A Reflection on the Field of Competency Education

Creating ways for students to “show what they know” empowers students across the learning spectrum to advance at their own personalized pace.

This idea helped drive our exploration of the shift from seat time to demonstrated mastery in The Shift from Cohort to Competency in partnership with Digital Learning Now, The Foundation for Excellence in Education and CompetencyWorks. Soon after the relaunch of Cohorts to Competency, Chris Sturgis published what many are calling the year’s best blog on competency education on competencyworks.org.


Chris Sturgis

Each summer, CompetencyWorks takes a bit of time to reflect on where we have come from, accomplishments, and emerging issues. Our advisory board is absolutely instrumental in this process, helping us to understand nuances and variations across states.

Below are the highlights of our discussion this year. It’s long, but I think sharing in detail is worth it, especially as each week people contact us seeking help in understanding the field. Please, please, please – we would love to hear your insights and understanding of where we have come from and what we need to think about in terms of advancing competency education. It’s the richness of multiple perspectives that allow us to be as strategic as possible.

I. How Are We Doing in Terms of Expansion?

When we wrote the first scan of the field in 2010, there were only pockets of innovation across the country, each operating in isolation. Five years later, eighteen states are actively pursuing competency education through a range of strategies including proficiency-based diplomas (ME, NH, CO, AZ), integrating competency education into the education code (VT, NH), innovation zones (KY, WI, CT), pilots (OR, IA, OH, ID), and task forces in partnership with districts (SC, WY, OK, HI, DE). Federal policymakers are now familiar with competency-based education in the K12 and higher education sector, with ESEA policy discussions considered pilots for new systems of assessments.

Districts are converting to competency education across the country, with or without state policy enabling the change. In addition to the northern New England states, which have strong state policy initiatives, districts are converting in AK, AR, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, MI, and SC.

New school models are developing that push beyond the traditional organization of school to high levels of personalization, including those at Summit Public Schools, Building 21, Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, Boston Day and Evening Academy, Making Community Connections Charter School, EPIC North, and Bronx Arena. Schools for the Future has recently announced record-breaking results in its first year of operation.

Some people think the rate of expansion is too slow. Personally, I think we need to really “get it right” – robust competency-based structures, high levels of personalization so our most historically underserved populations of students are thriving, upgraded instruction and assessment aligned to higher levels of knowledge, and effective use of online learning – before we worry about the speed of expansion. Let’s practice what we preach. We are in the midst of huge learning as we deconstruct the traditional system and put into place a more vibrant, personalized system, and it may take us a bit of time. It took us well over 200 years to create the traditional system, and its rituals are deeply rooted into our own personal lives. I don’t think it is a problem if it takes us a few more years to get it right.

The Results from our Early Adopters: The early adopters are now three to four years into implementation (with the exception of Chugach School District, which has been using a competency-based model for nearly two decades). Many have developed the systemic framework within a traditional agrarian, course-based model, which means that at first glance, it appears there is little innovation…until one looks deeper to see the benefits of greater personalization, student agency/voice/choice, consistency of proficiency scales across the school, and greater responsiveness to students who are struggling.

The primary concern is that we have little to report out as results yet. This appears to be the result of one or more causes, varying across schools, including:

  1. implications of roll-out strategies;
  2. limitations of state accountability exams to determine growth;
  3. limited improvements in instruction, possibly related to continuing to use relatively traditional schedule;
  4. inadequate attention to habits of learning to support student agency;
  5. failure to embrace a framework for depth of knowledge and/or inadequate calibration;
  6. inadequate attention to the needs of traditionally under-served students and/or difficulty in creating opportunity for more supports/time for learning;
  7. humility – many of our leaders are professional learners, slow to claim success as they themselves are not fully satisfied that their schools are fully competency-based yet; and
  8. lack of funding for evaluation, co-designed with practitioners, including formative evaluation that would help identify the underlying issues.

Here is the list we’ve been able to pull together of results…so far.

Early Majority: In states that have set the expectation that all districts will be competency-based, we are now seeing the early majority begin the conversion process. The primary concern here is that they perceive competency education as a technical reform (scroll down mid-way in the post How Competent Are We at Competency Education for further discussion) that begins with the second stage of implementation, designing the infrastructure of learning, before investing in the ramping up stage that replaces the values and beliefs of the traditional system with those of a culture of learning and empowerment. Thus, the implementation challenges are likely to be greater and may also induce opposition from students and parents. However, given that the last four years have developed a number of teachers and principals who are familiar with competency education, we are now seeing the knowledge being transferred as people move up career ladders. This may mitigate the problems that will develop with a technical implementation of CBE.

Moving From B to C (i.e., Blended to Competency-Based): There is interest among a handful of districts that have invested heavily in establishing a strong digital infrastructure and increased personalization through blended learning to now integrate a competency-based infrastructure. This raises new opportunities and is likely to have a somewhat different implementation process. It will also likely push the vendors to consider greater transparency and design to ensure that the learning taking place online naturally leads to students demonstrating higher levels of learning and performance assessments.

II. How Are We Doing in Developing, Disseminating, and Transferring Knowledge?

Building a FieldWhen we began in 2001, there was one book and one paper describing competency education. There are now at least thirty-three reports and the CompetencyWorks website and wiki to support policymakers and educators. Certainly there are still gaps (student agency and habits of learning, advancing beyond grade level, systems of assessments, etc.) and emerging issues raised by the field (granularity, inter-school and inter-district calibration, deeper looks at grading, information management systems, and structure of the instruction and assessment model).

It is likely that other types of media or approaches would be helpful, including video, interactive reports that alBuilding a Field2low for deeper dives, and MOOCs. There is also a growing demand for greater attention to the broader systemic issues, engaging leaders in identifying and describing the type of infrastructure that needs to be in place in states.

The biggest challenge we have is that we continue to have limited technical assistance. As demand grows, districts are seeking networks and providers that can help them in advancing toward competency education. However, given that we haven’t seen significant achievement results yet, it is possible that technical assistance providers themselves may not know exactly what is needed to ensure that traditionally underserved students fully benefit from competency education. This once again highlights the importance of investing in evaluation that is co-designed with practitioners. In addition, developing a practitioner-informed set of promising practices or indicators for high quality implementation could be very helpful.

A last observation – right now the only place for innovators to meet each other, network, and share knowledge is at through the competency education strand at the iNACOL Symposium and through regional meetings of the Great Schools Partnership and New England Secondary School Consortium. There have been some efforts to create networks, but they are often invite-only which is frustrating for all the other districts that want access to knowledge. Thus, it may be time to think more strategically about whether more opportunity for networking and formal transfer of knowledge is needed.

