CBE: Getting Started with Learner-Centered Practices with an Equity Lens

Aurora 2021 was a chance for competency-based practitioners and innovators to come together to share updates and new thinking. We were excited to co-lead a session with Claudette Trujillo and Cinnamon Scheufele, focused on transformation approaches and learner-centered strategies rooted in equity and learning innovations.

These are not new topics, but they remain major challenges for many new entrants to the competency-based education (CBE) landscape and are crucial for ensuring that new CBE models reach the full promise of more powerful and more equitable learning for all students.

Often we might start with a shared vision. We haven’t given people time to catch up to the thinking around that and we haven’t made sure everyone’s at the table…that vision is not truly shared, it is just shared out.

Rebecca Midles

There are a number of different approaches to CBE transformation that are worth considering, and the most effective will largely depend on the context and nature of who is making the change (e.g., whether it is a district/system, individual school(s) within a district that is supportive of their efforts, or a magnet/charter school).

A District Perspective on Transformation

Cinnamon Scheufele has worked in Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) for 28 years. She started teaching in Lindsay and later became a reading specialist in both English and Spanish.  She has held the roles as Learning Facilitator (teacher), Director of Preschools, Principal and now serves as the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

She shared the story of LUSD and how their vision and strategic design began (list sources) and continues the work with the visual you see today of the ideal learning experience. Through their core values, beliefs and guiding principles, and the vision for what they want for their learners, LUSD continues to work toward the full realization of their Strategic Design.

If you have ever visited this district, then you have seen the unified approaches to organizing a system around learner needs and interests. In efforts to align their vision, they have SEL focus areas, called lifelong learning spheres, that are vertically aligned PK to graduate outcomes with intentional support throughout their district. This district also opens their doors for 4-5 visits a year for guests to see this work in action. This is currently paused during the pandemic but they have plans to resume when appropriate for learners and staff to receive outside guests.

Resources shared:

Supporting District Vision with School Vision

Claudette Trujillo is principal of Metropolitan Arts Academy, a public school within Westminster Public Schools in Colorado. She has been working in personalized learning for over 15 years as a teacher and school leader, and actively supports district measures. She shared her journey of co-designing and implementing a school vision within a district vision. Claudette’s “why” is centered around solving the challenge of inequitable access to rigorous learning experiences across disparate student groups and communities.

As a principal and life-long progressive educator, she co-developed a vision that established the conditions for immediate and equitable access to a rigorous arts program that includes performance opportunities through arts-integrated, project-based learning in a competency-based learning model for PK-8 learners in the Westminster Public School district. She zeroed in on key aspects of processes such as stakeholder input that is responsive to the communities needs and vision, systemic alignment, an equity focus rooted in the community, and opportunities for planning for mobility or postsecondary transition. She described two other points of entry or guidance more generally for site-level leaders seeking to root competency-based learning that is learner-centered and equity driven: starting with strengths, and equity-focused instructional design.

Schools, districts, and educators seeking to begin this process may find starting with an assessment of strengths helpful as the process compels individuals or institutions to do a deep dive into their inventory of resources (staff, finances, etc.), inventory of personnel (talents, strengths, and weaknesses/gaps), and finally a focus on recruitment for needs and visionaries (i.e., individuals that match the organization’s theory of change, mission, and vision). Next, she underlined the importance of instructional design and how it must be equity-driven, a process that requires an equity and innovation-focused approach for hiring and staffing assignments. This is foundational because it is an ongoing process that reflects the fact that the work of equity is inexhaustible or inextinguishable.    

Resources Shared:

Podcast with Claudette Trujillo about Implementing

WPS Learning Model Flyer

WPS Summit and Supporting CBL

Learning Environment: Classroom

At Crosstown High, in Memphis, Tennessee, educators want to be sure that they are working with all students across demographic groups and performance levels to ensure a school culture exists that is wholly inclusive and reflective of a student’s lived experiences and diverse cultures, so that all learners feel like they want to be there and that they are wanted there by all stakeholders.

At Crosstown, our culture is founded on a strong mission and value statement that have guided us toward meaningful, culturally relevant and responsive, engaging learning experiences; deep meaningful relationships; full participation as youth voice and choice; intentionally designed and use of space and time supported by technology; and the full commitment of the community to ensure the wellbeing and education of the whole learner inside and outside the classroom.

