – The primary goal is deeper learning, not faster learning. Varied pacing can mean that students who are proficient in certain standards are encouraged to engage in ways that lead to greater depth of knowledge and multiple ways of demonstrating competency. Varied pacing does not imply that there is a single learning pathway that students simply navigate at different speeds. Each student’s pace of progress matters, with schools actively monitoring progress and providing more instruction and support if students are not on a trajectory to graduate by age 18 or soon after.

Student Agency – The methodical development of both the capacity and the freedom of learners to exercise choice regarding what is to be learned and to co-create how that learning is to take place. This has four components—setting advantageous goals, initiating action toward those goals, reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals, and a belief in self-efficacy (source: this Education Reimagined blog we cross-posted in August).

Student With Porcupine at Conservation Center

Whittier Student Feeding a Porcupine at Her Conservation Center Internship

Individual Learning Plans

Whittier’s learning strategies illuminate connections among these three aspects of competency-based education. All Whittier students have Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) that serve two main purposes. First, students do not always demonstrate mastery on particular standards during the time that those standards are the focus of group instruction in a class. ILPs provide opportunities for students to revisit those standards. (It’s important to say that teachers in competency-based schools often lead students through learning activities in groups, which is not only efficient but has educational advantages. Thinking that every learning experience must be entirely individualized is a misconception that can lead various stakeholders to doubt that competency-based education is possible.)

Second, ILPs are a structure for students who want to meet standards in personalized ways or go beyond “meeting” standards to “exceeding” them. Specific times during each school week are set aside for students to work on ILP projects.

Whittier parents who work in the local fish processing plants have their prime earning months in the summer, so they sometimes return to the Philippines for several weeks in the winter to visit their extended families. Their children are out of school during these visits, and ILPs allow them to continue making progress while they’re away and to make up missed work once they return.

One student completed an in-depth project about the history, politics, culture, and language of the Philippines in preparation for her trip, fulfilling culture and communication standards. Her teachers emailed her some assignments while she was gone, although they wisely set boundaries on these accommodations, which can explode into an unmanageable workload for the teacher. The student was also able to catch up on other standards during ILP times when she returned. Of course there were some standards that she simply couldn’t complete, but the school’s structure meant she could complete them in future school years without having to “stay back” a year or redo entire courses in which she had already demonstrated mastery of many of the competencies. (more…)

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Bringing Parents Into Competency-Based Schools

October 3, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Whittier Sign - You Fit Right InWhen teachers talk about the challenges of competency-based education, they tend to focus on big, structural changes such as varied pacing and pathways, diverse assessments, and student agency. So when I asked teachers at the Whittier Community School about their biggest challenge, I was surprised when two of them independently mentioned helping parents understand and embrace the system.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is the influx of new families,” Teacher Lindsey Erk said, “and educating those families on what type of system we are, when 99% are used to a traditional system.” Teacher Andrea Korbe said, “I think the biggest challenge every year is helping families understand what competency-based really means. Because parents are always trying to hang their children’s education on the framework of their own education. Naturally, that’s their lens for understanding it. Understanding competency-based is my job, so it makes sense to me, but we need to help parents understand it bit by bit, as their kids grow and things change for them.”

This Is Just The Way It Is

At most other schools I’ve visited, parents and guardians had a choice to send their children to a different school or to select the traditional track in a school that offered both traditional and competency-based options. But reaching the nearest school to Whittier requires paying a hefty toll to drive through a long, single-lane tunnel that only opens in each direction for 15 minutes per hour—and then driving well beyond that.

“We’re in a unique situation because we’ve been at this for a number of years,” Korbe explained, “and when a parent comes in, this is just the way it is. There’s no discussion of ‘Do we want to get on board?’ or ‘Do we want to change this?’—which is where many schools are. And given the transient nature of our community, every year we’re onboarding more parents throughout the year. We need to say ‘This is what this means, this is how it looks, and this is how our system progresses.’ So it’s just this continuous loop of information that you’re trying to move everybody through.”

