How Machine Learning can Enhance Music Education

By Daniel Browning

With the rapid evolution of technology, new tools for creativity and development are constantly emerging. Musicians today are beginning to use machine learning, where computers “learn” over time by being fed large amounts of data, to create music in new and innovative ways. The computers process this data and identify patterns, allowing them to act on future data. After identifying these patterns, computers can classify new information, make predictions, or even generate novel, creative content. In the world of music, the possible applications of this technology are endless.

In music education, machine learning techniques can supplement numerous parts of the curriculum such as musical performance, composition, theory, and production. Incorporating machine learning into music education can enrich the learning process and add new layers to already engaging courses. While applications of machine learning have untapped potential, there are numerous techniques that can be adopted in the classroom today:

1. Live feedback on musical performance

Because students typically greatly outnumber their teachers, students can only receive a limited amount of feedback regarding their musical performance. When practicing outside of classes, students typically receive no external feedback at all. This lack of feedback can be especially challenging in the early stages of learning to sing or play an instrument. Students may not recognize that they are hitting a wrong note or missing a rhythm. Using machine learning, students can receive live feedback on their performance and can learn which sections of music they need to focus on practicing. This feedback can be a useful supplement to in-class instruction and can provide students with the resources needed to practice effectively.

SmartMusic is one program that provides instant feedback to students as they practice, informing students of pitches or rhythms that they miss. Because it was specifically designed for classroom use, students can send their best performance of a piece of music to the teacher for additional feedback. The program itself contains a large library of music, but teachers are also able to import their own music for custom assignments. Kadenze, a provider of massive-open online courses, focusing on creative fields, offers music courses that provide machine-learning based feedback on student assignments. Researchers, examining the overlap between machine learning and music education, have also proposed software that would compare a student’s musical performance to that of famous musicians, although this has yet to be developed.

2. Musical composition and improvisation

Although music composition is a creative process, a number of companies have created machine learning-based software to supplement the artistic experience. Popgun, for example, is a start-up developing a machine learning approach to creating original pop songs, set to be released later in 2018. Amper, alternatively, boasts the ability to compose unique music for any content needs, according to the user’s specified mood, style, and length;  Aiva Technologies composes soundtrack music specifically designed to fulfill storytelling needs. Perhaps the most easy to incorporate into the classroom is Magenta, a research project initially started by the Google research team that also focuses on using machine learning to create music. Magenta provides a variety of open-source demos that involve interacting with music in creative ways. This does not begin to scratch the surface of an exhaustive list of currently-available music-generation software, and more is in development even now.

The use of machine learning to generate music opens up a new world of opportunities for teaching in music education. It can give students the opportunity to tweak computer-generated compositions to create innovative, creative music at the intersection of music and technology. Working to change and improve music that has already been “composed” can also pose an exciting challenge to students, and working with computer-generated music provides an entirely new angle from which to learn.

These computer-generated compositions can also provide students with a field of new music to perform and improvise with. As most of these tracks are generated in audio form, students have the opportunity to practice with new recordings or even improvise with music as it’s being created.

3. Music theory and analysis

Although currently a less common application of machine learning, there are interesting possibilities that could arise from applying these methods to learning music theory. When learning music theory, students are frequently limited by their ability to apply the rules that they are taught to new pieces of music, based on limited examples. However, because machine learning techniques are designed specifically to recognize patterns, they are ideal for analyzing compositions. A program designed to analyze music can give students access to a huge amount of examples to learn from, making it much easier for students to learn the nuances of the rules. A similar program can be used to check student compositions for music theory errors, not unlike spelling and grammar check in a word processing document.

Machine learning-based software can also be used to analyze music across time periods or genres. This can provide interesting insight into how music varies and how it stays the same. In a classroom, it is common to listen to various styles of music and identify the differences between them. Machine-learning software can easily supplement this technique and provide additional insight into how music varies and how it stays the same.

4. Recording, mixing, and production

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWS), software used to record, mix, and produce audio, are used in most schools with music production courses. While these programs generally rely on audio signal processing rather than machine learning, machine learning can easily be incorporated into sound processing. Because machine learning can be used to identify specific sounds, it can be used for noise cancellation or to separate sounds into different tracks. It can also be used to identify specific voices or instruments and to change the timbre of pitch of only a specific sound. Techniques like this can provide students more ways to develop music in innovative ways. Start-ups like LANDR, have also developed ways to automate the mixing and mastering process, which can also help students learn how to improve the sound of their music.

Incorporating machine learning techniques into music education can enhance learning and provide students with a richer, more personalized experience. As machine learning is a rapidly developing field, it is worth keeping an eye out for new possibilities as they emerge.

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Daniel Browning is a staff writer for DO Supply Inc.

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33 Quality Learning Platforms

Platforms can help educators accomplish a variety of challenging tasks, such as powering and tracking personal learning plans, managing assignments and dynamic grouping, supporting the development of standards-aligned projects, combining formative assessment in a standards-based gradebook, and connecting students, parents and teachers anywhere on any device. Today we’re recognizing 33 platforms with widespread use and/or distinctive features.

Learning Platforms

For full reviews of the following, see Getting Smart on Next-Gen Learning Platforms.

  • Agilix: Offers formative assessments, individualized tasks, student-choice activities, and grouping options.
  • Alma: Designed to replace legacy SIS and LMS with a modern data infrastructure that can enable improved student engagement.
  • AltSchool: Helps educators engage students, communicate with parents and collaborate with one another.
  • Blackboard: Provides several platforms including Angel and Moodlerooms.
  • Desire to Learn: A system with a simple, well-designed interface.
  • Edsby: An Ontario-based, K-12 designed, mobile, social and personalized solution.
  • Canvas by Instructure: A leading secondary and HigherEd platform with open courses on
  • itslearning: A Norway-based system that started in HigherEd, designed primarily for blended learning. Used in some big districts like Houston ISD.
  • Mileposts from Silverback: Boise-based instructional improvement system catered towards personalized learning.
  • Moodle: An open-source, integrated system that helps create personalized learning environments.
  • PowerSchool: Purchased Haiku LMS, and combined it with a leading SIS.
  • Sakai: An open-source, flexible alternative to commercial learning systems.
  • Schoology: An LMS with robust collaborative tools.

Free lightweight platforms

  • Edmodo: This free platform enables teachers to create groups, assign homework, schedule quizzes, manage progress and more.
  • Google Classroom: Create classes, distribute assignments and send feedback (part of G suite for Edu).
  • Microsoft Classroom: Classroom and assignment management (part of Office 365 Education) and now includes Teams (a Slack-like team communication tool).