All learners need to be seen, be heard and be valued. They all need to see a path of their choosing in their future.

Rebecca Midles

Crosstown’s learning environment at the classroom level seeks to support students and fulfill two of its core values: diversity by design and a relationship-driven culture, through the implementation of a robust advising framework that is supported by curricula from Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) and an internally curated social-emotional learning and academic advising framework that seeks to support the learner’s journey by providing the requisite skills and tools that support the development of life-long learning skills and dispositional development and actualization.

Learners are also supported and encouraged by learner-centric and created affinity groups that provide a space and opportunity for individuals and groups of like characteristics to come together to discuss their experiences and provide support for further development.

Resources Shared:

Facing History and Ourselves  

Including Student Voice 

5 Ways to Include Student Voice

Commitment to Equity and Human Centered approaches

Often we might start with a shared vision but may come to the realization that we have not given people time to catch up to the thinking around the design of that vision and we have not made sure everyone’s at the table. When a vision is not truly shared, it is just shared out. As schools and districts consider getting started with competency-based education with learner-centered practices and an equity lens, many entry points exist at the district level, school level, or learning environment, classroom level.

But educators must be willing to commit to fully including and genuinely listening to and internalizing the learner voice, staffing characteristics and cohesion, and instructional design to ensure the establishment of equitable access to high-quality learning environments regardless of the learner’s history or social location.

Surviving the Extremes at the WPS Summit

Armed with swag and ready to learn all about competency-based systems, attendees from across the country poured into the Marriott Westminster for the Westminster Public Schools (WPS) Summit. The room buzzed with anticipation.

The WPS Summit is a three-day conference focused on competency-based education. Located in Denver and in its third year, the summit provided an opportunity for teachers and education leaders to visit schools at all levels, engage with national speakers and deepen their knowledge during breakout sessions. This year’s theme of “Surviving the Extremes” focused on the pivots that educators made during the pandemic and the pivots that will be continued so that students are prepared for the VUCA future.


Featured speakers for this year’s event included Dr. Mark Elgart, Cognia;  Dr. Robert Marzano, Marzano Resources; Dr. Scott McLeod, CASTLE and members of the WPS staff. Sessions were grouped by focus areas centered around shared vision, leadership, competency-based design, learner-centered classrooms and continuous improvement. Participants also had the opportunity to visit WPS schools from elementary to high school, including the innovation school Metropolitan Arts Academy.

From the beginning, summit participants were challenged to imagine a knowledge revolution. Emphasizing that education has shifted and the focus needs to be more on adding value through knowledge, Dr. Mark Elgart led a keynote about the importance of going beyond being informed. “Kids are in creation mode. They have to be knowledge workers, which means someone who can learn and adapt to a shifting workplace.” The conversation at the conference regularly returned to this theme: continuing to change the competency definition to ensure that students were able to pivot in the workplace.

Participants were able to choose from over 35 breakout sessions during the summit. Sessions were personalized and presented by various stakeholders, from practitioners to vendors. Sessions contained valuable lessons — for example, in “Providing Effective Feedback to Teachers in a CBE Classroom,” attendees were able to learn not just what effective teacher feedback looks like in a competency-based system, but also what it means to coach vs. evaluate. “I start with hopes, fears and expectations when first talking to my teachers. I ask them what they expect from the process and I convey my expectations as well. I make sure I’m very clear on what I’m coaching on,” said Shannon Willy, a WPS administrator.

Other sessions centered around supporting educators in using a competency-based system toolkit to increase student agency and industry validation of competencies. Participants walked away with concrete examples of how to use tools such as The Parking Lot, Affinity Diagram and Power Voting that they could immediately implement in their classrooms. They also learned how to connect career and technical education programs to competencies to ensure that students met standards, received credit, gained internships and earned industry certifications.

Students who benefited from the enhanced career and technical education programs were present to share their experiences. “I took both the Inventor and Revit test and now I have an internship with an engineering company. We use Revit every single day. Being able to take the credential test helped set me up for success. It was hard. That test was really, really hard. They’re amazed that I know some of the same things that engineers do. Everyone is looking for experience. The fact that you can show them a credentials test is amazing,” said one WPS Graduate of the Class of 2020.