Whittier Student Reading to Younger StudentsPersonalizing Parent Relations

These teachers’ perspectives show one version of what bringing parents into a mature competency-based system can look like. In some ways it sounds like what parents encounter in the traditional system, in the sense that the school’s basic approach to education isn’t really up for negotiation. But what’s different is the level of effort and the types of strategies used to bring parents on board and help them understand. Much like competency-based instruction for students, the strategies for parents also have varied pathways and personalization.

“We have tried a number of things,” Korbe said. “It’s different for every person. When you’re first enrolling, we give you the 30,000-foot view. Then as your student is in our system longer, through conferences and other one-on-one parent meetings, you continue to educate them about ‘This is where your student is, and this is what will come next for them,’ and ‘Yes, they’re making progress,’ or ‘No, they’re not—and that’s concerning.’ So you’re working through it, usually with parents one on one. We’ve tried some community parent meetings, but that didn’t prove very successful for us. One on one has been more effective. Because you can get more into the nitty gritty. I can’t talk with a parent about their kid in front of an entire group of parents, and answer their particular questions. That’s not ethical.” It would be easy to imagine a larger school, with 50 or 100 new students entering every year, making greater use of group orientation strategies, but clearly there is no substitute for individualized discussion when possible.

Both teachers felt that parents whose children entered the school in the early grades have been more successful in understanding the educational approach. Erk explained that it’s essential to meet with families often when their children first enroll, and convey repeatedly over time that “seat time no longer matters, that you can sit in a class all semester long and not master the content. So teaming up with parents and kids to make sure they understand that mastery is what we’re looking for, not seat time. It’s a lot of conversation. It’s a lot of small bits of information at first, then slowly building on it.” (more…)

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Rethinking Grade Levels and Age Groupings at the Whittier Community School

September 30, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Whittier Playground

Whittier’s Schoolyard with Glacier Views

The Chugach School District in Alaska is one of the longest-implementing competency-based education districts in the USA, and it offers valuable lessons for schools and districts across the country. This blog series will share some of those lessons from my recent visits to the Whittier, Tatitlek, and Voyage schools in the Chugach district. This first article on the Whittier Community School focuses on Chugach’s approaches to grade levels and age groupings.

Despite its small student population, Chugach is huge geographically. My three-day loop began at the Voyage School in Anchorage. A 45-minute bush plane ride over mountains and glaciers brought us to the Tatitlek Community School, in a 200-person Native Alaskan village with no road access. From there it was a five-hour trip to Whittier on a once-per-month ferry across spectacular Prince William Sound. On the hour drive back to Anchorage, we left Whittier through North America’s second longest tunnel, drilled 2 ½ miles through a mountain for a secret World War Two military base.

Levels—But Not Grade Levels

To understand Whittier and Chugach, it helps to understand the basics of their standards and levels. Their standards span 10 content and process areas – Career Development, Culture and Communication, Math, Personal/Social/Service, Physical Education and Health, Reading, Science, Social Studies, Technology, and Writing. Each set of standards has 8 to 10 levels that students move through during their journey from kindergarten to graduation. Each standard has several learning targets that increase in complexity as students advance to higher levels. Their progress on each learning target is tracked through the district’s online learning management system, which also tracks a variety of student work such as individual projects and career transition plans.

Students Building Floating ObjectsA student can be at Level 4 in Reading, Level 5 in Personal/Social/Service, and Level 6 in Science. In fact, being at different levels in different standards is common, since the school doesn’t have grade levels. This leads to multi-age groupings in all classes. One student told me that she was in math class with high school students before she had formally entered middle school. She said it was hard to be in classes with much older kids, but it was good to be able to receive instruction targeted to her ability level.

(An earlier draft of the previous sentence ended with “it was good to be able to progress at her own pace.” Chugach principal Doug Penn’s comment on that wording contained just the type of valuable insight I was on the lookout for while visiting a mature CBE district: “We have been trying to dispel the idea that competency-based education is ‘learn at your own pace.’ Even though that’s true, those words often make people think it’s a passive method of working with students, when in fact we believe it’s a much more intentional model of instruction. What we have begun to say instead is that ‘students are receiving instruction targeted at their own ability levels.’” I don’t remember the student’s exact words, but Penn’s suggestion seemed important to act on and share.)