PBL Platforms

  • Edio is project-based platform that makes it easy to author and track multiple projects. Remote coaching is available for teachers.
  • Project Foundry manages project-based workflow allowing students to plan, track, and assess their work.
  • Workbench is a project-based platform with a big library of projects. It’s used in over 10,000 schools around the world (see feature).

Competency Platforms

  • CourseNetworking. A newer learning platform with social features that offers a “lifelong profile” page to showcase achievements and associated social networks. Mostly HigherEd use but piloted by Purdue Polytechnic High School.
  • Empower Learning. A platform that supports competency-based learning models through content creation, management, and assessment reporting.
  • Engrade. A top gradebook acquired by McGraw Hill now connects curriculum, assessments, and data across the learning cycle. It has the capability to draw content from licensed providers, OER libraries, and teacher-created materials.
  • Epiphany Learning. A platform that supports personalized, interdisciplinary, and competency-based learning.
  • Motivis Learning. A competency-based platform that supports competency-based and traditional learning. Built on the Salesforce platform, Motivis includes an SIS and social features.
  • Novare helps students set goals, manage projects, and build portfolios. Used by leading innovators including Teton Science Schools.

Comprehensive Platforms (LMS & content)

  • Apex: Digital curriculum designed to actively engage students in learning, combining embedded supports and scaffolds.
  • Cortex: a web-based solution that brings together operational and instructional data about students and for students to serve, enhance, and inform teaching and learning.
  • Edgenuity: A comprehensive set of online and blended content and management offerings.
  • Edmentum: Adaptive assessments paired with powerful learning paths for K-8 reading, language arts, and math.
  • FuelEd: Innovative digital curriculum, technology, instruction, and support enabling you to create a learning environment that is just right for your students.
  • SevenStar: Online Christian education option for grades 6-12.

Adaptive Platforms

  • RealizeIt: A Dublin-based adaptive learning platform, mostly focused on HigherEd CTE.
  • Fishtree: An Arlington, VA.-based, adaptive learner-relationship-management tool (see podcast on Columbus MS).

Platform networks

Join the network to gain access to these platforms.

  • Summit Learning: A free online platform that helps students and teachers personalize learning.
  • Echo by New Tech Network facilitates integrated project-based learning. A big project library allows network teachers to adopt or adapt projects and score results with standards-based rubrics.

Is there a platform you’d add to the list? Share in the comments section below. Check out our other recent Smart Lists at our Smart List Series.

This Smart List was developed by Getting Smart, who helps schools, districts, and impact-oriented partners design and implement powerful learning experiences and forward-leaning strategies, and thought leadership campaigns. Learn more about how we can help you extend your impact.

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ImBlaze: Igniting Powerful Real-World Learning Experiences

Isabel, currently a rising 11th grader, did fine at her traditional middle school. Her academic performance required no intervention nor curricular acceleration. Though her parents regularly asserted that she was smart and capable, she questioned whether that was true given infrequent and mediocre feedback received from outside her family structure. When she entered high school, Isabel grew frustrated by working hard on schoolwork that was absent meaning or connection. She explained, “I was staying up until 2 am every night doing all the homework that they assigned, but it wasn’t stuff that I wanted to do, and I never got to pursue my passions.” Uninspired by what she was learning, Isabel began feeling uncertainty, anxiety, and depression about being in high school. Conversations with her guidance counselor helped her transfer her enrollment to an innovation high school in her district where coursework was driven by student interest and included engaging in an internship as part of the academic curriculum.

Motivated by a lifelong interest in science, after exploring a number of possible opportunities, Isabel secured an internship position at a local laboratory that does complex testing of water samples from all over the United States. Through her work there, Isabel learned lab techniques and protocols, was trained on highly technical equipment for scientific testing, and collaborated with colleagues on a variety of projects. Isabel leveraged her internship experience into a paid summer job at the same laboratory, where she is working as part of a team spearheading new techniques for identifying bacteria in water. In doing this work, she “found [her] love of science again” and has had “the chance to pursue [her] passions,” all while still in high school.

Isabel’s learning has purpose. It is tailored to her interests and passions. She is engaged in her work and excited and driven to do more. She has grown confident from experience being successful in a real-world work environment. She has a mentor helping advise her on future opportunities and choices. She has contributed to, and received feedback from, colleagues. She now knows that she is capable. She learned this through her experiences at a Big Picture Learning (BPL) high school.

Big Picture Learning: A Leader in Authentic, Real-World Educational Opportunities

Big Picture is a school design network that has been a leader for student-centered learning opportunities in real-world environments paired with strong mentors for more than two decades. Creating these kinds of hands-on, deeper learning experiences at a large scale is extremely challenging. Recognizing the design and implementation challenges, BPL leadership learned from their own experiences matching and managing mentor-mediated internships, and created the ImBlaze platform. As BPL describes, “ImBlaze is a mobile platform that encourages students’ interests through internships by connecting them to mentors in the community.” It automates many of the business processes that are obstacles for schools hoping to implement or expand a high-quality internship program. ImBlaze has made it possible for other schools to take internships to scale without increasing the burden, and made it possible to easily replicate internship management at new sites.

ImBlaze has received significant recognition. Julia Freeland-Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation touted ImBlaze as a rare exemplar of Ed-tech that addresses opportunity gaps and helps students grow their social capital. And Jobs for the Future highlighted ImBlaze for easing the administrative burden on schools to provide exemplar learning experiences. The platform was one of seven national education trailblazers to each be awarded funding of $1 Million as part of the Personalized Learning Initiative from venture philanthropists New Profit. BPL has also received support for the development and implementation of ImBlaze from leading educational philanthropists including Ted Dintersmith, the ECMC Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Why the recognition? Because ImBlaze is helping schools remove the previously prohibitive implementation barriers to providing internships at scale.

The Value of Internships: Unique, Engaging, Real-World Learning

Students engaging in real-world structured experiences, based on their interests, places them into learning environments that communities want for every young person. But 20th-century school design models pushed those opportunities increasingly out of the high school curriculum. School systems have raised the academic preparation required for employment readiness from 8th grade through 12th grade to today’s Associate Degree plus. This increase in academic readiness has pushed hands-on learning out of most students’ K-12 experiences.

Done well, internships provide environments where students are learner-participants, and paired with a supportive mentor that is guiding the increasing challenges students encounter, they are the fulfillment of engaged learning today with long-term benefits for tomorrow. These experiences liberate learning from the confines of a classroom, relocating it to an immersive environment where there are mixed roles and multiple authorities, and where the ability to listen and to contribute is fully integrated with knowledge acquisition. This situated learning occurs by doing. Unlike schools that purposefully separate content knowledge from context, internships place students in communities where life experience and relationships are just as important as prior knowledge.