III. How Are We Doing as a Field?

The number of organizations that have invested in developing their knowledge about competency education, created staff capacity, and established initiatives has continued to grow. Our estimate is that there are thirty-plus organizations playing catalytic roles in the field with an understanding of competency education as a structural change, not just as flexible pacing. Although confusion continues about the difference between flexible pacing in online learning and competency education, the leading organizations all understand the competency education is a structural change that enables greater responsiveness by schools to student needs, not just pacing.

There is now adequate capacity to support states in policy development and shaping initiatives. Certainly, more support is always welcome, but in terms of where foundation resources are directed, the greater need is to address the insufficient technical assistance support.

To date, the organizations in the field of competency education have been willing to share freely, support each other’s work, and seek out feedback from others. However, in the past six months we have been starting to hear “negatudes” about competency education itself (such as “the quality of implementation is mediocre”) and harsh critiques about other organizations in the field. It’s likely some of this is from the field becoming more crowded…and more competitive for foundation funding. However, we also believe that just as competency education requires a different style of leadership at the state and district levels, field organizations need to be able to operate with a stronger culture of learning as compared to judging. In addition, this emphasis on creating cultures of learning and greater professionalism of teachers is also changing how we think of expertise. Those that have deep expertise in narrow areas are going to be challenged to think about issues in much broader contexts than ever before. In other words, silo’d knowledge has only limited value as we embed educational knowledge in districts and schools. As a short-run strategy, we think it may be helpful to the field to have greater coordination so we can continue to seek out where there are gaps rather than have organizations competing for the same “turf.”

The greatest weakness currently in the field is the lack of diversity and attention to traditionally underserved students. At a time in which America is revisiting race, racism, and race relations, the field of competency education and the other “next gen” fields are demonstrating that in general we do not know how to develop or sustain diverse organizations – and thus are at risk of reproducing inequity ourselves.

IV. What Are the Current Issues Going Forward?

Although the list of current issues that require more clarity or are emerging is long, we have highlighted a few that we believe are crucial to moving forward:

  • Diversity: We are in the process of identifying, meeting, and interviewing people of color who are in positions of leadership and/or offer substantial expertise. We are highlighting them on CompetencyWorks, and as we become familiar with their expertise, are brokering relationships so meetings and panels begin to have more diversity. We also hope that we can begin to link networks and broaden access to knowledge and perspectives. But this is just a small step toward tackling a big problem.
  • Spirit of CBE: As early majority districts begin to convert, they are approaching competency education as a technical reform. Based on site visits, we do not think this will produce schools that will ensure students reach proficiency. We believe there is a process needed to shake off the old belief system and replace it with a new set of values and beliefs. The paper Implementing Competency Education in K12 Systems is our first intervention on this issue, as we spent significant portion of the paper describing the ramping up process.
  • Student Agency and Habits of Learning: There is inadequate understanding and attention to what it takes to build student agency and its relationship to habits of learning. Furthermore, there is confusion about how all the so-called non-cognitive skills and traits relate to each other. We are at the beginning of this investigation and are seeking to draw upon other efforts in the field to help clarify what it takes to enable student agency.
  • Performance-Based Funding is Not Part of Competency Education: Simultaneous to the expansion of competency education is interest among policymakers to performance-based funding, especially within the higher education sector. We need to make sure that performance-based funding does not invade the K12 conversation on competency education, as it is certainly going to be a wedge issue. Furthermore, until we have achieved results we do not know what it will cost to support low-income children, those with disabilities, and those learning English to college and career readiness with the full range of higher order skills. First things first – we need time to get this right.
  • Preparing for Opposition: Thus far, confusion has been a bigger issue than opposition. However, there are signs that opposition, very similar in nature to the opposition to outcome-based education, is growing. We anticipate that this may increase during the presidential campaign season. Furthermore, poor quality implementation will likely trigger opposition, as well. We need to be able to learn from each other how to respond to opposition at the local level.
  • Creating a Culture of Learning in the Field: As has been described above, we are worried that the way that field organizations are talking about districts and schools may actually harm us. We believe we need to nurture a new culture of learning that allows field organizations to understand and advance high quality implementation as a process rather than as a judgment.

What are the issues you think are imperative for us to address/resolve?

V. And What Does this Mean for CompetencyWorks?

Five years ago, CompetencyWorks was focused on initial field-building and creating opportunities for the voice of the innovators to shape the field.

  • Creating a working definition that could bind the field together even as innovations developed.
  • Supporting networks through identifying innovators, introducing them to each other at the Summit, brokering relationships, and establishing a competency education strand at the iNACOL Symposium.
  • Supporting new organizations as they entered the field of competency education to understand what it is, direct them to sites to visit, and introduce them to leaders across the state.
  • Identifying and developing contributing authors.
  • Knowledge development and dissemination through the website, wiki, papers, and webinars.

As the field developed, our role has expanded to include:

  • Describing the work of districts in more depth, identifying new models, and highlighting new districts that are implementing competency education.
  • Identifying and responding to questions and emerging issues from the field. This is often done in partnership with leaders so we produce a blog they can use to address an issue they are having in their community.
  • Light coordination with semi-annual phone calls to allow organizations to know what to anticipate, identify opportunities for collaboration, and reduce duplication.
  • Briefings and presentations to policymakers, funders, district leaders, and organizations trying to learn about competency education.
  • Providing ongoing support and feedback to other organizations, including reviewing of papers, participating in webinars as requested (panels and in chat rooms), and consultations on materials.
  • Policy development and advocacy, including supporting federal policymakers involved in ESEA, testifying at state legislatures, and providing support in other ways at the state level.
  • Intervening in issues that put the field at risk, including misunderstanding competency education as solely about pacing; level setting knowledge of personalization, competency-based structures, and blended learning; and protecting competency education from insertion of non-related policy items (such as performance-based funding).

However, instability in funding (that hopefully will soon be resolved) has required us to stay focused on our core mission – advancing high quality competency education by lifting up knowledge from leaders and practitioners in states, districts, and schools.

See also:


Chris Sturgis is Co-Founder of CompetencyWorks. Follow Chris on Twitter with


The Role of Success Coaches and Blended Learning in Boosting Learning Independence

Charles Carver

The personalized learning movement is profoundly changing the landscape of education. In all corners of the country and countless places in between, we are seeing blended learning schools open up in larger numbers each year. The value of high quality academic content delivered in a very 21st century and digital way combined with guided support and help from face to face teachers and academic coaches is resonating in schools and also at the dining room table.