Multi-Age Grouping Benefits and Strategies

Multi-age groupings are essential at Whittier, because the whole K-12 school has four teachers and 51 students, but larger schools also use multi-age groupings productively to facilitate competency-based learning strategies such as varied pacing and pathways. More generally, multi-age groupings are an efficient way to use teacher time in a competency-based school. They allow teachers to support small groups of students who are working on the same competencies regardless of age or grade level. That reduces each teacher’s preparation demands, because not every teacher needs to be ready to support every competency. (more…)

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Conditions for Innovation: The 5 C’s

September 24, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Transcend.

Teacher With Students

How can educators set conditions for innovation?

The longer we (Transcend) engage in the work of reimagining school, the stronger our conviction grows that radical transformation is possible across a wide range of settings—districts, charter, and private; rural, urban, and suburban; and in- and out-of-school.

Our experiences have also taught us that powerful, equitable R&D processes thrive only when strong local conditions are in place. The nature of those local conditions—and how to nurture their growth—are among the most important lessons we’ve learned.

Similar to how trees need good soil to live and grow, we’ve come to understand that extraordinary, equitable learning environments take root under specific circumstances, which we refer to as the 5C’s:

  1. Conviction,
  2. Clarity,
  3. Capacity,
  4. Coalition, and
  5. Culture.

You can download the 5 C’s here.

How to use the 5 C’s framework

The 5 C’s framework is meant to be a living document that individuals and organizations can use to guide the creation of conditions for innovation readiness in their community. To that end, we’ve seen educators and leaders use the 5 C’s in multiple ways, including:

  • Reflection
  • Self-assessment
  • Strategic planning and decision making
  • Professional development
  • Collective action
  • Partnership vetting
  • Vision casting

Origins of the 5 C’s framework

During Transcend’s founding, our team looked at previous attempts to transform antiquated school models. In particular, we looked closely at the Bensenville, Illinois-based New American Schools Project of the early 1990s, as well as more recent efforts to build and scale more personalized models of school, such as Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), XQ Super Schools, Summit Public Schools’ basecamp initiative, and Bellwether’s “U.S. Education Innovation Index: Prototype and Report.”

We learned a number of lessons from the successes and challenges that these efforts experienced. One of the most crucial is that a community’s ability to engage in innovation depends on several crucial factors, including their capacity, internal culture, conviction that change is necessary, clarity on their context, goals, and strategy, and the depth, breadth, and diversity of their coalition for change. In 2016 we codified those lessons in our “5C’s of innovation” and have since used them in the ways described above. We have continued to iterate and improve on our 5C’s framework based on lessons learned from previous years of partnerships with schools and districts. In any situation, we believe that a deep dive and reflective conversations around these conditions  are an important step prior to fully committing to a longer term innovation strategy. (more…)

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Keynote Speakers for the 2019 iNACOL Symposium

September 20, 2019 by

2019 Symposium Keynote SpeakersThe 2019 iNACOL Symposium is just over a month away. In the spirit of this year’s theme of “Shining a Light on the Future of Learning,” each of our esteemed keynote speakers will inform, inspire, and propel thinking around powerful, student-centered learning models, while examining the role of education in the future. Below is a brief bio of each keynote speaker.

Opening Keynote | Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 | 3:30 pm

Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard
Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard is the Director of Whole Child Development at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where she leads work to accelerate the integration of the science of human development into education. She is also an independent consultant, supporting the connections between cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Morning Keynote | Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 | 8 am

Derek Wenmoth
Derek Wenmoth is a Principal Consultant at CORE Education, a not-for-profit education research and development organization that he co-founded with two colleagues in 2013, based in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has been a teacher, principal, and policy advisor across all parts of the education system.

Luncheon Keynote | Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 | 12:15 pm

Jackie Statum Allen
Jackie Statum Allen is the Education Portfolio Director at the Bush Foundation. She manages the strategy, programs, and partnerships for the Foundation’s education initiative. The focus of the initiative is to make education more relevant for students in terms of who they are, how they learn, and where they want to go.

Supt. Kirsten Baesler
Kirsten Baesler is the state school superintendent of North Dakota. She oversees the education of more than 121,000 public and private school students. She was elected as state school superintendent in November 2012, and re-elected to her second term in 2016 with 75 percent of the vote.