In most traditional school environments, students tend to be grouped by age or subject matter in a cohort where several students are taught by a single teacher. But in a workplace, one student interacts with multiple adult influencers. There is a lead internship mentor for accountability and support roles, but the learning, coaching, and collaborating come from many adult colleagues of varying ages, backgrounds, and support roles. Internships play a powerful role for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who might not otherwise be exposed to career pathways beyond their particular community.

Engaging students in interest-driven, real-world learning environments has benefits in post-secondary education as well. As students move closer to joining the workforce, internship experiences both develop professional skills and knowledge and help students build relationships with individuals in professional networks relevant to their future career paths. Higher education institutions, especially community colleges, can strengthen their students’ post-graduation prospects through these kinds of programs.

As Isabel found, internships can be powerful, authentic learning experiences. For schools, however, establishing and administering a high school internship program can be prohibitively challenging. Therefore, many schools will not provide such opportunities in the array of options students are offered.

The Challenges of Implementing & Managing Internship Programs

Implementing a successful internship program for even a small number of students can be daunting for administrators and teachers. Any time students are off-site from the school building requires a significant change in the standard operating procedures for a school. The legal requirements that schools must meet include that students are present, safe, and engaging in effective learning experiences. These functions of in loco parentis, supervision, and the issuance of Carnegie Unit credits for high school graduation are required by statute and must be accomplished for any student in any internship location. Meeting these requirements has meant a significant amount of administrative time building separate processes in an ad hoc fashion.

Systemic implementation of internships as an educational experience requires that schools schedule students within and beyond the standard school hours. And counselors need to manage students’ total course load to accommodate both the internship time, travel time, and traditional coursework. Then, these procedures need to be repeated each school year with a significant number of variables that change from year-to-year: participating companies change, positions within each company can change, and the contact personnel at a company can change.

Enter ImBlaze: Agency, Authenticity, & Advisement

Before developing ImBlaze, BPL explored a variety of off-the-shelf products for internship processes. Unable to find one able to be adapted, they then attempted to build such a system from scratch. While this solution proved functional, it also required significant staff time to maintain. Being innovators, BPL found a partner with technology expertise to build a solution to fill the vacuum in the marketplace. Built in conjunction with ECHO Technology Solutions, a services company specializing in designing “technology-enhanced value delivery solutions,” BPL has delivered this efficient, easy to use, and scalable solution. Built to lift internship implementation and management burdens from schools, ImBlaze adds mobile transactions, remote connectivity, and location verification via mobile phone/device applications running either the Android or iOS operating systems. Overcoming geographic separation and enabling 24/7/365 connectivity successfully addresses many safety and supervision concerns for experiences that students want to engage in as school.

The ImBlaze platform creates a common tool for the student, the school, and the internship sponsor. One navigation path begins by enabling students to explore the possible opportunities of interest-based internship learning opportunities. Making this possible is the fact that ImBlaze allows schools to manage a large number of mentor relationships–across multiple sites, people, and industries–within a community. An easy-to-use interface guides educators through this repository as they explore, select, implement, and monitor internship experiences. Establishing an easy management system for the collection of background documentation for the students and mentors makes beginning and ending off-site relationships with quality and compliance easy. This includes a common interface for all participants for attendance, communication, and feedback. This ease of use increases the frequency and quality of communication. And the system empowers all parties to assess the quality and overall impact of individual internship and mentor experience, aggregate responses by participant descriptors, and enable analytics across placements and years. While ImBlaze was developed within the BPL ecosystem, it has matured to the point of having been spread far beyond. It addresses the internship implementation problem in BPL and non-BPL schools and other community organizations.

The development of the system recognizes that internships should not be “opportunity philanthropy.” The internship providers need to see a return-on-investment in the short term from the student’s presence, and in the long-term through community awareness of the industry sector and the capability of high schools to have graduates ready to enter the workforce. ImBlaze lowers the burden of company participation because ECHO utilized the Salesforce Community Cloud. This allows companies to use an industry standard tool set that is interoperable with Human Resources department’s software. Companies easily provide internship placement opportunities, define how many placements are available in specific time periods, provide the position description and what skill sets participants will refine or acquire. They can identify what prerequisite skills students should have to be successful, what days and hours of attendance are required, and what, if any flexibility the participant has in hours to work.

Connecting student interest and their learning is core to the purpose and setup of ImBlaze. The information provided by the companies provides a landscape for students to search for internship opportunities based on their specific interests, curiosities, and needs. By providing students the agency to explore, apply, and participate in the relationship, ImBlaze empowers learners. As Pamela Gordon, an Advisor and Teacher at BPL’s Leominster Center for Excellence School explains, “Using this platform helps students continue to take ownership of their own experience and be at the center of their learning. They don’t have to rely on their advisor completely to hand out a list of internships or go blindly to a google search. They can go to ImBlaze and look, get ideas, and begin to dream about the possibilities that are out there.” This empowerment is extended with the LinkedIn integration that allows participating students to build resumes, archive references, provide recommendations for their mentors and peers, and promote their expanding skill set. The students are the drivers in this process.

ImBlaze is currently being used in over 40 schools across the U.S. by more than 4,000 students and educators. The platform is provided under a service-as-subscription model, with a pricing structure that consists of an initial set-up fee with a subscription rate based on the number of participating students. The subscription includes a “full suite of online training” for teachers. Going beyond the technical understanding needed to successfully implement the service, the professional development is interoperable with leading learning management systems including Canvas by Instructure. BPL provides additional training opportunities for participating schools, and through their annual Big Bang, Big Picture Learning’s annual international conference on Student-Centered Learning.

Leave to Learn

Reflecting on his own educational opportunities, Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of BPL and one of the architects of the ImBlaze platform shared, “All of my own learning experiences that were most powerful were out in the real-world with adults who had expertise.” These insights and BPL’s success over the past twenty years inspired them to create the concept, prototype and pilot for ImBlaze. The growing cohort of ImBlaze schools have realized that this efficient internship management tool improves quality, reduces time taken by paperwork, and delivers personalized learning including “students’ soft skills and social capital at every stage.”

There is a growing national momentum behind having students learn in contexts and at times outside of the traditional school day. Project- and problem-based learning, competency-based progression, and other deeper learning approaches are being more widely utilized. ImBlaze can be a vehicle to bring these opportunities to students in any community. Isabel’s successful experiences in finding meaning in her learning is something all students can experience. As a member of the Class of 2020, she is the frontline of high school graduates born in the 21st Century. ImBlaze has lit the path for schools to deliver them a 21st Century model of community based-learning that will leave the school building, and the 20th Century, behind.

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40 Competency-Based Education Publications and Resources

Editor’s Note: This post is an appendix to a recently released report on competency-based education entitled Show What You Know: The Landscape of Competency-Based Education.