At Nexus Academy of Lansing, we employ a very special group of staff members known as Success Coaches. Our Success Coaches are certified teachers who work with their students every single day, but are not delivering any one content specialty. They are guiding discussion, overseeing academic research, providing daily college and career readiness activities, and acting as each student’s go to mentor and advocate.

The Success Coaches and their students spend significant amounts of time on soft skills, such as resume building, time management, decision making activities, and countless other skills they will need sharpened as they prepare to enter college and the workforce. The student and Success Coach relationship is the bedrock of a Nexus Academy of Lansing education. They are creating GenDIY learners and adults through their daily interactions and support. Students who have graduated from our school come back and tell us that due to the nature of our school and model, they are faring very well in the college setting at being able to manage their time, balancing a heavy academic load, and also feeling very comfortable advocating for themselves with their professors. With the ongoing shift to various digital systems at the collegiate level, our former students also feel overwhelmingly prepared to handle those mediums.

The blended learning environment allows for students to be supported in a variety of ways. Not only is each student in daily and constant communication with their Success Coach, but they also receive support from their core content teachers throughout the week as well. Due to a wonderful learning management system, our students’ parents and guardians are also able to be a part of the daily academic conversation due to the account access they are given upon enrollment of their child that allows them to be in ongoing digital communication with all of their student’s teachers, Principal, and the student. In our model, the student, parent/guardian, Success Coach, teachers, Counselor, and Principal are all in concert with how the student is doing both academically and socially/emotionally at all times. Our students are also able to take advantage of several interventions and evening online support as they require as well.

A must have in the highly virtual learning space is the capability for the student to work on their whole self as well. By providing both a full time School Counselor and Personal Trainer we allow our students to take a step back from the computer and exercise both their (emotional) mind and physical self as well. Educating and supporting the whole student is at the core of our mission and we know all pieces must work in unison for a student to achieve at their highest abilities.

School culture is a vital piece to the successful blended learning school. Students are coming to these schools to become more independent, self focused, and engaged in their learning. Students at Nexus Academy of Lansing own their high school education, and they love that. The learning environment in a blended school must be positive, upbeat, and one free from judgement. Students must be encouraged to dig deep, do the tough research, and then share their product with their teacher or Success Coach for guidance as they progress through the given project. We allow for our students to come early or stay late so that their learning is ongoing and not dictated by a bell going off at some arbitrary time. Our students have 24/7 access to their academic content and our curriculum, that is intentional. GenDIY learners in this 21st century atmosphere have brilliant ideas that strike at 3am or while on the bus, and the beauty of a blended learning education is that they don’t have to wait until the next day or week for that idea to be fleshed out and shared.

The first step to successfully implementing any parts of this model is to bring it all back to relationships. It is not lip service, relationships matter, and they must be real. As students navigate through these highly challenging and fast paced modes of learning, it is of the utmost importance that they know they have adults around them who are passionate about them, their lives, and their accomplishments. Creating a strong on-boarding/orientation process for all new students and families is a great first step in the relationship building and model teaching processes. This also must continue on throughout the year, not just in early September. In the blended learning setting, getting to know one’s students is just so important, as the Success Coach may be the person they spend the most time around during their high school years. The time spent with the students must not only meet their current, in the moment academic needs, but also must be planned and intentional so that Success Coach and student are working together, in unison, as they march along the path to graduation day.

The 21st century high school student is a technology savvy, independent thinker. We must not underestimate the importance of schools needing to embrace the generation of their students and use their modern day strengths to provide a highly rigorous and deeply relevant education.

For more check out:

About “GenDIY”
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY

Charles Carver is the Principal at Nexus Academy of Lansing.
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Gaming That Leverages Engagement, Mindset and Design

I’ve always liked, and previously written about math games like Wuzzit Trouble and MIND Research Institute’s ST Math. They are two of the few math games available that do NOT qualify as “chocolate covered broccoli” (a common name for educational video games that are just thinly disguised worksheets rather than engaging games.)

What I love most about gaming and these apps as a math mom and gamer mom is that the games have real objectives that are directly aligned with the game play mechanics and that learning math is a side effect, not direct goal, of playing the game.

ST Math is a non-symbolic and non-verbal game that helps students develop a grounded intuition about math such as fractions and algebra. They demonstrate results in math growth 2-3 times that in comparable schools without ST Math.

Wuzzit Trouble came out in 2013 and the whole family, from my 10-year-old daughter to my mom enjoyed playing. My son became engrossed with getting a perfect score, but even though the game is deceptively easy at the beginning, it eventually becomes delightfully wickedly hard. I always felt my kids’ mathematical skills improved with game play, but now there is also a research study from Stanford that supports that conclusion.

In fact, the results were so startling (even to the Wuzzit Trouble team) that much of the research white paper is dedicated to how the work was rigorously conducted and validated, though admittedly of small sample size. In the words of the teacher involved with the study,

“Along the lines of achievement. My 5th period class, which is involved in the study, is an inclusion class with students with learning disabilities. On the last quiz I gave, the percentage of students receiving an A or B grade in this class was [only] one percentage less than those receiving an A or B grade in my Honors class which is filled with students in the gifted and talented program and my school’s science magnet program. When I shared the results with my 5th period they attributed their success to how hard they had been working to learn the math. Before the study, these same students had the lowest achievement on a quiz and attribute their low scores to their ability, using phrases like, “We’re the dumb class”

How can gaming for a few hours over the course of two months have such a dramatic impact? The researchers suggest 3 mechanisms that research has shown can have a significant effect.

  1. Student engagement. Engagement is known to be a significant factor in learning. A well-designed video game creates a deep level of engagement rarely generated in a typical mathematics classroom.
  2. Mindset. Players in a video game quickly learn to adopt an iterative approach involving exploratory trial-and-error, reflection on failure, and subsequent adaptation. This results in a positive, “can do” attitude that Stanford researcher Carol Dweck demonstrated has an enormous effect on performance.
  3. Game design. A well designed video game will lead to rapid, deep acquisition of whatever skills are intrinsically required to succeed in the game. A key word in that sentence is intrinsic. As Gee, Devlin, and others have observed, in order for a good video game to yield significant learning of X, the game has to be built tightly around X — essentially, the game mechanic has to be a dynamic representation of X. DragonBox does that with symbolic algebra (solving single variable, linear equations); Wuzzit Trouble does it with integer arithmetic, general problem solving skills, and algorithmic thinking. Few other video games adopt this approach.

I have to wonder if there isn’t a fourth.

The games are rigorous and, like any real game, easy to start but challenging at the higher levels. The kind of mathematical thinking and rigorous logic required is demanding and yet qualifies as “hard fun.” It’s hard and it’s fun – the best kind of learning experience.

