Category: How To

Chewing on Learning Progressions: Some Food For Thought

April 7, 2014 by

Kaili Phillips

One of the big pushes in our district (and many others throughout Maine) is customized learning: students working at their own pace to progress forward from the point at which they are currently achieving. 

One of the primary tools used to facilitate this type of learning is a “learning continuum” or “learning progression” (hereafter referred to as the continuum or continua). The continuum seems sequential, as it contains rows and explanations for forward progress in each of the given areas of focus, seeming to offer a step-by-step, methodical guide that a child can follow to a successful education. In fact, in many cases learning continuum do not have to be sequential at all. The design of continua suggests linearity so that students can follow the steps and essentially be “done” learning when they get to the end of the line. This obviously makes no sense whatsoever. The challenge to educators is to rethink how and when they use continua in their lessons.

Here are some possibilities and suggestions regarding how to effectively use the Learning Progression model in middle school. As I teach English-Language Arts, my examples are… well, English-Language Artsy… but I am confident that you may find a thought or two that translates well to your content area. (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…)

Voices from the Field: Growth Mindset

March 31, 2014 by
Michelle Finn

Michelle Finn

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the importance of these attributes through the work of Pink, Duckworth and Dweck. Should we in the field of education be sitting up and taking notice? When research shows that these attributes, rather than IQ scores, are a better determiner of success, you better believe we should notice. And act.

In the classroom, moving students from compliance to engagement, from fixed to growth mindset, from reactive blamers to proactive problem-solvers doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen, and it may come in many forms. As we discussed in previous articles, a focus on building culture and student goal-setting has great impact on not just the way students learn, but on how they think about themselves as learners. This self-reflection is crucial. In order to grow, we have to be aware of both our strengths and weaknesses, which in turn can help to set challenging, yet realistic goals. Self-reflection also promotes a growth mindset. If you continually set targets for yourself, plan the steps of your 10-mile march, to borrow from Collins, then act upon your plan, you begin to realize that everything is about a learning progression, not a pass or fail. What an empowering stance from which to greet each day! (more…)

Competency Education Supports Both Traditional and CTE Learning

March 26, 2014 by
Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Amanda is a typical high school student who loves spending time with her friends, participating in a variety of clubs and activities, and doing well in school. Since a very young age, she has wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an emergency room nurse. My school is preparing her for that demanding career with a competency-based model that has been designed to help her master a series of academic competencies, academic behaviors, and college and career-ready skills. Our competency-based model engages Amanda in her learning in ways that traditional high school models never could.

Five years ago, the administrative team in my school district and I began suggesting that our school make the move to a competency-based grading and reporting system. We knew that was going to be a monumental shift for some of our elementary and secondary teachers, but that it wouldn’t be such a bold move for others. The career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators who work at our regional CTE center, for example, applauded our efforts to move the school district to the model that they had always used to define their work. (more…)

Understanding Grading in Competency-Based Schools

March 18, 2014 by

On Thursday, April 24, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM ET  CompetencyWorks is sponsoring a webinar Understanding Grading in Competency-based Schools. You can CompetencyWorks - Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education - January 2014register for the webinar here.

The webinar will start with an overview of competency education and the elements of grading in competency-based environments.

Abbie Forbus and Brett Grimm from Lindsay Unified School District in California will share Lindsay’s grading practices.  Lindsay Unified, a Race to the Top winner, has a strong personalized, performance-based system and well-developed grading system that emphasizes providing feedback to learners. Forbus and Grimm will provide an overview of the values and educational philosophy that guides Lindsay’s grading policy.  Then going into more depth, they will present the structure, practices, and reporting mechanisms. During this webinar you will learn how their information management system enables teachers, students and families to monitor student learning and progress along their learning progression.

The final segment of the webinar will offer a discussion on implementation challenges and emerging issues.

In preparation for the webinar we hope that you will review Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, a CompetencyWorks briefing paper.


Abbie Forbus, Counselor, Lindsay Unified High School (CA)

Brett Grimm, Assistant Principal of Curriculum & Instruction, Lindsay Unified High School (CA)

Chris Sturgis, MetisNet and co-founder of CompetencyWorks


Can’t Visit a Competency-Based School?

January 22, 2014 by
ME Center for Best Practices

ME Center for Best Practices

There are more and more people wanting to understand what competency education is and what it looks like in a school and in a classroom. It’s not easy if you live in a place far from the most innovative schools. So here are a few ways you can learn more about competency education (or proficiency-based, mastery-based or performance-based approaches).

  1. Re-inventing Schools Coalition is offering a distance-learning course on how to create a personal mastery classroom. The course, Tools to Create a Standards-Based Classroom, will be taught by Greg Johnson from Bering Strait School District. The reading list includes:
  •  Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S., A comprehensive guide to designing standards-based districts, schools, and classrooms. (1996).
  • Delorenzo, R. A., Battino, W. J., Schreiber, R. M., Gaddy Carrio, B. B., Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., McTighe, J., Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding Design.