We’ve been looking into what schools, districts, networks, and impact organizations are doing to accelerate progress toward an effective CBE system, and in July we will release a full publication highlighting our research and analysis. In the meantime, we have assembled a series of initial lists of positive examples in various areas.

The resources highlighted below contain valuable, thought-provoking ideas that are helpful in understanding what competency-based education is, how to communicate about it, and how to plan for it.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but is a sampling of resources identified as exemplars by people we’ve interviewed and/or other sources we’ve encountered in our research. We invite you to suggest other valuable resources in the comments section below.


6 Strategies to Navigate System Constraints in Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

7 Things You Should Know About Competency-Based Education, EDUCAUSE Review

Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky

A New Model of Student Assessment for the 21st Century, American Youth Policy Forum

An Introduction to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Competency Education: A Reflection on the Field and Future Directions, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Creating Systems of Assessment for Deeper Learning, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Educational Policy Improvement Center

Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Dispelling the Myths: Frequently Asked Questions About Competency-Based Education, KnowledgeWorks

Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Personalized, Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Levers and Logic Models: A Framework to Guide Research and Design of High-Quality Competency-Based Education Systems, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Meeting Students Where They Are, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL, reDesign

The Past and the Promise: Today’s Competency Education Movement, Jobs For the Future/Students at the Center

Policy, Pilots, and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape, Foundation for Excellence in Education, EducationCounsel

Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL

The Shift from Cohorts to Competency, Getting Smart, Digital Learning Now, Foundation for Excellence in Education, CompetencyWorks

The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture, Educational Researcher

What Is Competency Education?, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL


Getting Smart Podcast | District 51 On Building a Performance-Based Education System, Getting Smart

Shift your Paradigm  Episode 018, Lindsay Unified School District , Shift Your Paradigm

Shift your Paradigm  Episode 019, MC2 Charter School, Shift Your Paradigm

Other Resources:

Center for Curriculum Redesign

Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution, Richard A. DeLorenzo, Rick M. Schreiber, Wendy Battino, Barbara Gaddy Cario

Education Elements CBE Toolkit, Education Elements + Digital Promise

A Framework for Interactivity in Competency-Based Courses, EDUCAUSE Review

How Blockchain Will Transform Credentialing (and Education), Getting Smart

How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards, Ken B. O’Connor

The Journal of Competency-Based Education, Western Governors University and John Wiley & Sons

On Your Mark Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting – a book for K-12 assessment policies and practices, Thomas R. Guskey

Proficiency-Based Learning Tools, Great Schools Partnership

Students at the Center Hub, Managed by Jobs for the Future

Talking with Families About Transcripts and Grading in a Personalized, Competency-Based Environment, Knowledgworks

What is Competency Education? (Webinar and Slides), Charleston County School District, CompetencyWorks, iNACOL, KnowledgeWorks, reDesign

What the Learning Sciences Tell Us About Competency Education (blog post), Bror Saxberg

What other resources would you add? As mentioned, please feel free to contribute to the lists by adding a comment below.

Additionally, keep an eye out in the near future for follow-up lists that will highlight other interesting CBE resources, initiatives, and difference-makers!

This post is part of a series focused on competency-based education in partnership with XQ Institute. The series highlights findings from research and interviews conducted during the development of the upcoming white paper, “Show What You Know: The State of Competency-Based Education.”

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

The ‘Show Me’ Grading System of the Future

Three students take their single-powered speedboat on its maiden voyage out to sea. Their task: document the plastic problem through video and photo evidence. Accompanying them on the boat is all the necessary instrumentation; from microscopic lenses that fit on the back of their IPADS, to ph testing kits for measuring the acidity of the water. They compile this evidence in order to accomplish a far more challenging task: ‘Prototyping a solution.’

Back at school, a marine biologist briefs them on the harm plastic causes to sea life while an oceanographic engineer helps them sketch out robotic ‘plastic collector’ designs. Students vote on the best design and begin their build in the small maker shed. Using arduinos, sensors, small electronics and a pvc pipe/wood frame, the students ‘rapid prototype’ their design in less than two hours time.

Now it’s time to see if it works.

They grab a kiddy pool from the younger years PE department, fill it with water, and set the robot afloat. They all hold their breath, nervous for what will happen next… (See a TedTalk on this project here).

Grading the Project

What I described is a real project conducted at the Harbor School in Hong Kong. And as challenging as it was to conduct the project, it was even more challenging to award a grade.

How do you report and assess on this kind of learning? What grade should individual students receive? Clearly there was science involved; but there was also design, robotics, math, photography, and geography as well. Do students all receive a cumulative mark? Where is the place on the report card for the invaluable skills they gained in the process?

This dilemma is faced by a multitude of schools seeking to make learning more relevant in the 21st century. And while we have a plethora of new strategies for learning, from ‘STEM’ to ‘PBL’ to ‘Flipped Classroom,’ most of us still have an archaic way of grading and reporting.

‘Mastery-Based Transcript’ – A New Way of Grading and Reporting

One good example to learn from and keep an eye on is the Mastery Transcript Consortium (see their example here). Over 200 schools are developing a new way to grade and report on student work, focused on reporting on 21st-century skills and dispositions rather than subject-specific letter grades. Skills will include ‘analytical and creative thinking,’ ‘complex communication,’ and ‘digital and quantitative literacy.’  Behind each mark are links to a student portfolio of work that demonstrates growth and competence through real work samples.

And while the transcript design it is still in its relatively early stages, it has some of the innovative and well-recognized schools guiding its development, including Columbia University and High Tech High. Moreover, the time is ripe, as many innovative universities are reconsidering their admissions criteria. Goucher College, a 1,400 student liberal arts college near Baltimore, now allows students to apply through the submission of a written and visual piece of work. Bennington College, an entrepreneurial college in Vermont has completely done away with the traditional HS transcript, instead asking students to apply through a portfolio of work samples. Goucher and Bennington’s approaches are detailed here. Some other colleges have done away with grades completely, instead electing to award credits based on conversations and narratives of learning by both professor and student. All of Delaware’s colleges and universities have agreed to accept and support competency-based transcripts.

How you can get started with alternative grading and student portfolio development

Changing how we measure and report learning can seem like a daunting and unobtainable task, but given the right process it can be far easier than it sounds. If you are reading this article, it means you are probably an ‘out of the box’ thinker who doesn’t shy away from a valuable challenge just because it’s particularly daunting, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

It can also help to think of this as merely an extension of reporting and assessing on what you already do well–the following (relatively) simple five step process will help you take a step in the right direction.