I question if it is even possible to participate in such engaging yet rigorous work without improving overall reasoning skills. Obviously, further research would be required to address that question academically, but as a parent I am already convinced.

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Online Guided Learning Activities and Personalization Could be the key to Supporting Opportunity Youth

College dropout rates in the US are alarmingly high and seem to be going up every year. According to a recent report published by the National Student Clearinghouse, the percentage of full-time students who complete a bachelor’s degree in four years is only 37.9%, and the completion rate after six years is only 58.3%. About a third of them eventually leave college before graduating. A similar report on The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth estimates that in the 16-24 age group, at least 6.7 million young people are currently out-of-school and unemployed.

In most cases, they have genuine challenges that prompt them to leave campus before graduation. As a recent blog on AdvancePath Academics describes, many opportunity youth may have caregiving responsibilities in their families; some may even have children. In this scenario, the need to put food on the table and ensure they have a roof over their heads takes precedence over launching their startup or exploring their HigherEd options.

But this comes at a high cost both to young people and the economy as a whole. According to this report from the White House Council for Community Solutions, opportunity youth are isolated from the paths that can lead to economic independence. Both taxpayers and society lose out when the potential of young people are not realized. Opportunity youth are less likely to be employed and more likely to rely on government supports. In addition, they report worse health status and are more likely to be involved in criminal activity. This has costly implications for taxpayers and for society both now and in the future. When lost revenue and direct costs for social supports are factored in, taxpayers will shoulder roughly $1.6 trillion over the lifetimes of these young people.

Given the enormity and complexity of this problem, there is no one single solution to this. Various stakeholders – universities, governments, community organizations, corporation, leaders from every sector – all need to work in tandem to address various aspects.

Educational institutions can definitely play a key role. For example, the Getting Smart story referenced earlier talks about how AdvancePath works with district partners to implement a flexible, blended learning model with a supportive, positive environment that engages students in individual learning plans. Their academies serve middle and high school students with a personalized model of instruction that gives students the tools and opportunities to take care of life’s responsibilities and succeed in school.

A similar, flexible approach is crucial at the University level as well. Personalized learning can provide the right opportunity set to address this issue. To rein in dropout rates, the obvious approach is to a) Identify students who deserve supports b) Get these students to recognize supports they need and c) Ensure that the programs are relevant to their needs.

Bridging the gaps

One of the best ways to work with students is to formulate an intervention strategy that engages students in self-reflection and an analysis of their previous behaviors, with support from counselors, educators and EdLeaders. Students need to be engaged in a captivated approach, in a style that makes it accessible and relevant for them to participate and comprehend.

One way to achieve this is through the use of online Guided Learning Activities (GLAs). Online/Guided learning is a technique, used to create an independent learner who is able to find the information by him/herself and manage his or her own learning.

Online activities allow students to access the courses from anywhere and at any time, as per their convenience in a sequenced playlist that is designed specifically for their personalized learning plan. With the wide gamut of technologies and tools available today, online courses can be designed to offer unparalleled opportunities for interactivity and engagement that may be difficult even in a traditional classroom set up.

Best practices to design GLAs

While GLAs perhaps offer the best opportunity to engage with students, the success of any course will ultimately depend on the quality and relevance to the student. With that in mind, here are a few practical tips for educators to consider while designing online GLAs, especially for students who deserve additional support:

Understand the problem you are trying to solve. Invest time to understand specific issues that a student faces. Have a thorough understanding of the gaps that your course is trying to address. Give thought to how you would like to present the information for the courses to be effective. Experiment with different approaches before settling in on one.

Use tools wherever possible. Rapid course creation tools such as PowerPoint, Captivate or Articulate can offer pre-built templates, default interfaces and ready-made media elements that can save time and money and also give a standard quality finished product. The tools also make it easier to update existing courses, publish and also translate them into different languages, if required.

Place special emphasis on personalization. Students often face severe time and attention constraints, which make it much harder for them to focus on learning. Make learning content engaging and unique to each student. This meets the student where they are at, in a time, place and modality that works best. Using tools such as Raptivity enables you to incorporate motivational interactions including brainteasers. Formative assessment platforms like Buzz from Agilix, and adaptive learning tools like i-Ready from Curriculum Associates are next-gen tools that can support in personalizing learning experiences for students.  

Make sure the tool you use is not just an online slideshow presentation, but a truly engaging, interactive and, above all, a useful exercise for students.

There is huge opportunity for research to support the use of GLAs and personalized platforms for low-income students. As colleges and K-12 schools look for effective ways to curb students leaving school before completion, customized online courses for students who are struggling to balance life and education may just be the thing that helps keep them engaged.

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M. Penaranda,
Academic Multimedia Content Developer, California State University, Northridge.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


Vikas Joshi, Chairman and Managing Director, Harbinger Group. Follow Vikas on Twitter, 

Can Common Assignment Improve Student Outcomes?

Back-to-school time finds many teachers searching for resources to help them develop students’ literacy skills for better college and career readiness. Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, has created an instructional design platform that provides free online tools and resources for creating literacy-rich assignments and courses across content areas. LDC CoreTools is a guided online experience that supports teachers in planning and creating curricula, allowing them to effectively collaborate with colleagues across their school or across the nation.

LDC instructional units (“modules”) were used in the Common Assignment Study, a three year effort created to evaluate if collaboration using common content, common assessments and Common Core State Standards could be possible across states, effectively improving student outcomes and teaching quality. The results, and the feedback on using LDC modules, are something we thought educators would be interested in learning more about.

College and career readiness standards, paired with continually improving technology, provides new opportunities for teacher collaboration. Reaching across district boundaries and state lines, teachers are sharing useful resources and strategies, co-designing lessons and writing curricula.

For example, The Fund for Transforming Education and The Colorado Education Initiative recently concluded the Common Assignment Study, where two districts from each state co-developed and piloted common assignments in selected middle and high schools. As the study progressed, additional teachers and schools were tested, helping refine the common assignments and related protocols to ensure their quality, utility and value for use within districts.

Participating teachers from each state developed and taught two instructional units per year that exemplified the content knowledge and skills embedded in the Kentucky Core Academic Standards and the Colorado Academic Standards. The units contained common performance tasks for students, including modules from LDC. While researchers are still working on final feedback results, they have shared preliminary results:

  • Feedback indicates teachers felt more confident in their teaching as they had more tools at their disposal and they could see student achievement scores and engagement improved.
  • Initial feedback from teacher/student/principal perception surveys was positive, with participants feeling more could be done because there were more participants providing feedback.
  • It was noted that often collaboration can be a struggle, especially when dealing with two districts in different parts of country with different district demands. However, the majority of teachers felt it was worth the effort.
  • Students were very interested in what their counterparts in the other district were doing, and it became a friendly rivalry displaying school and state pride.

