Category: School Processes and Practice

The Evolution of Competency-Based Transformation in Northern Cass

January 8, 2020 by
Three Students, School Ambassadors

Northern Cass Student Ambassadors (Visitor Guides)

“It was either we continue to produce unprepared kids, or we change. And we made the decision as a district that we are done with that and we are going to make the change.

– Kelly Trudeau, Northern Cass Educator

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

Northern Cass, a rural school district in North Dakota, is making an energetic transition to competency-based education. About half an hour north of Fargo, they are early innovators in what has become a larger movement for change within the state. The district is a single, newly-constructed K-12 school building that emerges after several miles of driving through farm fields. It serves 650 students from a sending area of 925 square miles, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.

Shared Purpose for Change

Their transformation began with a sense of shared purpose, well-stated by educator Kelly Trudeau in the opening quotation above about the need for change. (Northern Cass uses the term “educator” rather than teacher. Also “learner” rather than student.) She added that the Northern Cass School District has always been on the cutting edge, pushing educators to find innovations and best practices. “With this personalized learning journey, we’re really starting to figure out that what has been happening in education just isn’t working for our kids. It’s not preparing them for what life is like when they leave us.”

They knew it wasn’t working because they had students who were strong in school but then struggled in college and jobs. “They’ve struggled to advocate for themselves,” Trudeau added. “They’ve struggled to keep up with the rigor. Our move toward personalized learning is to allow them to learn some of those things that they’ll need to do in college—when they don’t have a teacher right next to them all of the time walking them through things and reminding them ‘This is due tomorrow’ and ‘Your test is on Wednesday’ and ‘Make sure you’re studying.’ In the personalized setting, it’s more on them to take control of that and take ownership of their learning. Then hopefully they’ll leave high school being able to do that in college or being able to be a great employee for whoever they go to work for.”

Educator Christian Thompson added, “It’s really just learning how to learn. Our students were good at understanding concepts if they knew exactly what they needed to know, if they were told when and how to learn it. But when they were thrown into situations where they had to adapt and figure out how to learn on their own, that’s what they really struggled with. And that’s when I realized that something need to change.”

Steps Toward Change

These realizations led the school community to discuss how they could really change. They turned toward discussing resources such as the book Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning from the Lindsay Unified School District. They also visited school districts who were years into their competency-based transformation, such as Lindsay USD in California and RSU2 in Maine.

Once they decided to change, they continued working with outside experts and building their own expertise. They are part of a “Proficiency Competency-Based Learning” (PCBL) cohort of five districts in the state moving toward personalized learning. The PCBL cohort members are working with KnowledgeWorks and the Center for Collaborative Education. Their work is funded in part by the Bush Foundation, which is supporting competency-based transformation in the region.

Master's Program Graduates

Teacher Leader Academy Graduates

Another important initiative has been their Teacher Leadership Academy. Northern Cass partnered with North Dakota State University to develop a program in which 20 educators earned a master’s degree while also advancing the district’s personalized learning work. Their courses and master’s theses included work such as rewriting the school’s policies, strategic plan, and family engagement plan, as well as developing new pedagogical strategies and leading professional development activities to share the new knowledge with their colleagues. Much of the course work and research took place at the school, eliminating the long commute to the college campus.

A Phased Transition

Despite wanting to put their new beliefs and insights into practice rapidly, Northern Cass staff recognized that deep change would require much more than a few days of summer professional development, and more than one or two school years for full implementation. Their frank acknowledgment that they are a change-in-progress has helped them manage their transformation at a sustainable pace and offers a model for other transitioning schools and districts.

In support of ambitious but manageable change, Superintendent Cory Steiner emphasized the importance of having a growth mindset for adults, not just students. “Movement forward has been so fast and good,” he said. “We take deep breaths and celebrate where we are but also keep on improving. It’s the most fulfilling educational work the teachers have ever done, but also the most difficult. At first some people wanted to jump ship, but now they’re on board, and we’ve seen a big jump in the use of competency-based approaches.” (more…)

Reinventing Crediting and Transcripts (Part 1) – Learning from Experience

December 30, 2019 by

Reinventing Crediting Book CoverI had the good fortune to be present in April 2016 when educational leader Scott Looney articulated his vision for a new high school crediting paradigm and launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in a meeting room at Cleveland’s Botanical Gardens. This new transcript model provided a key component of transforming student learning toward greater relevance and engagement, better differentiation, deeper learning, and ultimately stronger preparation for success in college and careers.