Attending the varied sessions not only allowed for participants to hear from students and teachers but also helped to make the connection between a traditional education culture to one that is built on a competency-based approach. Participants were able to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and the value of students showing what their “genuis” is in a way that outweighs a letter grade.

School Visits

To enhance the conference experience, participants were able to tour local Westminster schools. During the school visits, participants heard how students and teachers interacted in a competency-based system. Teachers explained the proficiency scales and students as young as kindergarten explained their data notebooks and showed how they access their learning platforms. During the Metropolitan Arts Academy tour, participants saw firsthand the energy of the administrators and heard the passion from the students. “It’s nice to be at a school where my identity isn’t tied to my grade,” said an 8th-grade student leader at the Metropolitan Arts Academy.

Participants were able to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and the value of students showing what their “genuis” is in a way that outweighs a letter grade.

Rashawn Caruthers

With plenty of educational options to engage in, from math to dance to drama, the love of learning and the positive relationships were apparent. Instantly welcomed into the schools’ culture, participants were able to engage in stretching exercises with the drama class, paint galaxies with the art students, learn about Cesar Chavez through a virtual reality session, and watch students build bridges out of toothpicks and glue.

Students couldn’t wait to welcome visitors to their school. “She (the designated greeter) has been waiting all day to say welcome and hello,” said a kindergarten teacher who serves “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse” students. Middle school students served as tour guides, talking about their art-filled morning meetings, the buddy system where the middle school students are paired with elementary students, and their passions for music and art. Participants also heard 4th graders having high-level pre-writing conversations making sure they noted what they heard and saw when describing their rollercoaster experience with their class. “Something I saw was people recording and people with their hands up. Something I heard was people yelling.”

Students understood their goals and how to communicate their progress at any point. They understood the competency-based terminology and how to effectively use the tools to manage their workload. With competency-based components in place such as agency and individualized student plans, students and staff have learned to document their success, collaborate as much as possible and measure everything they do.

Visited Schools

The presenters, the sessions and the school visits created a powerful learning environment for all participants. With the added benefit of being able to have a personalized session of how best to implement or maintain a competency-based system, the experience felt well-rounded and impactful. The many opportunities to connect, create new networks and share experiences and resources created momentum and a sense of community that was openly received by all. We definitely recommend adding this conference to your list for next year!

Learning at the Concourse: Crosstown High

In the heart of midtown Memphis is Crosstown Concourse, home of Crosstown High. When you walk into the Concourse, you are greeted by high-spirited funk and soul music being piped through the atrium’s speakers straight from a local radio station that is located on the ground floor of the building with a studio window facing the foyer. High school students mill around greeting their friends and ordering drinks from French Truck Coffee as they wait for the school day to start. The Concourse is home to over 40 businesses, nonprofits and restaurants, with Crosstown High living in a corner on the fourth and fifth floors.

Crosstown high
Overlooking the atrium of the concourse

Crosstown not only occupies a compelling location, but has made the most of the space through the creative use of classroom and shared areas, prominent displays of student art and creations, and partnerships with groups such as the Church Health Nutrition Hub. They have also received a grant from the XQ Institute to rethink high school. We were grateful to have the opportunity to visit Crosstown in this environment and witness their inspiring example of innovative learning with a meaningful use of space.

Learning at Crosstown High

There is a strong student-teacher rapport and relationship building.  As we toured the school, we observed learners engaging in work that was thematically connected across disciplines and connected to their capstone project.

Students Journaling at Crosstown High

The thematic journeys that students engage in over the course of their four years at Crosstown are guided by questions such as, “What systems shape power in Memphis, and how do we affect change within those systems?” Teachers spend time working together to align their teaching and capstones to these themes.

For their capstones, students opt into a “strand” focused on components of these guiding questions such as the environment, health care, politics, social & criminal justice, and more. Students from within each strand come together, guided by teachers, to collaborate on nuanced personal research questions, which lead to exercises such as “expert interviews” with community partners and PechaKucha presentations. Students’ capstone work ultimately culminates in advocacy campaigns and project showcases (one of the keys to high-quality PBL).

These experiences are built upon a foundation of competency-based learning, which has given weight to many of the experiences students engage in. When asked what her favorite part of Crosstown was, Harmony, a senior, replied, “The competencies have been my favorite part–they helped me become who I am, and develop and become confident in my skills.”

