Category: How To

Lens 4: Culture

August 8, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 3.33.40 PMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This final post looks to further describe the lens of culture.

Culture. It is not part of the game. It is the game. Does your building believe all students can learn? Do the educators have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Do they believe they have a say in how the school operates? What are those measurable values and truths your school emulates?  Dr. Henry Cloud in his book “Boundaries for Leaders makes it very clear, “Culture is established through what the leader creates and what the leader allows.” I have too often listened to school administrators find every reason to explain away their poor culture. They blame the Department of Education, the parents, Central Office and even the students. I too blamed the external environment until I realized that the culture of my school is the one thing I can impact directly. Once I understood that culture is the organizational values, what people believe and are willing to work for, I realized that I can affect what is happening for our students. By focusing on school culture, I can impact student achievement, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness. This is why I assess culture early and often. (more…)

Retake Policy: Lessons Learned from Pat Benatar

July 29, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 3.08.52 PMAs an Eighties baby and a fan of sample based music, I have spent a great deal of time surrounded by crates of vinyl. The history educator in me sees these as cultural artifacts: moments frozen in time that convey the values and feelings of people willing to put themselves out to the masses.

This same act is one we see in our students every day. In their attempts to be competent, they put out their best work for all to see. Depending upon a number of factors, that work hits or misses the mark. In the competency-based classroom environment though, the expectation is that education is not a “one-and-done” event, but rather a “move on when ready” model.

So the question is posed: How do we juggle the ideal with the real in the realm of retake policy? Below is a plan that I put into place with my classes and has seen some great successes. (I would love to hear your feedback and personal ideas/experiences in the comments!)


1. For the summative assessment, require a minimum to show best effort:

By clearly stating what the expectations are when introducing the summative, we can better communicate where the line of rigor is to allow a student to show that they put their best effort forward. When used in my classroom, some of the minimums that have seen success are a minimum grade on the original summative, and the summative needing to be submitted on time. In the traditional setting, I have also seen this bar move according to the expectations of the classroom teacher—for example, the beginning of the semester may require a certain grade for the opportunity to retake and as the semester progresses, that minimum grade might be increased.



Competency-Based Learning and FLVS

January 14, 2013 by

FLVS-LogoCompetency based learning has its origins in the business world. High school graduates who decide to become a barber, for example, would need specialized training in cutting hair.  They would take an assessment to verify competency before receiving a license to cut hair. In order to maintain global standing, industry and education leaders teamed up to create a description of elements for 21st century outcomes. These elements would identify those skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for our future work force to be competent in the 21st century market, much like a competency exam that a plumber, electrician, mechanic, or other trained and skilled professional would need in order to practice their profession competently. These 21st century learning skills are embedded in the Common Core State Standards as well as the focus of the work and design of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) courses.

Many examples of benchmark competency-based practices can be found in FLVS courses. These include the following:

Assessments Against Competencies

Florida Virtual School builds its courses around this concept. Courses are built with formative and summative assessments embedded throughout the course measuring the students’ competency and mastery of the standards, which are based on the 21st skills. There are three components of these assessments against competencies: self-assessment, multi-source, and assessments through other methods.

  • In the self-assessment, learners are able to manage their own mastery level, and take appropriate action to relearn skills before attempting a formal assessment.    Students are able to “own” their own learning and work on those things they actually need to do as opposed to a traditional school where a student will sit through a lesson with the rest of a class even if they don’t individually need it.
  • Multi-source assessments allow the learner to get feedback through multiple formats. With pre-tests, formative assessments throughout the lessons, and summative assessments, students receive feedback from multiple sources. In addition, Florida Virtual School teachers complete discussion based assessments in each unit of study. Teachers verbally assess for mastery before students can move on to the next module. This ensures a deeper understanding in subjects that build upon previous understandings, such as foreign languages or math.  The teacher is the gatekeeper, who only allows the students to move on when mastery is demonstrated through work products and thorough discussions. Students also have some collaborative projects which provide opportunities for students to work together and building knowledge collaboratively.
  • An assessment through other methods is the third format delineated. FLVS provides many assessment options in its courses. In Physical Education, students will actually self-monitor and report exercise logs and personal goals and benchmarks of activity. In many courses, especially in science, students perform labs and will video tape their work. Students use multiple ways to communicate to their teacher evidence of mastery.


The Project IS the Learning!