The MTC model for crediting and recording student learning presents a much-needed alternative to the standard United States version of a secondary school education. The transcript has no courses listed or credited, and no grades or Carnegie units. Instead, it shows competencies developed and demonstrated. This approach enables far more flexibility in designing, delivering, and acquiring a high-quality high school education.

Others have also written about the Mastery Transcript Consortium on the CompetencyWorks blog. Tony Wagner wrote here in June that it will “change the game by creating an entirely new way to report the quality of student work and their readiness for postsecondary learning—one that is based on real evidence of mastery, rather than a grade or time spent in a particular class.” Chris Sturgis wrote last year that “the MTC wants to create a system of credits and transcripts that represents the whole child, or whole teenager in the case of high schools.”

As an early participant in the development of the MTC, having prepared its first set of sample rubrics and competencies, I’m delighted to have now authored the first book on the MTC and its new transcript model. Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: The Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond lays out the why, what, and how for this alternate transcript model.

As regular CompetencyWorks readers know, many schools nationally have been re-structuring high school education around competencies, and course credit is dependent upon competencies demonstrated. However, many of these schools have not changed the format of the transcript itself very much. The transcript may provide additional information in the form of core competencies identified and recognized in student learning, but it doesn’t transform what we credit and record regarding student learning. To quote New Hampshire educator and author Brian Stack in a piece published at CompetencyWorks, “most competency-based high school transcripts still contain the same base reporting measures, which include course names, final course grades, credit earned, grade point average, and class rank.” The MTC goes a step further, allowing for high school education to no longer be constrained by the conventions of the traditional course names and sequences and empowering students and educators to chart more personally pertinent pathways to acquiring a high school diploma.

Like nearly every innovation, the MTC transcript model has many important antecedents and analogues. My book focuses on three examples of excellent competency-based crediting systems in higher education and abroad that competency-based educators can learn much from. Western Governors University, which Heather Staker wrote about on this site in 2012, dispels with conventional courses. Students choose a major, which is composed of domains, competencies, and objectives. They progress by accumulating competencies via both a multiple choice test and a performance task until they have mastered a domain. Similarly, New Zealand’s universal system of high school crediting, the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA), discards classes and coursework on its transcript altogether, itemizing instead only the standards students have mastered. Students, with the advice of their teachers/counselors, can select from a wide array of nationally determined standards and organize them into unique, personally pertinent pathways. Chris Sturgis has also written at length about New Zealand’s NCEA here at CompetencyWorks.

Even less familiar to K-12 educators is the outstanding model used by the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Medical College (LMC). MTC founder Scott Looney had the benefit of geographic proximity and personal connections to LMC when formulating his vision, and he has brought secondary educators from across the United States to study the successful LMC crediting and transcript model. (more…)

The Competency Train Pulls Into Kankakee: Common Start-up Challenges and Strategies

December 17, 2019 by

Kankakee School LogoAdapting Arlo Guthrie’s famous lyric was irresistible, but we should also know Kankakee for their devotion to competency-based education. Their session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium on how to plan for common start-up challenges in high school redesign was full of valuable lessons for transitioning schools and districts.

The presenters from Kankakee School District 111 in Illinois were Felice Hybert, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, and Brent Johnston, Curriculum Coordinator. They were joined by two leaders from Building 21—Chip Linehan, Co-Executive Director, and Sandra Moumoutjis, Chief Instructional Designer. Building 21 partners with school districts to design, launch, and operate innovative schools, including a competency-based school in Pennsylvania that was featured on CompetencyWorks in 2016.

Building 21 LogoKankakee has partnered with Building 21 through their affiliate program, which supports schools and districts that are transitioning to competency-based education. Building 21 provides affiliate districts with their competency-based learning management system and data dashboards, technical consulting, leadership coaching, and teacher professional development. The partnership began when the Kankakee superintendent asked Hybert to write a grant application on competency-based education. She came across CompetencyWorks, read the blog posts on Building 21, found helpful resources on their website, and contacted Tom Gaffey, Building 21’s chief instructional technologist.