Students standing in front of Crosstown’s “Competency Wall”

Inspiring Spaces and Strong Relationships

Another inspiring component of the Crosstown High experience is the strong relationships between students and adults, and between the school community and the space that they occupy.

Crosstown has created a culture in which it doesn’t matter if a teacher is speaking to a student, a student to a teacher, or a student to a student–there is respect. We saw teachers delivering content in a manner that is meant to engage students, focusing on student contribution, questioning, and thoughtful instruction. “It’s important to be able to be vulnerable with teachers,” said Ava, a senior, when discussing the support they have received.

Students also have meaningful opportunities to both impact the spaces within the school and engage in the businesses surrounding it. Many of the school’s spaces have been enhanced by the addition of student-created art collections and student-supported murals that adorn the various hallways of the school.

Crosstown has created a culture in which it doesn’t matter if a teacher is speaking to a student, a student to a teacher, or a student to a student–there is respect.

Rebecca Midles and Erik Day

A corner of the school’s library, designed in part by students
A mural depicting Crosstown students and their hopes and dreams

The opportunities for students to engage with the space and people around them are not limited by the school walls. This is where Crosstown’s High location within the Crosstown Concourse becomes so powerful. To more deeply connect with the grade-level themes and projects described above, students have regular opportunities to engage with the businesses at the Concourse. For example, in one project focused on understanding refugees’ experiences, students went to a restaurant at the Concourse co-owned by three refugee chefs to interview them about their individual experiences. The school has also partnered with the Church Health Nutrition Center, which has a kitchen that students are able to utilize to practice building healthy dietary knowledge and habits.

These priorities contribute to one of the most encouraging components of Crosstown that we observed–that students often and openly reflect on how they personally have contributed to the school’s culture, spaces, and practices using pronouns such as “we” and “our.” It is clear that their culture of trust, respect and student leadership have made a big impact on the leadership and investment students have in the school.

Students at the Church Health kitchen

Concluding Thoughts

Crosstown High is a model of whole-student, personalized, and authentic learning that demonstrates what a commitment to competency-based education can yield for a school, and we look forward to visiting again. One student’s words in particular still echo in our minds: “The competencies we gain here aren’t standards for being a student–they’re competencies for the rest of your life.”

We aspire for all students to be able to say the same.

The Four C’s of Student Success

By: Stephanie Malia Krauss

In communities across the country, education administrators are opening their schools with a focus on these four C’s:

  • COVID-19 protocols
  • Compliance requirements
  • Calendars and class schedules
  • Content knowledge catch-up

More than ever, district and building leaders are puzzle masters, magicians in mayhem, and solvers of complex riddles. The 4C’s of reopening schools suck up time and energy. When one thing is finished, another gets added. Demands around these 4C’s have kept leaders away from other priorities that ensure our schools and students succeed.

Thanks to the pandemic, many class lists, and master calendars have been finished, only to need to be redone. Complying with school improvement plans feels impossible. In pre-COVID times, it made sense to say all teachers would offer hands-on learning and flexible seating. Those seem hard to do while practicing safe social distancing.

While these 4C’s will keep our school doors open, they will not ensure our students learn and grow.

Education administrators need to lead with two ends in mind: keep schools open and keep students learning. To make this second piece happen, leaders must embrace a different “4C’s.” Without them, students might show up when the calendar says, attend assigned classes and courses, stay COVID-free, but not learn or grow in the ways they should.

To succeed this year and beyond, these are the 4C’s students need:

  • Competencies
  • Connections
  • Credentials
  • Cash

Given how many demands compete for educators’ time, it may be easiest to fold these four currencies into discussions and decisions already underway.

The 4C’s of student success must be pursued with as much attention, passion and focus as the 4C’s of reopening schools.

Stehpanie Malia Krauss

Competencies are abilities that help students function in the world, including at school. Competencies are highly interdependent; when one is out of balance, the rest are too. They can be taught, practiced, and strengthened. They can also be depleted. Students need competencies in different combinations and quantities, depending on who they are and what they are doing.

Research on youth readiness, adolescence, and learning points to ten competencies that matter most. These are being able to focus and get things done; being able to think and create; applying learning; problem-solving and decision making; getting and staying fit; feeling and expressing emotions; persisting through struggles; sustaining positive relationships; being present, and using insights to grow and develop.