December 5, 2012 by

Typically, teachers launch projects after students have learned concepts and skills, or as a culminating activity in a lengthy unit of instruction.  Also traditional projects generally follow a scripted, one size fits all design.  What would happen if a project were launched the first day of a unit of instruction?  What if unpacking that project resulted in students determining what is important to know and do in meeting the criteria for the product and presentation?

Welcome to project based learning that allows students to meet multiple competencies! As teachers struggle to work with the rigorous performance assessment demands of the Common Core State Standards, a well-designed project can be the vehicle for highly authentic, rigorous, and personalized learning experiences for students.

The Buck Institute for Education, one of the preeminent organizations with expertise in Project Based Learning, describes the eight Essential Elements of a PBL Project. Included in these elements is inquiry. We are all familiar with inquiry-based learning as an effective framework for the classroom, and similarly, the Project creates the inquiry to learn targeted competencies that integrate both content and 21st Century Skills. Instead of giving the project at the end of a curriculum unit, the Project is presented up front to students to create the “need to know,” the inquiry to engage in the project. In addition, this work is the frame around the learning while engaging the learner in the driving questions. This work is presented to a public, authentic audience. Students are given voice and choice in how they present their learning of competencies to allow for personalized and differentiated instruction. Students become the centers of learning, rather than the teacher. In turn, the teachers arm students with the skills and knowledge needed to meet competency through a variety of instructional activities. (more…)

Testing Myths

November 30, 2012 by

The word “test” has a negative connotation.  It conjures up images of students sitting in rows, number two pencils, and bubbles.  It feels like long amounts of time, tricky questions, and essays. The test is a difficult task in which one must prove oneself.  The students are the Odysseus, Perseus, and King Arthur, suffering through test after test on a long arduous journey. Teachers are the archetypal meddling Gods, monsters, and dragons of mythology providing one test after another for students to show what they really know. Teachers’ main goal seems to be creating elaborate tasks for students to conquer on their own in order to prove that they are good enough to be marked as having performed satisfactorily.

Assessment can, and, in a successful proficiency-based learning model does, have a much more positive connotation.  Assessing is judging or appraising.  In the case of proficiency-based learning, an assessment is a tool used to judge or appraise a performance against a particular learning target, or standard.  It is about finding evidence that a student knows or is able to do something, then documenting it. Assessments are ways to see if students are “getting it” or not. Students are still our mythic heroes, moving ahead on their journeys, breezing through at times and struggling at others. Teachers are now the archetypal wise man, or guiding sage: Athena supporting Odysseus, Hermes helping Perseus, Merlin guiding King Arthur.  Instead of constantly testing the students they work with, these teachers are constantly judging where students are in their progress toward a learning target, and providing them the support, help, or guidance they need to continue making progress.

Yes, constantly. But remember, it is more like the Arthur-Merlin dynamic.  Assessments must happen constantly in order for teachers to know how students are progressing in their learning and if anything needs to change in the instructional plan.  This is true for one particular student, small groups of students, and even the whole class. When combined with effective feedback and progress tracking tools, constant assessment allows students to take on much more ownership of their learning by making it clear to them where they are in relation to a target, and what they have to do in order to meet that target.

Constant assessment sounds like a huge drain on a teacher’s time, but it doesn’t have to be.  Again, think Athena, not the meddling Greek Gods.  There are ways to craft assessments so that students barely know they are being assessed.  The best assessment, much like the best sage guidance, feels like it is just part of the regular flow of things. It is important for students to apply their skills and knowledge in longer, more complicated tasks, just not all the time.  If we want to be like the mythical wise men and sage guides we have to be ready to give just-in-time support so that we know our heroes will be successful when put to the test; if we wait for the test, it is often too late to provide any meaningful guidance. (more…)

Application of Learning: It Doesn’t Have To Be An Outhouse

November 12, 2012 by

We know that mastery happens when skills or knowledge are applied in new situations or contexts.  As adults, we have these natural opportunities all the time. For example, I’m reminded of the time I figured out that I could grind my own quinoa flour using a hand-held coffee grinder, just like I had learned to do with oats for oat flour.

In school however, we need to start making them a regular part of our student’s lives.  Asking students to apply skills and knowledge from their classes in new contexts is essential in ensuring that our students have mastered the skills and knowledge we have mapped out in our learning targets and learning progressions. We can ask our students to put their skills and knowledge to use, and it can be simple to do.