Step #1: Determine skills, dispositions and habits of mind for school graduates

Like any good planning, it’s important to start with the end in mind. What are the skills, dispositions, and habits of mind you expect graduates of your school to leave your school with? If you already have a ‘graduate profile,’ start there, if not, meet together with different members/ stakeholders of your school (perhaps over coffee) and brainstorm a list using post-it notes, markers and butcher paper.

These ‘big picture’ skills should have the ability to transcend all subjects.

After you finish the brainstorm, condense, combine and categorize your list to 5-8 comprehensive skills. For sample skills, check here (21st Century Skills), here (Mastery Transcript), and here (World Global Economic Forum).

Step #2: Establish ‘I can’ statements and assessment rubrics for each skill

Now that you have identified the skills that graduates of your program/grade should possess, it’s time to articulate those skills through concrete ‘I can’ statements. These statements should be student-friendly, use accessible language, and clearly define the aim for learning. Here are some examples:

‘Leadership and Teamwork:’

  • I can facilitate group discussions, help groups reach consensus, and delegate responsibilities
  • I can work with a variety of stakeholders including parents, students, adults and experts in order to meet project goals

These clearly articulated statements will help provide a context for portfolio building and allow both the teacher and student to reflect on their overall growth.

Step #3: Choose an Edtech platform for digital portfolio building

It’s important that you complete this step only after you have completed the two steps above. Doing so will ensure you have a portfolio building system that matches your hoped outcomes for student learning. It is in these portfolios that students will upload work, post reflections, and provide evidence of growth in the pre-identified skills from steps one and two. I suggest using a system that is most comfortable and adaptable for use at your school. Below is a list of some good places to start:

  • SeeSaw: This comprehensive portfolio builder allows you to post and share media-rich assignments, make comments on student work, create and upload work to pre-designated folders, and post to individual blogs. Information can be also be shared with parents with a simple password.
  • WordPress/Weebly/SquareSpace: These easy to use blogging and website builder tools (WordPress is the free option of the bunch) allow students to create a written and visual footprint of their work throughout their school. The upside of these platforms over SeeSaw is that they give students more creative license in how they put things together. The downside is that it can be a bit messy if you don’t establish clear parameters. I suggest creating guidelines around design and #hashtags or sub-pages according to the skills you wish students to show evidence for.
  • Google Docs/Drive: This is an easy, no thrills way for students to start compiling and organizing their work. Students can upload work to shared folders that match each skill identified in step #1. Work can include written, audio, and visual examples.
  • Microsoft OneDrive: Similar to Google Docs, this cloud-based system allows for student and teacher to both upload work to a portfolio either through ‘notebook’ or shared folders. I like the ‘digital notebook’ interface, as it keeps everything nice and tidy, and allows for quick access.

Step #4: Determine minimum requirements and provide time for reflection and goal setting

Putting a portfolio system in place will not automatically ensure it is effective. Only through regular and meaningful reflection will portfolios demonstrate clear learning and growth. I suggest establishing a set time- either weekly or bi-weekly for work upload, student reflection and self-assessment. During this time, ensure that students:

  1. Review work completed for the week
  2. Choose 1-2 pieces of work to upload to portfolio
  3. Identify how the pieces of work demonstrate pre-identified skills
  4. Create a written or audio reflection of learning
  5. Check in with teacher/ facilitator to establish follow up learning goals

I suggest keeping track of student reflection and goal setting through a simple excel spreadsheet. This will help provide guidance for follow-up conversations and demonstration of growth towards those goals.

Step #5: Create/ Find models

I cannot overstress the importance of finding effective student portfolios to use as models. Effective models will help you and students create expectations and guidelines around their own. You can start by creating an example as a staff, or consider using structures from the examples below:

Student Example #1: A portfolio organized the school’s expectations for student learning.

Student Example #2: A portfolio organized around school subjects.

Student Example #3: A portfolio organized around different student projects.

In Closing

Changing the way we grade, report and evaluate student learning can oftentimes feel like an uphill battle. We are fighting against tradition, a tightly regulated bureaucracy, and educational structures that are slow to change; but our students deserve better. They deserve an evaluation system that honors their hard work and growth, regardless of how well they performed on the SATs. Implementing a mastery-based transcript, coupled with a cumulative portfolio of their learning, can even be a step in laying the foundation for more equitable access to high-quality learning experiences. To make this shift as an educator, remember to work backwards, starting with a graduate profile, and then developing self-assessment systems and rubrics for what constitutes mastery. Doing so will provide you and your team with a roadmap with which to move forward. Finally, consider joining the mastery transcript movement of like-minded educators here. To your success!

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Learner-Driven Communities

The idea of a more personalized approach to education has gained a lot of traction in the last decade. But there’s a lot of variation among those claiming “personalization.” Some are teacher-driven and prescriptive. In others, students are active in charting their course.

Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, would like to propose a new category: learner-driven communities. This new category, suggests Sandefer features “extreme agency.”

Acton Academy (featured here) is a small K-12 private school in Austin with an audacious claim, “Each person who enters our doors will find a calling that will change the world.”

“At Acton we are seeing amazing leaps and effectiveness that I believe come more from agency than size or personalization,” said Sandefer.  

The small school has spawned a global network with 91 affiliates in 28 states and provinces and 20 countries.

Replication is a lightweight franchising approach where “owners” pay a small fee to join the network and use the Acton brand. Almost all owners have students in the school. They agree to a common set of practices, keep a high “Net Promoter Score” (customer satisfaction scores) on published surveys and they all install Nest cameras that create a network-wide view of what’s happening in Acton schools.

Learner-Driven as a Core Motivational Theory

The core promise at Acton is that each student will “Begin a Hero’s Journey.” Through real-life challenges, “Our young people at Acton are learning that courage, grit, and perseverance matter far more than regurgitating facts,” said Sandefer.

“One of the keys to a learner-driven community is being willing to call on all sorts of ways of motivating individual heroes, squads and the tribe,” (i.e., learners, teams, school) said Sandefer.

Below is a chart that summarizes much of management theory for the last 100 years:

The following chart shows how Acton applies the theories with tools and incentives:

Acton’s application of motivation theories + constraints

The Acton goal, according to Sandefer, “is to ramp up motivation, amplified by constraints in the same way a river accelerates as it reaches a bottleneck, maximizing the learning, reflection, celebration or recharging in every moment.” Below is an infographic of the time in hours spent by badge/area/activity in Acton’s middle school. For scale purposes, one salmon colored Quest badge (upper left) is approximately 40 hours.

The Learner-Drive Tribe

Learner-driven is pretty descriptive but pretty rare these days. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) is a leading advocate for student-centered learning and they support language (“learners taking ownership”) that is pretty close.