To prioritize competency development, elevate and invest in social-emotional learning, deeper learning, and career pathways programs. These should be schoolwide strategies, rather than being slated for a single class (e.g., health, life skills), academic unit, or a subset of students. Leaders can encourage teachers to design ways to plan and assess with competencies in mind. Consider using ESSER funds designated for “learning recovery” to support partnerships with youth development providers who can do this work with you.

Connections are the relationships that support students’ social health and wealth. There are three kinds of relationships students need: lifelines, door openers, and navigators. Lifelines help students feel safe, supported, and secure. Door openers introduce students to new options and opportunities. Navigators help students make sense of a place or situation. Since COVID-19 started, the social vibrancy of students’ lives has taken a hit. This has been hardest for tweens and teens because they are wired to connect. It’s how their brains learn, work, and process life. Because of this, education leaders must design learning environments so that students have ample opportunities to socialize and be in healthy relationships with others.

To prioritize connections, consider where students are free to interact and engage with others. Make sure those are available to every student. Add additional opportunities for positive socialization into the school day. Assess your extracurricular and enrichment offerings and make sure these socially rich environments are ones that all students can access, afford, and attend – especially since COVID-19 has changed many families’ circumstances.

Credentials are more than diplomas and four-year degrees. Learning after high school is changing rapidly. Today in the US, there are more than 600,000 different postsecondary credentials available. Not only are there more credentialing possibilities, but the pricing and quality among them are hugely variable.

To prioritize credentials, focus on making sure high school graduation requirements and college and career counseling reflect what students really need after graduation. Consider ways for high school and counseling staff to get professional development on the changing postsecondary landscape, both education and the workforce. Activate partnerships with local post-secondary education institutions and employers. Ensure students and their families have up-to-date information and advice when making postsecondary plans.

Cash matters. We know this personally, but often forget it when making decisions about students in school. However, when students experience financial scarcity, it hinders their ability to focus and learn. Things get worse when students live in financial crisis or poverty. Additionally, there are key learning and developmental opportunities reserved for students with financial means. This includes school sports, band, theater, and the arts. Students need support and resources to succeed in school when money is tight or when they experience poverty. All students should be able to participate in any school activity, regardless of economics.

To prioritize cash, leaders must have ways to support students when they experience cash scarcity or crisis. They also must ensure school activities are available to every student, regardless of financial means. Public school can be expensive. Between student fees, supply requirements, and associated costs of playing sports or participating in extracurricular programs, out-of-pocket costs can be thousands of dollars each year. This is another area where recovery funds can help. Just like making meals free for students, consider waiving student and activity fees this year (and forward, if you can).

Education leaders have been asked to run districts and schools in an impossible time of risk, division, and uncertainty. Even so, this is the third year of disrupted learning students have experienced, during periods of critical growth and development. The 4C’s of student success must be pursued with as much attention, passion, and focus as the 4C’s of reopening schools. It is hard and complex work, but necessary for our students’ well-being and well-becoming.

Stephanie Malia Krauss is author of Making It: What Today’s Kids Need for Tomorrow’s World. She is the founder of First Quarter Strategies, a senior advisor with Job For the Future, senior fellow with Education Northwest, and staff consultant with the Youth Transition Funders Group. Stephanie is an educator and social worker, with experience as a classroom teacher and school leader.

Three Strategies to Engage Middle Grade Students in Data Science

By: Chad Dorsey

The amount of data available in our world is increasing at exponential rates and is increasingly essential to all aspects of our lives. Whether we consider the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of climate change on sea-level rise and extreme weather events, or the importance of data in the workplace, data is at the center of the most important issues of our globe. As we help our youth prepare for societal and personal challenges on local and global scales and witness the powerful intersection of data exploration and social justice issues, the ability to understand and work with data has never been more critical.

Data also provide significant opportunities for engaging youth with personally relevant problems that have significance to the real world. Data can help open up youths’ understanding of and connection to central societal issues. And conversations centered on data can be important jumping-off points for connecting youth with their communities and bringing community members together around issues of common concern.