Evaluating the LDC Modules

Renee Boss is Initiative Director for The Fund for Transforming Education. Her Kentucky-based organization seeks innovative education solutions leading to greater success for all students. Recently, we had the opportunity to follow up with Renee about her work and exactly how LDC supported it.

Q: How does using LDC improve your work?

A: One of the one ways LDC improves my work is through its collaboration options. We live in an increasingly collaborative world and through LDC you can collaborate with teachers anytime, anywhere. This also provides an excellent chance for teachers to model collaboration behaviors for students, who will need these skills to become successful in life.

Another useful feature of LDC is the collection of so many resources and so many minds together. By that I mean that you don’t have to recreate the wheel to meet the needs of students. You can find what you need and adapt existing tools.

LDC also improves my work through two features: the Instructional Ladder and its hardwiring to academic standards. Those two staples of what LDC is about allow those in my organization to work better together, teachers to work better together, and helps all users think about the skills needed to complete the final LDC task at the end of the model.

Q: How do you use LDC CoreTools?

A: Because of the virtual collaboration capabilities with LDC CoreTools, we are able to connect with other teachers from anywhere in the world and share teaching strategies with one another. This is especially helpful when thinking about discipline specific instructional strategies for the content we teach. Using the Curriculum Library in LDC CoreTools, teachers are able to browse to find LDC mini-tasks and modules that they can use, adapt, and share with other teachers.

Q: Why would you recommend LDC CoreTools?

A: LDC CoreTools is important for its collaboration properties. It’s so beneficial to be able to collaborate in LDC CoreTools easily with teachers. It’s user-friendly; you can work with teachers across the country. Not only can you co-create tasks, but you can share with other teachers who are teaching the same thing or you can provide support.

Q: Any additional thoughts?

A: Another advantage of using LDC is that it provides common rubrics, and in Kentucky’s Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System teachers are asked to use common rubrics to measure student growth at various points in the year.

In conclusion, Boss has heard positive things from instructional coaches about the ability to share modules on LDC CoreTools to solicit feedback and improve instruction. LDC is also useful to teachers as they demonstrate their effectiveness in the state’s professional growth and effectiveness system. By conducting pre-assessments at the start of a module, teachers can then look for improvement in student work in the final LDC written task. This natural connection makes LDC an integral part of the work instead of requiring extra steps.

For more on EdTech solutions, check out:

Robots & Implications For Life On Planet Earth

“Historically what we thought was that robots would do things that were the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” explains Ryan Calo, UW professor with an expertise in robotics. “Over time, the range of things that robots can do has extended.”

At a career center in Ohio, we saw high school students teaching adults how to program manufacturing robots–a sign of new high skill career pathways that combines working and learning with evolving technology.

A group of 5th graders from Linwood Elementary in Oklahoma Skyped me to discuss robots. In addition to participating in the First Lego League, Rebecka Graffigna’s team was investigating automated grading–because “teachers spend too much time grading”–and they came across the Hewlett sponsored Automated Student Assessment Prize. I mentioned the explosion of performance feedback that they are receiving from many new sources (learning games and content embedded, adaptive, and performance-based assessment). They shared my optimism about smart formative assessment and were already using Google APIs to develop an egrader prototype on Wix.com.

My new friends in Oklahoma were jazzed about a tech-enabled future but many people fear a jobless future — and their anxiety is not unwarranted: Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm, predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.

Author Ray Kurzweil anticipates that by 2029 robots will have reached human levels of intelligence. It’s hard to tell when we’ll reach the ‘singularity’ but it is clear that the class of ’25 (now primary students) will graduate into a very different job market.

Second Machine Age. Last year PBS NewsHour’s talked to authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of “The Second Machine Age” about what was different with this new wave of technological advancement: “In recent years, we are seeing a wave of technologies that can augment, automate all sorts of cognitive tasks,” he added, “and we think, ultimately, those will have as big, or an even bigger effect on humanity as the first industrial revolution.”

This second machine age will require and perhaps engender more creativity. But there’s clearly a downside. In December Stephen Hawking warned that unchecked artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Elon Musk donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity.

Implications. It’s hard to know how this will all play out but three near term educational implications seem clear.

1. Let kids show what they know. We saw a lot more maker an robotics resources at ISTE in July.  Startups are selling cool kits to schools and parents–a sign of a big expansion of anywhere anytime learning opportunities. That suggests that it’s time figure out how to advance competency-based education because we’re clearly headed for a ‘show what you know’ world.

2. More interest-based learning. Finding ways to combine interest-based and standards-based learning is the most important learner experience (LX) design opportunity of our time. It requires teachers and parents to remain aware of expanding opportunities and encourage production, presentation, and reflection.

3. More deeper learning. The wonderful opportunities and challenges we can only imagine that our children will face got me thinking. If homo sapiens are to survive on this spinning orb, the young people in our schools will need to figuring out how to:

  • Create broad access to learning opportunities
  • Extend wellness and access to quality healthcare
  • Create sustainable democratic communities
  • Embrace personalization and privacy
  • Broaden participation in free and transparent markets.

On a visit to the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh I saw 4th graders discussing urban mobility suggesting that meaningful prompts and projects can and should start early. The new opportunity requires us to strive for Deeper Learning for Every Student Every Day.

Parents can help by engaging children in discussions of the grand challenges. We devoted a chapter in Smart Parents to intentional parenting. The #SmartParents toolkit includes Carri Schneider’s 10 ways to inspire a love of learning.

It’s clear that our kids will learn, work, and play with increasingly sophisticated tools. It’s also clear that the contributions that will be valued will be rooted in creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. As teachers and parents, it’s time for us to be very intentional about the learning experiences we create and support.

8 Ways To Encourage Soft Skills (Core Dispositions) in our Children

In this post on soft skills I asked the question: What do we want our kids to be like? When it comes down to it, we parents want more than exemplary test scores and gold stars on papers, we want what will last. We want the kinds of character traits our kids will rely on to pull them through when we aren’t around, like optimism or grit. We want something at the core of who they are that will help them make the right decision when nobody’s looking: integrity. We want them to try one more time when they are ready to give up: perseverance. We want that irreplaceable feeling inside that grins from ear to ear when they accomplish something awesome without taking shortcuts or using cheat codes that only comes from intrinsic motivation and pride in their own efforts. We want them to see through the eyes of others and help those in need, feeling compassion and empathy.


It’s so fluffy!