Education Reimagined, an initiative of Convergence, uses language (“learners at the center”) that is similar but often more passive. The Shift Your Paradigm podcasts that Salisbury superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss does for them, does a good job of highlighting learner-driven experiences.

One Stone is a Boise nonprofit that supports learner-driven afterschool programs and a high school. The organization itself is learner-driven with a majority of board members being teenaged program participants (and they run the best board meetings we’ve seen).

The design principles of Mass Ideas, a statewide initiative sponsored by NGLC, Barr Foundation, and NMEF include students at the center, equitable, learning mindset, high expectations, personalized and learner-driven–which is defined as “Schools support all learners to understand why learning matters, take responsibility for their own learning and make decisions about their learning.”

Sandefer always starts a discussion about “learner-driven communities” by acknowledging adults play an important part in the lives of young people in providing inspiration, guard rails and natural consequences as role models, mentors, Socratic guides, coaches, sources of affirmation and, when appropriate, experts and legitimate authorities. Learner-driven, according to Sandefer, “doesn’t mean Lord of the Flies, but involves young people engaging with adults in even more interesting ways.”  

In this new innovation economy, we’ve argued that building agency by engaging students in extended learner-driven challenges is the most important work in education. Acton Academy is one of the best examples. We appreciate Jeff and Laura’s boundary pushing leadership and this effort to clarify their unique approach.

For more see:

This post was originally published on Forbes.

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18 Examples of State Policies that Support Competency-Based Programs

We’ve been looking into what schools, districts, networks, and impact organizations are doing to accelerate progress toward an effective CBE system, and in July we will release a full publication highlighting our research and analysis. In the meantime, we have assembled a series of initial lists of positive examples in various areas.

ExcelInEd released the report “Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape” in Spring 2017, which tracks the CBE policy efforts states have made thus far. Below is a listing of state policy examples grouped by features of: flexibility from time-based systems, competency-based diplomas, acceptance of competency-based diplomas and credits by higher education, flexible learning, state assessments, and innovation pilots.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but is a sampling of initiatives identified as exemplars by people we’ve interviewed and/or other sources we’ve encountered in our research. We invite you to suggest other policies supporting competency-based education in the comments section below.

Flexibility from Time-Based Systems

New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie Unit and awards credits diplomas based on demonstrations of competency rather than seat time (codified as Minimum Standards for School Approval).

Note: Many other states have not yet changed statewide policy, but have created an option for LEAs to move away from time-based requirements, at least under certain circumstances.

Michigan allows Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to apply for a waiver of the minimum seat-time requirements.

Oregon’s credit options allow LEAs to offer credits based on demonstration of proficiency. This can include completion of classroom or equivalent work “designed to measure proficiency or mastery of identified standards (knowledge and skills) in class or out of class, where hours of instruction may vary.”

Utah’s State Board of Education defined a “non-traditional program” to include distance learning, blended learning, online learning, or competency-based learning. The policy allows LEAs to “adopt a written policy that designates a continuing enrollment measurement…for each student enrolled in the nontraditional program.”

Competency-Based Diplomas 

Maine is transitioning to a proficiency-based diploma for all students, adopting a set of Guiding Principles to define cross-curricular skills for which each student must demonstrate proficiency for high school graduation.

Michigan authorized funding  to develop and pilot a competency-based transcript and marketplace to “provide enhanced choice to pupils and parents for the completion of requirements for a high school diploma.” The transcript to be developed and piloted is to be “pupil-owned” and to allow students to satisfy college admission requirements, accumulate credentials and credits, matriculate to postsecondary, and prepare for early career success.

Vermont requires LEAs to have proficiency-based graduation requirements based on state standards, starting with the graduating class of 2020. Schools may use credits to demonstrate a student has met graduation requirements; if they do, credits must not be based on time and must specify the proficiencies demonstrated to attain a credit.

Acceptance of Competency-Based Diplomas and Credits by Higher Education 

Utah included a requirement that the institutions of higher education shall recognize and accept a diploma earned in a competency-based program in the enabling legislation for the Competency-Based Pilot Grants.

The New England Secondary Schools Consortium (NESSC) is a collaboration of five states that encourages proficiency-based graduation and personalized learning pathways. The group has worked to secure a statement of support from 68 public and private institutions of higher education which “states—unequivocally—that students with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way” in the admissions process.

Anytime, Anywhere Learning 

Louisiana’s Course Access program (Supplemental Course Academy) is considered the most developed nationally. Hundreds of online and face-to-face courses are offered by providers that have gone through a rigorous state review and approval process. The system uses a flexible funding model.

Florida Virtual School, established in 1997, is focused on “any path, any pace, any time, any place” learning. Credits are awarded in these online classes based on individual student progression, rather than time-based requirements.

State Assessment Systems that Support CBE 

Florida end-of-course (EOC) assessments, aligned to the Florida Standards (FS), are administered for biology, U.S. History, Civics, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry.

New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) began under the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver. A small number of LEAs are voluntarily piloting the system, 11 of which include reduced standardized testing together with locally developed common performance assessments designed to support deeper learning and to be more integrated into students’ day-to-day work than current standardized tests. The inspiration for ESSA’s Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority, PACE includes:

  • Common performance tasks that have high technical quality;
  • Locally designed performance tasks with guidelines for ensuring high technical quality, regional scoring sessions, and local LEA peer review audits to ensure sound accountability systems and high inter-rater reliability;
  • A web-based bank of local and common performance tasks; and
  • A regional support network for LEAs and schools.

Virginia has been administering online tests for over a decade and is transitioning many of its statewide assessments to computer adaptive testing, with most students taking computer adaptive mathematics tests in grades 3, 6, 7, and 8 in 2015-16. Many tests also allow students to indicate their responses in ways other than multiple choice answers. This program was expanded in 2016-17.

Innovation Pilots Focused on CBE

Idaho authorized the creation of an initial cohort of incubators for mastery-based education in FY2017. Sites are intended to provide data and best practices for continued implementation of mastery education across the state.

Ohio’s Competency-Based Education Pilot allowed five applicants to plan and implement competency-based education programs. The Ohio Department of Education selected five sites in March 2016, each of which to receive up to $200,000 per academic year during the pilot. Ohio also allowed that participating students will be considered as traditional full-time equivalent students for purposes of state funding.

General Innovation Programs

Colorado’s Innovation Schools Act authorizes innovation zones and innovation schools. Local school boards have the authority to designate an innovation school or innovation zone based on a plan submitted by the school or schools. The permissible innovations include the length of school day and year student promotion and graduation policies, and the assessment plan.