An application of learning, as my principal Bill Zima says, doesn’t have to be an outhouse. It doesn’t have to be someplace we are hesitant to go; nor does it have to be a huge, complicated project, like actually building an outhouse. The meaning of the word apply is, simply, to put to use.  Here is a process for working out how to get your students to put their skills and knowledge to use:

Step One:  Go back to the learning target(s) from your unit of study and review the reasoning level (see my earlier posts for a brush up on learning targets and reasoning levels). This is important!  You don’t want to find yourself suddenly asking students to apply skills and knowledge in a new context while using a higher reasoning level. (more…)

Be Reasonable!

November 5, 2012 by

Defining Targets With Reason

In an earlier post I talked about what a learning target is, and how to write one.  Whenever I run a PD session about learning targets, someone points out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure “being skilled at” or “understanding.”  I am sure some of you were left with that same sentiment after reading Target Practice.

You know what?  You are right!  A learning target on its own is not enough. A target needs to be defined in terms of reasoning levels and foundational knowledge.  Without doing so, we are in danger of pontificating on and on about what it means to understand… and setting a college level bar for our sixth graders!  Here is a step-by-step on how to set an appropriate reasoning level for a learning target. This video shows me working through the process.

1. Select a target
You may already have a set of targets, or you can create them based on your current standards.

2. Think about what you want students to do in order to show you that they “get” it
You already do this.  We’re just making the process transparent so that we can be more precise in our measurement of targets.  Think about what you have had students do in the past.  Keep in mind their age and developmental stage.  Consider what is reasonable and realistic.  Take into account where they came from in their learning, and where they are headed.


Q&A: It’s About Time For Proficiency-Based Learning

October 16, 2012 by

The following is reprinted from GettingSmart.

Diane Smith for the Business Education Compact (BEC) released “It’s About Time: A Framework For Proficiency-Based Teaching & Learning”this year in response to a need expressed by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), which identifies the ways that eliminating seat time and moving toward proficiency-based teaching and learning can improve student achievement.

The workbook provides a roadmap for proficiency-based learning with formative and “just in time” assessments, grouping, learner profiles, personalized learning plans, learning targets, and more. It couples activities in a blended learning environment to offer in-class review time, online learning tutorials, study packets, quick reviews, extended learning time, and flexible schedules for students.

Similar to the personalized learning plan outlined in the DLN Smart Series paper “Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles” produced by Digital Learning Now! (DLN), the workbook suggests Common Core aligned assessments stored electronically for district-wide use among administrators and teachers. DLN points to the ways that “Data Backpacks” and “Learner Profiles” can help teachers improve personalized learning from Day One with assessment data, learner preferences, etc., taking the concept of Smith’s electronic assessments steps further. (more…)

Avoid Hit-or-Miss Professional Development

October 9, 2012 by

As a former principal and curriculum director, I can easily tell the difference between good and bad professional development. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have had my hand in delivering some poor quality events in my career. Some of my colleagues refer to past trainings as a “spray and pray” approach to learning something. In other words, we offered a one-time event and hoped that teachers would walk away with some great idea to use. Fortunately we have seen the error of our ways and now use embedded professional development options that have teachers collaborating with peers to learn new skills. Implementing proficiency-based learning options for the long term requires purposeful and specific components to ensure that practices can be sustained and result in a new learning culture that improves student achievement.

Approximately 150 Oregon secondary teachers recently completed an 18-month period of professional development that focused on implementing proficiency-based practices. Their activities resulted in the publishing of It’s About Time – A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning. This teacher self-evaluation workbook highlights the six major areas Oregon teachers recognize as critical elements in any proficiency-based experience. Teachers use these elements, called “constructs” in the book, in any order based on student needs. It’s worth looking at each of these constructs through the lens of effective and regularly scheduled professional development.

Construct #1— Target In a standards-based classroom, teachers TARGET the standards as their primary instructional foci. A strong professional development plan has districts scheduling summer collaboration time, as well as regular meetings of content area specialists to identify which standards teachers will address. During these events, teachers practice how to break down a standard into manageable instructional chunks and focus on designing activities around the smaller learning targets.


Setting up a Competency-Based System: The Authoring Process

October 3, 2012 by

If and when your institution is ready to move into the next steps of transitioning to competencies from set time, I have compiled a list of things that we have learned over the better part of a decade. I hope that these can assist your stakeholders in the authoring and implementation process.

School wide or Subject-wide:
In creating a competency based system, one of the first decisions to be discussed is the idea of school wide competencies, (the same 3-5 for all classes) or content wide competencies (3-5 for English, 3-5 for Mathematics courses, etc.) Understanding that different content structures are going to assess knowledge and skills differently, there are pros and cons to each. You should just make sure that the buy-in for the shift is there.


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