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Author: Caroline Messenger

How Do You Measure Competency? Curriculum Can Help Guide the Way

April 2, 2015 by

Specific Standard (CCSS, graduation, exit standard)Competency-based education is not about reformation – it is about transformation. Old processes and models of teaching and learning do not get at the intrinsic value of teaching and learning with a targeted focus on standards and mastery. If how we teach must change, then how we plan for instruction must change, too.

Curriculum can no longer focus solely on content – it must shift to encompass skills. But which skills? What will enable students to attain high standards and expectations? Currently, the most efficient way to understand which skills will result in higher levels of achievement comes from the process of unpacking standards.

Ainsworth (and Reeves before him) realized that no teacher – and certainly no student – can expect mastery of more than fifty educational standards (in English/Language Arts alone) in one school year. When our district piloted a curriculum that encompassed all ELA standards in the Common Core for tenth grade, we found that each standard could only be directly addressed about four or five times a year. No one can master the ability to identify a theme and track its development over the course of a text by practicing it four times a year for about forty minutes per session (CCSS ELA standard RL9-10.1). Not only did we ignore the research regarding how the brain learns (Sousa 2011), we also ignored the interconnectivity of ideas and concepts and its power in acquiring new knowledge and skills (Demarest 2010). (more…)

The Role of Assessment Instruments in a Competency-Based System

November 5, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 7.01.11 AMNo matter how you approach it, you cannot mitigate the massive change agent that is competency-based education. It does not leave much room for “old school” notions of teaching and learning. It does not tolerate anything less than a committed belief that all students can achieve at high levels.

It certainly demands a philosophical and ideological shift in thinking about “best practice” in education.

When I had first embarked on this journey, I had prepared myself for these shifts as they pertained to my practice. How can I become more student-centered? What does that look like? How will I know if my students are ready?

The question I never asked: How will I assess it and grade it? (more…)

Learning My Lesson

April 3, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 10.28.14 AMI had asked my ninth grade students to write a “last” chapter to the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischmann we had finished reading as a class. I knew they had read the entire novel and even annotated it because we did all of our reading in this room. Sometimes we did it in a literature circle. Sometimes we did it by ourselves. Sometimes we used a form of Socratic Seminar to ask questions of each other and dig deeper into the author’s intended meaning.

But I knew all my students had read the novel and understood its metaphors, allusions and themes because we did the work together. And because of that, I knew they would be able to creatively adapt what they knew and believed.

I knew they’d be able to do it because I would be there to help them, guide them and monitor their progress because their work would be completed in class and during after school workshop sessions.

I knew their levels of competency because I assessed it every single day.

The pattern here isn’t new. Rick Wormeli suggests rethinking how we assign work to students and how we penalize them for not doing it. Both Wormeli and Doug Reeves make powerful arguments against “the zero” in the teacher grade book. (more…)

Do Learning Progressions Have to Be Linear?

February 5, 2014 by

learning progressionsSometimes in teaching we deal in “revelations:” big ideas that students are supposed to get at the end of a unit or learning progression. They are supposed attain these foundational concepts and understandings after progressing through a sequence that is designed to end at a particular point – a point we as educators decide upon when we create a unit of study or a curriculum.

According to Wiggins and McTeague, we are supposed to plan for the big ideas before we even start teaching. We are supposed to plan for where we end up before we even begin. And there’s a lot of good reasoning why. If we know where we’re going, then we can ultimately plan for how to best get there. But there’s a troublesome piece to that. Sometimes our “best” way to get there doesn’t suit some of the students in the room. And sometimes our endpoint is too fixed. Sometimes we create a round hole while students craft a square peg.

Are we right? Are they wrong?

A straightforward definition of a learning progression is to examine it as a “sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to mastering a more distant curricular aim.” (Popham, 2007)

Currently, the Common Core has replaced the teacher and the school as the determinant of when students should master concepts and skills. It is our learning progression and it has already determined our “distant curricular aims.” I know students should be reading at particular levels at particular times. I know students should have mastered persuasive writing by the time they come to ninth grade, so that my objective is to continue the work associated with argumentative writing. And educators involved with mathematics have their own timing issues as the Common Core has redirected particular math skills to brand-new points in time.

To say the path to knowledge and skills has changed would be a tremendous understatement. (more…)

Curriculum Model for Mastery-Based Learning

December 9, 2013 by

curriculummodelWe had begun a short unit of study on Greek heroes, immediately following an introductory unit on Greek mythology and the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. We took time to revisit and rethink, and one of my students began frowning. “We usually just learn some stuff and take a test. It never comes up again. This is hard!” he said.

This is rigor. This is challenge and opportunity. This is the heart of mastery-based learning.  And it requires a different model of curriculum development and design. What I had been developing for the past fourteen years wasn’t working well anymore because it required that I write my curriculum as if it were a straight line heading in one direction.

In a mastery-based learning world, curriculum isn’t linear: curriculum needs to be developed from a core outward – a ripple effect. (Fig. 1) Skills and knowledge need to flourish, not remain static entities on a timeline.

A new model for developing curriculum in a mastery-based environment

The long-standing question – and the stumbling block I have come up against – is what curriculum for mastery-based learning looks like. It shouldn’t mirror traditional units of study and traditional models of curriculum. It should provide a guide for how students can demonstrate mastery because the knowledge and skills never disappear. Opportunities for continuous growth and improvement should be present throughout the curriculum, and they should be integrated and organic. (more…)

Climate Change

November 14, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 1.56.38 PMAt the close of classes last June, summer vacation hung on the horizon like the grand prize at a carnival. I expected the mass euphoria, but not the concern about their academic lives in September.  As one student said, “I just started to get things and understand. I don’t know what to expect next year, and I’m a little scared.”

His fear wasn’t being unprepared for the academic rigor of the next grade level. His fear was about the climate of the classrooms he would enter. Would he be allowed to redo assignments? Have flexible due dates? Get one-on-one help? Would other classrooms reflect the same philosophy he experienced in mine?

“I love that almost everybody gets along with each other. I feel like I am always being pushed to do new things.”

Exploring standards-based practice is a leap of instructional faith. Moving toward personalized instruction and grading means building a different climate and culture. Students need to be guided in self-regulating behaviors and shown – through their own work and by example – how to self-monitor, self-correct and self-direct their own behavior. Self-regulation becomes the cornerstone of a personalized classroom.

To truly embrace personalized learning means fostering a culture of experimentation, support, tolerance, and trust. Teachers and students become partners in learning opportunities. (more…)

Making the Grade Count

November 1, 2013 by
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Caroline Gordon Messenger

As a teacher of high school English, the Common Core State Standards are a blessing and a curse.

And assessing a student’s competence in the standards? That can be difficult and frustrating as well. Especially when Robert Marzano has concluded in his research that teaching each Common Core State Standard to mastery would take 22 years of educational instruction to accomplish.

As our high school begins to explore standards-based instruction and curriculum revision to align with CCSS, more questions emerge for educators about not only how to create quality assessment instruments, but also how to create quality measures for assessment. In my past, every assessment had its own rubric, stating what criteria would be measured and how many points it would be worth, so that every grade would represent a number of out 100%.

It took several years and the work of Doug Reeves to make me question just what I had been doing for 10 years. So what changed?

Everything. (more…)

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