Georgia’s Innovation Fund began as a part of Georgia’s Race to the Top plan and provided grants to invest in local efforts “to plan, implement and scale innovative education programs that advance student achievement” throughout the state. To continue the Innovation Fund’s work, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has appropriated state funding for the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to administer grants to organizations focused on planning, implementing, or scaling programs aligned with the Innovation Fund’s priority areas.

What other examples would you add? As mentioned above, please feel free to contribute to the list by adding a comment below.

Additionally, keep an eye out in the coming weeks for follow-up lists that will highlight other interesting CBE resources, initiatives, and difference-makers! And be sure to check back for the final publication, which will be launched in mid-July.

This post is part of a series focused on competency-based education in partnership with XQ Institute. The series highlights findings from research and interviews conducted during the development of the upcoming white paper, “Show What You Know: The State of Competency-Based Education.”

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Better Together: Why Networks Are the Future of Learning

The new thing in education is working in networks. And there’s good reason because the demands of the work have outstripped the toolset. We’ve (probably) reached a point of maximum complexity where more teachers are shooting for broader aims but with old constraints and inadequate tools and supports. The answer is working together in informal and formal networks.

The global momentum around deeper project-based learning is undeniable. The widespread attention being paid to social and emotional skills is encouraging and productive. More youth are gaining access to powerful learning in and out of school.

The problem is, this stuff is hard. And, for the most part, we’re all making it up on the fly. Requiring (and even allowing) individual teachers and schools to develop new learning models is a lousy way to do R&D. We can’t and shouldn’t rely on individual teachers building and delivering lessons for diverse groups of learners. If willing and able (and well supported), that’s great, but let’s leverage their work across 100 or 1,000 classrooms.  

The Right Network for the Job

There are lots of different ways educators and schools work together. They generally range from informal collaborations between educators to the formal governance structures of managed networks (like charter management organizations, CMOs).

Professional learning communities (PLC) are an increasingly common way to productively structure collaboration between educators within and between schools (see Tim Stuart’s new book for more).

Leadership networks (PLCs for superintendents) can be an efficient R&D collaboration. Examples include the 3,200 superintendents that have joined Future Ready Schools and the 200 districts that belong to the League of Innovative Schools.

While these can be effective models of collaboration, they may not produce a network effect where value improves with scale–where each new member contributes value and has an improved user experience.

As Seth Godin said, “An ideal project is one where the users are better off if others are using it too.” Think telephone and messaging systems, or social media and dating platforms.

Voluntary school networks that share a learning model, a platform, and professional learning experiences have the best chance at getting better as they get bigger. Examples include the 200 school New Tech Network or the 644 career academies that belong to NAF.

Teachers in New Tech Network schools share a big project library. They can adopt or adapt the work of other teachers and contribute back to the platform   

Curriculum networks like Project Lead The Way and AVID are partial school models that share online resources and learning experiences with some opportunity to contribute to the network.  

Five Network Functions

There are five key functions that school networks play.

1. Capacity building. PLCs and leadership networks build educator capacity.

2. Innovation bundle. Platform networks and most CMOs bundle a group of features and tools. They leverage an R&D agenda across a large network of schools. Strong network like IDEA Public Schools in Texas keep tinkering with the components to make the bundle better. Summit Learning, a free platform from Summit Public Schools, is a bundle of innovations that keeps getting better.

3. Space and support to innovate. The high performing Achievement First network sponsored Greenfield Schools to test a bundle of innovations. The Kettle Moraine School District piloted personalized learning in four microschools. Critical elements including permission, inspiration, support, budget and technical assistance.

“I’m constantly surprised by the power of the network and the positive deviance,” said Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy. “Several of the new Actons are at least as advanced as our campus, and the Owner Forums have two or three great new ideas or tools proposed by others each week, the best of which are quickly adopted by affiliates. I always believed in self-organizing systems in theory, but it’s fascinating to see the power of emergent growth in action.”

4. Expanded learning options. Districts like Denver and El Paso have built or partnered with networks to expand access to options in STEM and the arts and for girls and disconnected youth.

5. School improvement. Denver sponsored Beacon Schools, an internal improvement network.  

ConnectEd connected big California districts in a productive improvement network.

Collaborations achieving a network effect encourage resource sharing. Networks can also add value to members by conducting advocacy–building the brand and helping to shape public policy.  

Better Together

Networks are proving to be an engine for innovation as well as a powerful scaling strategy that, for the kids that need it most, can boost access to quality. That’s why Lydia Dobyns, CEO of the New Tech Network, and I wrote a new book called Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks For Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning (published by Wiley, available for preorder now and launching 7/16/18).  

The core premise is that creating powerful learning is hard work and there’s no reason for teacher teams to work alone. Networks make powerful learning more routinely available.

“It’s hard for individual schools to advance equity on their own” explained Dobyns. Not figuring this out is “a threat to democracy over time.” It’s time to work together in networks.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

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A 21st Century Model of Special Education

By: Megan Gross and Ace Parsi

A cassette in an iPhone world. A horse and buggy in the age of NASCAR. These are just a few of the analogies that have been used to describe our education system as it struggles to address the needs of an ever-changing world. But what is often left out of the conversation is the reality facing students in special education. Students with disabilities often don’t even have access to the cassette or horse and buggy, and segregated learning is all too often the model used by schools. We know that the vast majority of our students with disabilities are capable of doing the same level of work as their peers without disabilities. They will be entering the same world as their peers, a world where rote tasks are increasingly automated or outsourced. And yet we do little to prepare them for their future.

The reality of segregated learning environments can impact students and their educators. A special education student may lack access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, or rigorous out of school learning opportunities. Their special education teacher may lack access to shared training with their general education counterparts on new ways to educate students. Students and educators both suffer as a result of separation from and lack of interaction with their peers and colleagues. An inclusive society demands that we get beyond this.

Reports such as Education for Life and Work, by the National Research Council, highlights the need for transferable skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication, growth mindsets, and more. In light of this trend, general and special educators alike must ask which of these skills are most lacking and most needed for the future success of our students with disabilities. NCLD’s new report, Agents of Their Own Success, highlights skills associated with self-advocacy and self-determination as key areas for consideration.

Self-advocacy is defined as a set of skills based on self-knowledge, including awareness of personal strengths and limitations, knowledge of one’s rights and the ability to communicate this understanding. Self-determination is an empowered state in which individuals take charge of their lives, make choices in their self-interest and freely pursue their goals. While it’s true that every student needs these skills and capacities, one needn’t think long to identify why these are especially important for students with disabilities. If you’re in a post-secondary classroom and no longer have the benefits of a dedicated individualized education program (IEP) team, you need to quickly learn to be a self-advocate for your accommodations. Similarly, navigating what types of accommodations you need in the workplace and approaching your supervisor on in the job site to request these supports takes a great deal of self-determination.