Parents and teachers alike agree this kind of personal growth and development matters, but these qualities still seem intangible, subjective, and hard to see and measure. I mean, what does (insert soft skill) look like? The very term ‘soft skills’ sounds pretty fluffy and doesn’t command the sense of importance it deserves.  So how might we, as parents, highlight and nurture these core dispositions in our children?

Here are 8 ways to Encourage Soft Skills (Core Dispositions) in Our Children:


1. Give Clear & Authentic Feedback

In lieu of being a “praise junkie” spouting a steady stream of “good job” and “you’re so smart”, provide clear, authentic feedback to your children. Ask yourself what, specifically, was it about her performance or behavior that was so notable? Highlight the effort by saying, “you worked hard”.

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success says it best, “Becoming is better than being”.


2. Notice & Name Qualities You Want To Encourage

Core dispositions, like empathy, can be hard to quantify and challenging for our children to wrap their minds around when they are treated like vocabulary words to memorize and magically embody.

When parents and children intentionally and consistently notice and name what these qualities look like, sound like, act like in daily life we help both our children and ourselves nurture and model what we hope to see.

Invite your children into the conversation about what core dispositions you both hope to develop. Then we must have eyes for empathy, perseverance, positive attitudes and that which we are striving for. Characters in the story we are reading, or in the movie we are watching, small moments of joy, or intense moments of hardship, can each play a role in shaping who our children become.

Try this sentence stem: The way you _____ shows you _____.

“The way you went after the ball even after you tripped shows you persevere.”

Or this one: Empathy looks like….

“Empathy looks like when Peeta burned the bread so he could throw it to Katniss even though he knew he would get in trouble.”


3. Ask What They Think vs. Quizzing About What They “Know”

What message do we, as parents, send when we only applaud what our kids already know? How do they get to that knowing anyway if they have no safe place to try and think and guess and experiment?

Let’s show our kids it is their thinking we value. Simple patterns of conversation or Thinking Routines such as, “What makes you say that?” provide opportunities for us to go beyond facts and mere recall with our children and get to what is really going on in their minds. 

I want my kiddo to be a thinker not just an honors student (someone remind me I said this when he gets to high school).


4. Serve Others

“The cost of leadership is self-interest,” says author Simon Sinek in his book, Leaders Eat Last. Leadership is giving of your time and energy and expecting nothing in return.

Sinek goes on to explain the biological reasons why helping others makes humans “happy” (spoiler alert: oxytocin). And guess what? The more you do the more you want to do.

How do we nurture unselfish hearts in our children and build leaders? Serve others, especially when it isn’t convenient. It is going to cost us something. Remember that is the point.


5. Provide Time & Space to Explore

We are over scheduled and so are our children.

Even supposed playtime is now a scheduled appointment, the playdate, filled with highly-structured activities and materials. Don’t believe me? Google “Pinterest Playdate Crafts.”

How did you spend your childhood summer days? Remember cloud watching, building forts, rollerblading, fording rivers, and letting your imagination shine a light on your next move? Turns out our modern kiddos thrive with time and space to explore too, preferably without an iCal reminder or predetermined topics for play.

Carrie Contey, cofounder of Slow Family Living, says it this way: children need to have “moments of doing and moments of being”  in order to have a balanced life and not wear out.


#savoringtheseason is my little reminder to be present, positive, and grateful with my own kiddo.


6. Embrace Messiness & Non-Conformity

We want to build thinkers and creators and doers. We want kids to think for themselves, experiment, and discover how this big ole world works. Then we buy the prepackaged holiday craft that shows our children have the fine motor skills to put the turkey together, but little else.

In her Plea for Boyhood, Celeste Brinson, wonders “if rough and unrestricted [and messy] play is simply inconvenient for adults.” Under the guise of safety we say that activity is a no go by default even though we know learning and growing is messy.

How might we provide opportunities for our children to dive in with both hands and make a mess?


7. Pause… You Don’t Always Have to Save the Day

How can our kids become “self-starters” if we are always starting for them? If we always swoop in and shield them from adversity what happens on the day we aren’t around? Learned helplessness is just that: a learned behavior.

A mother of three teenage boys recently shared that her eldest missed his college application deadlines. My first inclination was, “oh no,” followed by a judgy mom moment, “how could you let that happen?” She went on to share about how he spent a semester teaching children in South America to play lacrosse and was forever changed by experience. He came back more empathetic, disciplined, and grateful.

He went on to start college, one semester late, with experiences and qualities that will likely impact the rest of his life.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown’s book writes (speaking to her children), “I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”


As parents, let’s pause when we see our children in the midst of adversity. Is it time to swoop in and offer our help? Or will walking through this experience build strength and capacity for our children to not just bear the load but thrive under it?


8. Admit You Don’t Know it All and Never Will

At some point that parental superhero thing is going to come crashing down. I remember vividly the day my parents’ imperfections came front-and-center as my father ended their 25-year marriage.

Instead of pretending we know it all and we are perfect (which is exhausting anyway) why don’t we admit it when we don’t know something or aren’t sure how to navigate a situation with our kids.

“I am concerned about the time you are spending ______ because _____. Can we come up with a solution, together, for how we might find a balance?”

“I am not sure. How could we find out?”

Oh. And “I’m sorry. I made a mistake” goes a long way too.

The Hard Road to Soft Skills

Two roads diverged in the woods and I took the one less traveled. And it hurt man!
-Robert Frost & Kid President

If it was easy everyone would do it.

“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” Carol S. Dweck

So may we adopt Tracy Grant’s New Year’s Resolution this school year and try, “just a little less hovering, a little less worrying, a little less intervening,” We may just end up with the fruits of our intentionality; children who embody the core dispositions we planned and fought for.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:



Students Deserve a Culture of Rigor AND Intrinsic Motivation

In my previous article, I pointed out that what appears to be a forced choice between better test scores and 21st century skills and dispositions is actually a false dichotomy. I classified students according to high or low achievement and high or low ownership of their learning to demonstrate three paths to achieving both.

A quick recap of that classification follows:

Resigners are students who have low academic achievement and little or no ownership of their learning. They have resigned from school either mentally or physically.

Hobbyists are students who have complete ownership of their learning, but apply it to non-academic areas. They may be gamers or makers or coders, but outside their passion they have little academic achievement.

Compliers are the “good” students who get good grades and follow the rules. They may be low in engagement and self-direction, but they comply with the expectations placed on them by teachers and parents to excel academically.

Scholars are students who apply the passion and self-direction of the hobbyist to academic learning, developing both content knowledge and career skills.

balance MQ copy-2

There are three paths to shifting students from Resigners to Scholars.