Kankakee started working with Building 21 in March of 2018 and began implementation with students in the fall of 2018. Each incoming class of 9th-graders will use the new approach, so the transition will be complete in four years. During the first two years, Building 21 has been an essential resource that Kankakee has “called constantly” for consultation. There was a two-week teacher “boot camp” for extensive professional development during the first summer, and now they have a daily 45-minute period (from 2:20 to 3:05 p.m.) when the students leave and teachers collaborate. This is made possible in part by a state waiver of student seat-time requirements.

Here are three sets of lessons learned that Kankakee and Building 21 shared in their Symposium session.

Start with Adults, not Students

Kankakee learned that any meaningful change begins with changing adult mindsets. The teachers’ thinking from their own traditional education got in the way of envisioning change. The rationale for change was clear, because the high school was already a low-performing school, and teachers knew that many students were leaving without what they needed to be successful. Many teachers agreed that the school was “running a credit-recovery factory,” and they knew that the rates of graduation, attendance, and teacher retention were all well below state averages.

Transformation efforts focused on the philosophy and rationale of competency-based education. Kankakee and Building 21 leaders emphasized the need to embrace risk-taking, vulnerability, ambiguity, and an iterative cycle of trying new strategies, experiencing success and failure, and making additional changes. They affirmed the messiness of working through change at the classroom, department, school, and district levels. Staff members were encouraged to adopt a stance that said “I don’t know the answer to that—this change doesn’t come all wrapped up in a binder. Let’s figure it out together.” They discussed the inevitability of meeting resistance and how to avoid backsliding once things got hard. In short, the school adopted a bias toward action and continuous improvement. (more…)

Deep Community Partnerships Lead to Authentic Project-Based Learning at Oakland USD

December 12, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on August 27, 2019.

How to create authentic Project-Based Learning? In Oakland Unified, community partners and teachers are working together from the very beginning to design projects.

Young Whan Choi

Young Whan Choi

Teachers are often asked to make sure that their project-based learning (PBL) units are authentic. In response, a teacher might decide to teach a PBL unit where students are putting Christopher Columbus on trial. Doesn’t it sound more exciting than simply learning the facts of the history? They might even ramp up the authenticity points by bringing in a judge or lawyer to preside over the trial.

This “expert audience” approach does add an element of authenticity. Teachers are going above and beyond the traditional curriculum when they bring in a community expert as an audience for student projects.

Teachers in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), however, are exploring even deeper partnerships with the professional community as a way to ensure that PBL projects are authentic. These partnerships begin at the earliest moments of project design, well before the students set foot in the classroom. There are many inspiring examples of what might be called a “client”-driven model of PBL. San Diego Unified has been scaling these kinds of projects in their Linked Learning schools while here in the bay area, one of the most promising models is Y-PLAN—an initiative out of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley. In Y-PLAN, students work on real problems of urban and regional planning.

 

 

A recent example from Y-PLAN occurred when students at Oakland High School in the Law and Social Justice Academy worked with an affordable housing developer. They visited the site of the proposed project and then conducted research to find out what the community would like to see in the housing development. For the final presentation, the students created proposals that they shared when the developer came to their classroom.

The key difference in this approach to authentic PBL is that the community partner engages with teachers from the beginning to shape the project. With this goal in mind, OUSD organized a “community partner engagement” day during our weeklong PBL Institute in June. Over 40 different partner organizations and individuals joined 120 middle and high school teachers on the second day of the institute.

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute. (Courtesy of Greg Cluster)

Before the teachers showed up, we asked them to give us information on the PBL project they were hoping to plan during the institute and if they already had a community partner that they wanted to work with. Our planning team of seven central office leaders then invited relevant partners like public radio station KQED, Alameda County Public Health Department, Red Bay Coffee, Oakland Public Works, and the Museum of Children’s Art.

On the morning of the “community partner engagement” day, teachers prepared a project pitch composed of three slides—the final product students would create, a driving question, and a key learning outcome. In the afternoon, partners and teachers met to discuss the PBL project idea. (more…)

Student Thinking Made Visible: Assessing Transferable Skills With Brief Performance Tasks

November 12, 2019 by

Working on Bridge Building TaskCompetency-based education emphasizes learning not only academic knowledge but also skills and dispositions. These include transferable learning skills such as problem solving and effective reasoning that enable people to perform effectively in different settings and apply knowledge and skills to different tasks. A session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium introduced valuable strategies for assessing these skills. The tools and concepts they shared could also inform assessments of other lifelong learning skills.