Knowing that students with disabilities will face these and countless similar scenarios throughout their lives, it is our responsibility in K-12 education to effectively prepare them. The key is to not simply assume this will happen without dedicated attention but to instead take a more explicit route through three channels.

1. Create Specific Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination IEP Goals.

If self-advocacy skills and self-determination are to get the attention they deserve from educators, parents, and students, we must make them explicit within the student IEP. IEP goals targeting these 21st Century skills are essential for students to build a foundation for being change agents in their own lives and must be more than expressing needs and wants. In addition, IEP goals that focus on building students’ knowledge of who they are as learners, what accommodations are essential to their learning and how to communicate that to support staff, teachers, or future employers are essential for success as an independent adult. For example, an IEP goal might read:

  • “Student will be able to create a written letter of introduction that explains his strengths, interests, disability, and accommodations he needs to be successful with academics, socially, and communication and share this letter with one individual (teacher, parent) before graduation.” or
  • Given a problem-solving scaffold and role-play scenarios, a student will be able to state the problem, identify possible solutions, identify the appropriate person to talk with, and explain how that person can help, with 75% accuracy for 4 of 5 opportunities as measured by student work samples.

2. Involve Students in the IEP and Transition Process.

Even more than the IEP goals themselves, we need to be more mindful of the IEP and transition process, ensuring it’s more engaging and inclusive of students. All students with IEPs, even those at the primary grades, have a role to play in their IEP meetings. Recently, our high school team reflected on comments many of our students with IEPs were making. They were asking, “What’s an IEP?” and saying, “Oh, I don’t have a disability.” We realized that, while were effectively supporting their academic success and were presenting them with great college and career opportunities after high school, we were missing the opportunity to give our students the knowledge and tools for how to navigate disability support systems beyond K-12. As a result, our team developed weekly mini-lessons that focused on helping students learn the terminology used in IEPs, actually becoming familiar with their own IEPs, asking questions and making recommendations about their future, and understanding and evaluating the accommodations they’re using. Students created presentations about themselves, their interests, their strengths, and areas they wanted to improve for the year ahead. Students then shared these presentations at the start of their IEP meetings. For many, this was the first time students in high school had ever attended or spoken at their own IEP meeting.

3. Connect Students to In and Out of School Experiences That Promote Goals.

Lastly, we need to connect in-school and out-of-school experiences more cohesively to ensure more practical opportunities to practice these skills. Our students need opportunities to practice and refine their skills in self-advocacy. While some are confident in approaching their teachers, counselors, or even the principal, others need more support and even scaffolding.

This year, we explicitly taught students how to request a meeting with a general education teacher, provided a script they could use if they wanted to, and the role played how to request feedback and develop goals for improvement in a course. In their reflections on the experience, students and teachers felt this was a positive experience and appreciated the student initiative and responsibility in this process.

In conclusion, if we are going to prepare all students — including students with disabilities — for success after high school, we need a changing tide in how we approach education. At the same time, it’s essential that the changing tide truly lift all boats. If we are explicit and intentional about how we empower students to become self-advocates and develop the skills they need to navigate life’s challenges after they leave secondary school, we have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the next chapter of educational and civil rights.

Ace Parsi is the Personalized Learning Partnership Manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Connect with them on Twitter @ncldorg

Megan Gross is a special education teacher and was the 2017 California State Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year Finalist. Connect with her on twitter: 

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How Maker Education Supports English Languages Learners in STEM

By: Caroline Linne

What is the best way to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to students who haven’t mastered English?

Some educators believe the answer lies in maker education, the latest pedagogical movement that embraces hands-on learning through making, building, creating and collaborating.

That approach seems especially suited for STEM education, and particularly students who speak foreign languages at home. Maker education’s emphasis on critical thinking, creativity and experimentation means that lack of English proficiency becomes less of a barrier.

“With maker education, you speak a universal language. … Everyone can be involved — it’s a natural bridge,” Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher in Valhalla, N.Y., told USC Rossier in an article for their online masters in teaching program.

“Makerspaces” can serve as equalizer chambers where native and non-native English speakers learn STEM side by side by tackling projects and solving problems. Students can write computer code, prototype designs with 3-D printers or build robots — all while learning about teamwork and how to handle setbacks and mistakes.

About English Language Learners

Nearly one in every 10 students are learning English as a second language. English language learners (ELL) are the fastest-growing group in public schools and are projected to account for 40 percent of K-12 enrollment by 2040.

An in-depth report by NPR this year found that most ELL students around the country are struggling without the tailored, quality instruction they need. What’s more, many non-ELL teachers –– in particular those who teach STEM in middle and high schools –– do not see themselves as language teachers and sometimes are unprepared to address the unique needs of ELL students, according to a paper in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Though they lack fluency in English, some ELL students have strong numeracy skills and other knowledge they may be unable to fully demonstrate in class. STEM learning is first and foremost about logic, inquiry and curiosity –– something students possess in any language.

Strategies for Educators

Maker education gives ELLs “a vehicle to express themselves and a tool that can help them learn the lessons without necessarily having mastered the English language,” according to USC Rossier’s guide to maker education.

If you’re interested in creating a makerspace in your classroom or school, here are five ways to make it work for ELL students:

  1. Secure administrator buy-in. You need them to fundraise, evangelize and to prioritize maker education. Supportive administrators are often the “true champions for making,” according to interviews conducted by USC Rossier.
  2. Just go for it. On the other hand, makerspaces needn’t require expensive gear or dedicated rooms. Trish Roffey, a technology consultant in Edmonton, Canada, set up her first makerspace with a bin of materials from a dollar store and a Raspberry Pi computer that cost $35. Makerspace, she says, “is about good teaching and learning, period.”
  3. Keep it inclusive. Makerspaces should be places where ELLs and students of all capabilities can learn without fear of failure. Encourage tinkering and activities that set students up for success. By developing an encouraging atmosphere, you help students understand how to learn from mistakes and incorporate these learnings into future projects, a similar concept when learning a new language.
  4. Tap all the senses. English-learners and students with disabilities or different learning styles respond well to activities with auditory, visual and kinesthetic challenges. A study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals concluded mixed-modality activities allow students to forge deeper, stronger connection between the English language and STEM content.
  5. Use visual cues. Signs and displays are great ways to guide and motivate students who have trouble following or remembering complex instructions. Visual cues can be understood by students of any reading ability, and give them the necessary spark to start on their journey of learning and discovery.

Incorporating just these few things into your classroom space can make a world of a difference for teachers and ELL students. The best way to create a successful learning environment for all students is to make it comfortable, accessible, and adjustable!

Caroline Linne is a Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Caroline supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and speech pathology programs.

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