Dr. James F. Lane
Dr. James F. Lane was appointed Virginia’s 25th superintendent of public instruction by the Governor of Virginia, effective June 1, 2018, and serves as the executive officer of the Virginia Department of Education, which is the administrative agency for the commonwealth’s public schools.

Luncheon Keynote | Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 | 12:15 pm

Dr. Pedro Noguera
Pedro Noguera is a distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and studies ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional, and global contexts.

Watch this space to learn more about what our keynote speakers will share at the 2019 iNACOL Symposium.

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What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?

September 17, 2019 by

What's New ImageTeaching and Learning

  • Elevating Student Voice in Education, a new report from the Center for American Progress, provides an overview of eight approaches that teachers, school leaders, and policymakers can use to incorporate student voice—such as democratic classroom practices, student action research, and student-led conferences. Learning sciences research suggests that increasing student voice can increase student motivation, engagement, and learning.
  • In Learner Variability in the Classroom through Micro-credentials, Wendy Xiao of Digital Promise shares a powerful strategy for developing skills to personalize student learning. A case example and video describe an elementary teacher who is building skills to support student self-regulation, an essential personal success skill.
  • The Oakland Unified School District promotes deep community partnerships that lead to authentic, project-based learning. Young Whan Choi, manager of performance assessments for OUSD, describes school and district strategies to enlist community partners to engage deeply with teachers at all stages of project development.

iNACOL Events and Publications

  • The iNACOL Symposium will take place at the Palm Springs Convention Center in California.

    The iNACOL Symposium will be held on October 28-31, 2019 in Palm Springs, California, with practitioners, policymakers and researchers learning together to shape the future of education. Attendees will gain access to expertise in personalized, competency-based learning. The symposium includes more than 200 sessions tailored to attendees’ professional learning needs.

  • iNACOL presents its annual Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency-Based Education. Join this webinar to gain an understanding of developments in the field, areas of growth, emerging issues, and insights to inform the future direction of competency-based education.
  • iNACOL released Modernizing the Teaching Workforce for Learner-Centered, Competency-Based, Equity-Oriented Education, an issue brief that highlights state policy opportunities to modernize professional learning for educators in a K-12, competency-based education system.

Resources

(more…)

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Supporting Deeper Learning Through High-Quality Internship Projects

September 12, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

My recent CompetencyWorks post focused on helping schools facilitate deep, authentic student learning through real-world projects. This second post focuses on the nuts and bolts of supporting high-quality student internship projects through the lens of one student’s experience and some helpful tools and ideas.

As a former advisor and principal at Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools, I found that developing rigorous projects with students was the greatest lever to transforming them and their learning experiences. For the first time in their educational career, they saw how the quality, depth, and impact of their work and learning could all be driven by them. They found this deeply empowering.

So how does it work? BPL’s design is anchored in the 3 R’s: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. Strong student-to-teacher and student-to-student relationships form the foundation. Learning is relevant because it is anchored in student interests and contexts. Strong relationships and relevance become the fertile soil in which high-quality, rigorous learning can be cultivated. We see high-quality internship projects as the highest form of rigor, because they demand students to acquire and apply high levels of academic, industry, and social-emotional learning standards and skills.

One Student’s Real-World Project

My student Zaidee was a budding artist. Ever since arriving in my advisory in 9th grade, they (Zaidee’s preferred pronoun) could always be found doodling, drawing, or creating something original, with an eclectic style. Fortunately, at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met) in Providence, Rhode Island, our entire design is built around leveraging students’ passions through real-world internships.

Zaidee and David

Zaidee and friend David (painting a mural for another student’s internship project with an advertising firm)

During junior year, Zaidee’s internship combined a passion for art with an intention to help people. With the support of their dad, Zaidee landed an internship with a local non-profit that provided artistic outlets for developmentally challenged older adults. We learned during an informational interview that community members from across the state came there to paint, draw, sing, play instruments, and record their own music. Their smiles and the gentle hum of productive artistry in the background truly warmed our hearts.

This was a special place and Zaidee knew it. Art empowered so many aspects of their life, and here they saw how art empowered these community members. To ensure that students and internship sites are a good fit, Big Picture schools engage in an informational interview and shadow day process where students ask questions of the potential mentor and spend some time on site to get a feel for the day-to-day activities. For Zaidee, the informational interview and shadow day made it clear that this was the right place to do an internship.