The session was led by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jeff Heyck-Williams and 5th-Grade Teacher Katie Mancino from Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, a school in the EL Education network. They emphasized that teachers typically prioritize whatever will get assessed, so it’s important to assess lifelong learning skills.

Rubrics for Critical Thinking Skills

The rubrics presented for assessing problem solving, effective reasoning, and decision making serve the essential function of providing both students and teachers with a clear picture of what quality looks like. This enables teachers to plan instruction oriented toward deeper learning with these targets in mind.

The session focused on assessing problem-solving skills, defined as “The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible plans for solving, follow through on those plans, and evaluate both the success of the plan and the solution.” The corresponding rubric has five components: Identifies What Is Known, Defines the Problem, Generates Possible Solution Strategies, and Evaluates Solutions. The table below contains the rubric for one of these components; the full rubric is here.

Problem Solving Rubric for One Component

Three principles guided their rubric design process: (1) Rubrics define the construct that you want to teach and assess for students and teachers; (2) Each component on the rubric needs to be mutually exclusive but also narrow to a single dimension; and (3) The rubric should define a a continuum of growth from notice to expert.

Performance Tasks to Assess Critical Thinking

With the rubric in place, the question remains of what and how to assess. Two Rivers accomplishes this with brief performance tasks that are specific to the skill being assessed. EL Education believes teachers should experience the educational approach they plan to implement with students, so unsurprisingly we were led through a problem-solving performance task. In short, small groups were given two cups, some paper, rubber bands, paper clips, and blue tape. Brief, clear instructions launched groups into creating a bridge with a maximum span using the materials provided.

For this performance task, students at Two Rivers are assessed on how well they make their thinking visible, not how good their bridge is. This is done in writing on a handout, although teachers can scribe for students who need writing support. Before starting to build bridges, our first step was a “KWI” (Know, Want, Ideas) exercise in which we had to write about “What do you KNOW?,” “What do you WANT to know?,” and “What are some IDEAS you have about how to solve the problem?”

(more…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

Eastern Carver’s Framework for Lifelong Learning Skills

August 26, 2019 by

This is the sixth and final post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Graphic Showing Two Behaviors That Support LearningEssential learning outcomes in competency-based education include not only academic knowledge but also important skills and dispositions. Many schools, districts, and states have done outstanding work on developing frameworks for these dispositions and implementing them with students. For districts looking to develop or improve their work in this area, it’s helpful to see a variety of examples, such as recent ones on CompetencyWorks from New Hampshire and South Dakota.

Eastern Carver’s framework is called the Behaviors that Support Learning. They have developed a helpful handout that includes the six behaviors, descriptions of each (with some differences for elementary versus secondary levels), and two brief paragraphs explaining it all. One of the many strengths of Eastern Carver’s framework is that all of this information can fit on one side of one page in a non-tiny font, which is so helpful for communication with students and parents.

The six Behaviors that Support Learning are:

  • Strives for personal best
  • Shows respectful behavior
  • Interacts collaboratively with peers
  • Engages in learning
  • Exhibits responsibility
  • Demonstrates accountability

Descriptors are provided for each of the six behaviors. For example, “interacts collaboratively with peers” includes the following for elementary students:

  • Contributes ideas,
  • Asks for and respects others’ opinions, and
  • Flexible, willing to adjust to others’ ideas.

Additional expectations for secondary students include:

  • Challenges the group to do their best, and
  • Helps group to achieve shared learning goals.
Dr Seuss Quotation

From The Walls of Pioneer Ridge

Teachers at Pioneer Ridge Middle School said that they often reference the Behaviors that Support Learning with students, asking “What does it look like? Sound like? Feel like? We are constantly reinforcing, modeling, redirecting, modeling again.” During the daily morning meeting, specific student behaviors are held up as positive examples. During student-led parent conferences, students reflect on how they’re doing in relation to the behaviors. Students at Chaska Middle School East have taught and reinforced the behaviors by using them as themes for lessons during advisory.

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