  1. Great Schools Partnership offers a series of webinars. Coming up next:
  • February 11: Response to Intervention: Supporting Student Success. This is an important topic as many schools forget to build up their capacity to deliver supports the first year. Then find themselves with a lot of students not yet proficient at the end of the semester.
  • March 5: Proficiency-based Learning Simplified: Supporting Students with Disabilities with Kelley Rush Sanborn, Special Education Director from Mount Desert Island in Maine. (more…)

Deadlines Matter: Debunking the Myth That Standards-Based Grading Means No Deadlines

January 6, 2014 by

deadline image

I have a very compassionate boss. I spent several weeks working on my school’s budget for the upcoming year and I had been sending her updates on my progress throughout. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though, that on the week that the budget was due my high school had a series of unexpected student issues that consumed most of my time and resources. As important as that budget due date was, I knew I just wasn’t going to make the deadline. As much as I hated to admit defeat, I made the call to her on Friday afternoon to ask for an extension (or at the very least, forgiveness). She was quick to respond to me with this: “Brian, I know it has been a tough week for you. I know through our check-in meetings over the past few weeks that you have been actively working on it. It is ok if you need a little bit more time. Could you have it to me by the middle of next week?” As she uttered those words I could feel the weight of the world lifting off of my shoulders. “Of course I could, thank you for your flexibility!”

What happened between my boss and I that day happens in all aspects of our lives as adults. It is normal behavior to expect that every once in a while people are going to miss a deadline. In the classroom, we as teachers know that students will miss deadlines from time to time. When they do, we do what any normal teacher would do—we become compassionate and flexible. Just like in real life with adults, we only start to worry about the behavior of missing deadlines when it goes from once in a while to chronic. (more…)

Creating a Classroom Parking Lot

September 2, 2013 by

You can have all the best well-crafted assessments, lessons, targets, and reporting systems in your school, yet it is the classroom culture that makes or breaks proficiency-based learning. Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 11.20.21 AM One essential aspect of a learner-centered classroom culture is the inclusion of student voice.  A successful competency-based classroom is a place where all members of the community get a say in how things run.  As the teacher you ultimately have the final word, and you are responsible for making sure all other voices (students, parents, support staff, and anybody else) are heard, but you do not get to make all the decisions yourself.  One incredibly useful tool for engaging student voice in the classroom is a “parking lot”.  A successful parking lot not only gives students an easy way to contribute their voice to the classroom community, it also makes the internal dialogue of the classroom community transparent.

Creating A Parking Lot:

Some teachers will set up a blank spot on the wall simply labeled “Parking Lot.”  Other people use a piece of chart paper divided into sections with different purposes, such as questions, positives, changes needed, or ideas.  Design it however you want, just make sure you use it! (more…)

Process-Folios: Peeking Into A Student’s Head

August 28, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 2.26.21 AMWhat educator hasn’t wished they could get inside a student’s head – if even just for a moment – to really understand how she thinks, learns, and what she still needs to do to grasp a concept or lesson? Process portfolios (also known as “process-folios”) provide an opportunity to not only peek inside a student’s progression toward mastery, but also to get the student more actively engaged in understanding his own learning process.

You may think to yourself: Oh sure, I know all about portfolio assessment — that’s when students present a big senior project before a panel of community members. Great stuff. Or, maybe the name reminds you of the promising, but ultimately failed (derailed, some may say, by the standards movement) experiment with statewide portfolios in Vermont.

Wrong. Those are summative assessments. Although Steven Seidel won’t swear by the “birth story,” the idea for process portfolios likely emerged out of the arts-oriented work he, Howard Gardner, and the team at Project Zero were doing via Arts Propel in the late 1980s with the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Education Testing Services.  The impetus for creating process-folios focused on the notable role reflection could play in learning, particularly learning in the arts. Seidel recalls the team’s concern at the time that “using the term portfolios would only mean collections of one’s best work” —  the common understanding when educators talk about portfolios. However, Seidel explains that “the kinds of portfolios for learning that we were developing were designed to include lots of one’s work —  what the student thought was his or her best work, but also selections of work in process so you could see the process of learning happening through the collection of selected pieces.” (more…)

Pace Yourself: Restructuring Content In A Competency-Based Classroom

August 26, 2013 by

This post was first published by Blend My Learning on July 30, 2013. It has been reposted here with permission.

Nico scrunched up his face. He was working on standard twenty: solving free-fall problems. Math is tricky for him, so I anticipated that he might have questions. He sighed, put his pen down and asked me, “Mr. D., why did you become a teacher?” I did a small double-take, blinked a few times, and said I could give him the short answer now and the long answer after class.

“The short answer, Nico, is that our country is a place where certain people’s voices aren’t heard enough, and I thought that education might do something about that.” Nico smiled and turned back to finishing his calculations; about fifteen minutes later he had mastered the lab and the quiz for that standard.  After class, he and I spoke about the George Zimmerman trial and what it meant to him as a black boy in DC. It was a fascinating conversation that I wish I had recorded.



I include this exchange because I have come to realize that one advantage of my summer pilot is that ninety-five percent of my interactions with students these past three weeks have been productive and directly related to learning. There have been only three occasions in the past forty-five hours in my classroom where a student was doing something that was distracting enough to a peer that I had to address it. This is not because I built phenomenal classroom culture in three weeks; it is because a competency-based curriculum values mastery over time. I don’t feel that terror that all teachers feel when a student misbehaves in a traditional classroom, that fear that if we don’t all get through this material, right now, we’re going to lose time. I don’t feel the need to have eleven arms dragging each of my eleven students through the same content at the same time for fear that they will drown. Instead of talking about how students are or aren’t “using their time well,” I get to discuss with them what they do or don’t understand right now. (more…)

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