After they spent several days observing and assisting wherever needed, I scheduled a project set-up meeting with the mentor to help develop Zaidee’s internship project. The bedrock of high-quality projects is authenticity, and the process of finding authenticity is a conversation guided by a few simple questions. I ask the student, “What are you interested in learning?” and I ask the mentor, “What is a current challenge or opportunity you are facing right now”? As they both answer the question and the conversation evolves, we usually arrive at an idea and a product for a project.

This is where I introduce the mentor to our Project Development Tool, which helps us flesh out the student’s project. It is a living document that the student, mentor, and I will communicate and work with as the student carries out the project. As her advisor, I help make or push the connections between the project and academic and social-emotional skills. Simultaneously, the mentor makes connections with industry skills. Using this tool, we help the student break the project into manageable pieces and set realistic timelines. We also use the Project Rubric to be clear with students and mentors about what high quality looks like while planning and carrying out the project. (more…)

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Structuring Schools to Enable Deep, Student-Centered Learning in Real-World Settings

September 9, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

One of the main pillars of the Big Picture Learning design is deep, authentic student learning in the real world. For more than 20 years, BPL has experienced the power of this approach for increasing equity and deeper learning centered on the student’s talents and passions. In most schools, learning mostly takes place within the school building, and engaging with community partners is uncharted territory. So how can a school go about developing a real-world learning program? As a regional director for Big Picture Learning (and before that a BPL principal and advisor) supporting teachers and school leaders, this has been a major priority of my work. Here are some of the major lessons I’ve learned about what’s needed to make it happen.

Visionary Leadership: There needs to be a leader at the helm who holds deeply to the concept of deep, authentic student learning in the real world. A leader who leads through modeling and works tirelessly with their staff to consistently improve their practice. Why? Unfortunately, our current educational system was built and designed for in-school learning. The focus on standardized tests, daily schedule, course sequence, credits, seat time, and so on was designed to support a particular approach to education. So when a leader attempts to redefine the system by designing real-world learning structures such as an internship program, friction will arise. The gravitational pull on leaders to fit into and return to the old system will be immense, and this will be a true test of a leader’s core values and vision. In the face of this friction and in the eyes of their teachers, the leader will need to remain fully engaged in the problem-solving process to stay true to the vision. In my experience in leading and supporting systemic change, there are no silver bullets, but one thing is essential: a visionary leader who stays true to their core values.

Staffing: When I first became a principal, BPL co-founder Dennis Littky gave me a piece of advice that has served me well through the years. He said, “The single most important decision you will ever make as a leader is selecting the ‘right’ staff member.” Simple, right? As a young administrator, I took heed. But after 10 years as a school administrator, I have experienced first-hand the truth of this statement. I have made many bad decisions as a leader, but nothing has been more difficult than a bad staffing decision. Underperforming staff members can be coached to be better—but fundamentally I can coach skills, but I can’t coach will. In other words, staff mindsets about the work are equivalent to their competencies to learn and do the work. At Big Picture Learning, in order to find the “right” staff member, we developed a list of BPL Advisor Competencies that captures the skills and will needed to appropriately execute on our design.

Another pivotal role to support real-world learning is the Internship Coordinator—the bridge that connects the school with local internship opportunities. Equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit, this staff member will need to survey students about their interests, develop marketing materials for the program, establish internship procedures for students and staff, hit the pavement to reach out to local businesses and community leaders, host informational events to educate the community about the programs, regularly check on mentors and students, and help curate activities to better prepare students for the real world.

Big Picture Learning LogoFor most schools with traditional staff structures, allocating a full-time position to support real-world learning may be difficult. In my last school, our social worker became a half-time social worker and half-time internship coordinator. Although this helped us start our program, we didn’t see the progress or success we were looking for. Finally, I decided to make her a full-time internship coordinator, and for the first time almost 100% of our students were placed in internships just one month into the school year. With her attention focused solely on internships, she was able to commit to building needed infrastructure at the end of the previous school year, expand our internship network over the summer, and solidify internships much sooner in the school year. This was the momentum we needed, and we would not have achieved it without the full-time position. (more…)

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