  1. Add rigor to move first to the Complier quadrant, then activate intrinsic motivation to move to the right to the Scholar quadrant.
  2. Balance increased rigor with activated intrinsic motivation to move diagonally straight to the Scholar quadrant.
  3. Activate intrinsic motivation to move from the Resigner quadrant to the Hobbyist quadrant, and then add rigor to move to the scholar quadrant.

I intend to argue for the middle (2nd) path.

It takes time to increase test scores and it takes time to increase ownership. Often years. Students deserve to have both as quickly as it is feasible, which means pursuing both in parallel and with balance – the middle path.

In a TEDx talk last year, I made the argument that self-organizing teams are more effective at achieving the goals of an organization, than those that are controlled hierarchically. The difference is one of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I also made the argument that this applies to both parenting and education.

When looking at student hobbies, we see young people deeply engaged in activities they are passionate about and spending hours and hours of their free time practicing their craft. With the advent of the Internet, these students also participate in communities of interest with those who share their passion. They are driven in their desire to learn new things and to share their work to write, read, analyze, and celebrate online with their communities. In gaming, in particular, the random number generation aspect of the games leads to very high level scientific argumentation and mathematical discussion.

The middle path requires three elements to be in place:

  • Process improvement systems that use data to continually inform and improve instruction;
  • Pedagogies that foster intrinsic motivation;
  • A caring environment where every child is known.

For an example of excellent process improvement, look to Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s book Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools. This book pragmatically spells out a process centered around the Principal as an instructional leader and coach for teachers. It recommends the principal to have 30-minute meetings with each teacher regularly to look at data, analyze what students aren’t understanding, and develop an action plan. The important part here is to look at the data in several different ways to see things such as:

  • Are there some questions every student misses?
  • Is there a clear difference between the questions the high performers and low performers can answer?
  • Are there specific students that seem to be missing prerequisite knowledge or skills?
  • And so on…

The book is supplemented by videos like this one that gives concrete examples of the recommendations.

To understand intrinsic motivation, look to Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. For a quick overview, check out his TED talk here. Pink identifies a number of highly counterintuitive research results about extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments):

  • Rewards don’t make us happy. The average time that even a lottery winner experiences a higher level of happiness is approximately 3 months.
  • Rewards/Punishments are effective when applied to rote work such as memorizing the multiplication table, but when it comes to work that requires higher order thinking, creativity, or problem solving, extrinsic motivators actually decrease performance.
  • When people are rewarded for things they love to do (such as rewarding a student who loves to read for every book he/she finishes) they actually stop loving it and focus on the reward instead – making the activity feel like a chore.

Dan Pink also identifies the three elements that must be in place in order for intrinsic motivation to be activated:

  • Increased Mastery
  • Increased Autonomy
  • Meaning or Purpose

For an example of a caring environment where every child is known, look no further than San Diego’s High Tech High whose premise, before instruction of any kind, is that every child in the building will be truly known by at least one adult. HtH has a diverse population yet 98% of their graduates go on to college.

It is important to remember that schools as a place of learning are also a place of work. In order for students to embrace both rigor and intrinsic motivation, it must be modeled in the workplace. Consider an educator’s work environment where:

  • Teachers participate in a rigorous improvement process that continually challenges and enhances their mastery of their craft.
  • Teachers have the autonomy to make decisions about how to teach and collectively about what constitutes excellence.
  • Teachers have a shared purpose of making their building one where every child is known, cared for, achieving, and intrinsically motivated.

This is an environment where teachers have ownership and mastery.

The shrill divide in the education conversation that pits high test scores against self-direction has created an either-or atmosphere. But students deserve a both-and approach. Students deserve a culture of rigor and intrinsic motivation. Students deserve the opportunity to excel without artificial obstacles. Let’s provide students with what they need and deserve.

For more, check out:

The Educator’s Guide to Social Media

It’s a question we at Getting Smart hear often — “As an educator, should I even be on social media at all?” In most cases, our answer is a resounding YES! That said, there are definitely guidelines anyone working in education should follow when participating. As a public figure and role model for your students in real-life, it’s important you maintain that image online as well. Your participation is obviously going to look different than a student’s or parent’s, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it and use it to enhance your professional image.

One of the best things about joining the social media movement is also the a unique opportunity to touch lives both online and offline that your predecessors didn’t and most other professions still don’t have. So take advantage of this amazing time in our rapidly expanding digital world and grow your social media skills right alongside your students, providing a positive influence every step of the way. To get started, read the following social media guide tailored especially for educators.

Larry Magid

Most middle and high school students are on social media as are an increasing number of parents. But it’s not uncommon for educators to shy away from using it in class or even in their personal and professional lives.

But there are a great many advantages of social media both as a classroom tool and to enhance your professional reputation. Sure there are risks, but they are manageable and easily outweighed by the rewards.

So, if you or any of your colleagues are on the fence regarding social media, read on and check out ConnectSafely.org’s free new online booklet, The Educator’s Guide to Social Media. Written by Kerry Gallagher and myself, the guide answers the basic questions of how you can safely use social media in class and for professional development and how to maintain both student and personal privacy.

Of course, many students are using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but so can teachers to share learning tidbits with students and show off excellent student work with the student’s, and in some cases, parent’s permission. YouTube is a fabulous way to find great material and share the material your students create. And student blogs enable students to share what they create with others, which enhances their own professional reputation. But there are other tools teachers might not know about, like Voxer, which lets you use your voice to share ideas with colleagues or communicate with parents. Or Versal that helps teachers create online courses.

Reputation management

Reputation management is on the minds of everyone who uses social media and educators are at special risk because they are public figures of sorts. Not just with their students but with parents and the community. It’s important for teachers be very careful about their privacy settings and what they post. Some teachers have separate personal and professional social media accounts and — if you’re using Facebook for classroom activities — it’s a very good idea to create special class pages or Facebook groups to keep your educational use separate from your personal use.

Student privacy

Protecting the privacy of your students isn’t only right, it’s the law. So be very careful not to run afoul of the Family Educational Rights Act (FERPA) and other data protection laws. When it comes to social media, be sure to get parent and student permission before showing off any student work, and if you plan to use tools like YouTube, Vine or Periscope, make sure that any media release forms signed by parents also cover video. If in doubt, check with your administration.

Unfortunately, many schools block social media access from machines connected to the campus network. Of course BYOD students can get access through cellular networks, but you may have trouble reaching Facebook, Twitter and other services from school devices. There is a law, called the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), that requires schools to block obscenity and other material “harmful to minors,” but there’s nothing in the law that says schools should block social media. If your school does, it’s probably a local policy or the default setting on the filter that was never changed. If you have good reasons to use social media in class, talk with your administration about lifting the filters either for everyone (ideally) or at least your classroom. Of course, you should be careful to make sure students only access appropriate content. If you use YouTube, consider setting it up in “restricted mode.” YouTube doesn’t allow pornography, but there may be videos that are inappropriate for student viewing in class.

As we share in The Educator’s Guide to Social Media, you don’t have to use social media and you certainly don’t have to use every service and app out there or spend a great deal of time on social media. You should, however, be aware of the services and apps your students are using. How you approach it, who you friend or follow, how often (if ever) you post and how often you check in is completely up to you and, as with lots of good things in life, there may be times when you need a break from social media. The same is true for your students. They shouldn’t be required to post or share their work if they don’t want to.

Keep in mind that, when used thoughtfully, social media can provide opportunities for professional growth, enhanced home-school communication, and conversations that allow learning to continue beyond allotted class times. If and when you choose to get started – or start over – with social media, remember that general professional and personal rules of etiquette hold as true online as they do in person.

For more on social media, check out:


Larry Magid, CEO ConnectSafely.org and co-author of The Educator’s Guide to Social Media. Follow Larry on Twitter,

3 Back to School Project-Based Lessons for Middle School

Amber Chandler

Starting the school year with a project based learning activity will set the perfect tone for your classroom. As you are establishing norms, developing your class culture, and getting the kinks out of new schedules and dynamics, a project-based learning experience can make a big impression on students, paying dividends for the rest of the year. You want to have impact, so I tell my students that their project must have BAM!

Burning questions. Gotta know, dying to know, really need to know, want to find out so much that you’ll stay after school, talk about it at lunch, and text about it

Authentic audiences: Share with the world, publish it online, put it in a class blog, make a movie, call the newspaper, do whatever it takes to reach over 300 people (double your class size)

Millennial skills: Make memes, create a gif, record a song, make a video game; essentially, this means posters won’t cut it in the 21st century!

Here are three projects that have BAM and ignite student interest:

Social Justice/Injustice

One of the undeniable influences on students is the media. With a twenty-four hour news cycle, it is easy for serious issues of social injustice to become a news byte and lose impact within even a few days. On the flip side, students do have some outside knowledge to draw upon to begin a thorough conversation of social justice. Mention Trayvon Martin, most students will know the story, but by linking current figures with historical ones, a deeper understanding will be gained and provide opportunities for active engagement and contextualize what might otherwise be isolated facts.

Many middle schools teach Farewell to Manzanar, a definitive book about the social injustice perpetrated against Japanese American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These American citizens were herded into concentration camps, most notably Manzanar. New America Media has a great mystery for students: “Murder in Manzanar: Unsolved 70 Years Later.” This is an amazing opportunity to connect the current racial violence with an historical event that was, in its time, also subverted. As an extension, a lesson in media ethics grows organically from the discussion, particularly after watching “The United States of America Presents: Japanese Relocation” presented by the Office of War Information—Bureau of Motion Pictures.” Finally, students can take a virtual field trip through the camp. Send students on a scavenger hunt, a fact finding mission, or an assignment as embedded reporters. Give your students a chance to utilize their 21st century skills to research and share their findings while providing a memorable learning experience around the topic of social injustice.

Math Is Beautiful

For someone, like myself, for whom Sudoku is mind-boggling, the idea that math is beautiful might be a bit of a stretch. However, that’s only before a project-based learning experience that captured even my reluctant imagination. First, allow this topic ample time for discussion ahead of the project. You might be surprised how many students see the art of a tessellation or the Cubism-like sensibility of geometry. So many times, just as I have done here, teachers and parents project their math anxiety, so make sure to check your tone at the door.

This PBL activity is perfect to try out another huge trend in education right now—encouraging your students to be Makers. The idea is simple: let your students learn with the right materials and guiding questions, and engagement is not even a question. Concepts become realities for students.  “How is Math Beautiful? Exploring By Creating” in the New York Times via The Learning Network, is a great lesson plan, replete with links and assessment questions, that can promote the type of deep questioning and reasoning skills that middle schoolers are capable of, but might not always be challenged to do. They are asked to create an exhibit (I’d do these in teams) physically showing what is beautiful about math using the materials provided. They have the resources to learn with, guiding questions, and an authentic final product. Imagine how differently some of us more tepid math enthusiasts would feel if the approach was like this?

Chamber of Commerce Challenge

Six grade teachers might solidify themselves as proverbial teachers of the year with this project-based learning experience. During those first few weeks of school what is the greatest distraction to learning upon entering middle school? The newness of it all. Where do I buy a pencil? Who do I talk to about fall sports? When do I try out for the school play? Who do I talk to if I have a problem? Imagine a way to mitigate these problems, all without losing face or embarrassment.

Adults know that a Chamber of Commerce is an organization, housed in a particular place, who represents all the members of the community. Begin by debriefing how the first few days have gone. Some might open up immediately, but just hearing that they aren’t alone is helpful. Then, announce that your room is going to become a Chamber of Commerce. Likely, they will be puzzled, so have your town’s pulled up to show them. Here’s Hamburg, New York’s Chamber of Commerce. Let students navigate the site, taking notes with their teams about the types of information found on the website.

The next part is where the fun begins. Provide students with a list of important questions they’d need the answers to, similar to the one’s listed above. Create about 10 questions, or if your school is very large, fewer. You want the students to have a class period to find the answers, making sure they record the factual information necessary to promote the group. For example:

Question: If I want to try out for basketball, what do I do?

  • Go to Mr. Smith’s room, 249, in the C hallway to sign up for boy’s basketball. There’s a sign-up sheet. Make sure to bring something to write with because the schedule of tryout dates is listed.
  • Go to Mrs. Smith’s room, 251, in the D hallway to sign up for girl’s basketball. Tryouts are each Friday from 3-5 in the small gym. Wear tennis shoes.

Ideally, your class will have a co-teacher, or aide, to help lead students, but this is also a great opportunity to work with your school’s student council or service club. In the past, I’ve done activities like this with super responsible 8th graders as team leaders. Believe it or not, 8th graders will leap at the chance to have these types of leadership roles, even willing to leave their study hall to help out.

Team building begins when students are given an authentic task, methods for finding the answer, and the freedom to pursue what they need to know. The second day of the activity should be spent sharing and comparing information. Though it might be tempting, don’t skip this step because weighing information and determining validity is an important skill. Give each team one or two of the questions and challenge them to create a 1 minute video, skit, song, or visual that provides the needed information, and is easy to remember. Students have been given the opportunity to check out the school under the guise of learning, and learned valuable skills under the guise of checking out the school.

For more check out:

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY. Follow Amber on Twitter, @MsAmberChandler.