It is an exciting time for data science education, and many new opportunities are emerging for teaching and learning. As we consider a trio of these—examples focused on engaging underrepresented and marginalized middle-grade students with data science topics across geographies, cultures, and population sizes—three key learnings stand out.

Use opportunities both in and out of school to explore data

While coherent curricula within a classroom setting can be critical for building a formal understanding of mathematical concepts and competencies including the data concepts built into current standards, activities that leverage out-of-school time can offer powerful opportunities. Afterschool experiences and programs can help youth explore data in low-stakes environments where they can make their own choices about what they pursue, freed from narrow classroom constraints.

In one out-of-school model, a 12-week curriculum titled Data Explorers, developed by TERC through funding and partnership with NetApp and in collaboration with the Concord Consortium and the India STEM Foundation, students aged 11-15 investigate datasets addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They learn how to question, interpret, and visualize data using data analysis software, the Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP), and work in teams to solve problems around a social issue of concern—all to begin their data science journey. The NetApp Data Explorers program focuses on data awareness using data tools and games and complex datasets and visualizations with the goal of helping underrepresented students become more fluent with data.

The program was piloted in the 2020-2021 school year as part of afterschool clubs in Durham, North Carolina, and Bangalore, India, two of the 30 NetApp office locations around the globe. According to one of the teachers at the Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham, “This experience was the most engaged I have seen the students all year.” She also raved about CODAP, describing how it easily engaged students in data exploration. “The chart animations are great,” she said. “And the kids enjoyed being able to make their own data visualizations.”

Another project, run by Science Education Solutions, engages underserved youth across the country in “Data Detective Clubs.” The National Science Foundation-funded COVID-Inspired Data Science Education Through Epidemiology project includes out-of-school activities based on The Case of the COVID Crisis, a young adult adventure novel that follows two middle school students on a time travel adventure as they visit epidemics of the past and present. As students encounter stories about measles, smallpox, the 1918 flu, Ebola, and COVID-19, they learn historical facts about the diseases, use the CODAP software platform to explore authentic epidemiology datasets, and learn about the power of science—and data science—to find cures.

Use data as a novel medium of expression

Data can also be an outlet for unlocking and exploring young people’s creativity. A third project, the National Science Foundation-funded Writing Data Stories project at the University of California Berkeley, encourages middle school students to tell data stories about questions that matter most to them. By drawing on students’ natural desire to express themselves and make sense of the world, this project helps students recognize that data can be used for expression.

Working on the assumption that learners should view data as a medium, this project familiarizes youth with “data moves,” helping them learn to filter, transform, join, and summarize data, moving and navigating within it as an artist does with paints or a poet with words.

In Writing Data Stories, youth analyze existing scientific datasets about important socio-scientific issues, using data not only to answer questions about climate change affecting the places they care about but also to tell a story to inspire action. More than simply screenshots or static data visualizations, the visualizations they produce act as interactive stories of their journeys in learning about the topic. Other youth can explore these stories in turn and find their own data-based discoveries within them.

In their data stories, the youth also record information about where the data come from and explain why the data are important, what is included or excluded, and how they wrangled the data into a useful form. Exploring patterns, tensions, and omissions in public scientific datasets and considering how they reflect—or don’t reflect—their everyday personal experience helps youth understand how data relates to injustices in their world and helps them see datasets as shared, human-produced knowledge. In the process, the project empowers youth to transform and reorganize datasets to better reflect their new perspectives.

Take action with data

In all of these cases, data has the ability to empower students, giving them new lenses with which to see the world. Youth who are data fluent have the power to explore and investigate real-world datasets, asking questions of the data and looking for answers in it. As they visualize data to form patterns and spark insights, they can apply their analyses to create actionable solutions to improve their world.

In the NetApp Data Explorers program, groups of youth create a final project focused on a social impact topic from the United Nations SDGs. Students research issues of poverty, health, education, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action, then formulate research questions, organize and validate data, and create data visualizations for awareness campaigns and posters, which they present in a project showcase. In the Writing Data Stories curriculum, youth write a narrative argument to complement their data analysis that aims to inspire their audience to take action to change a problem.

Both the NetApp Data Explorers and Data Detective Clubs also provide youth with opportunities to meet practicing data scientists and researchers. In Data Explorers, NetApp employee volunteers coach students through their capstone projects and share personal stories of the different ways they use data in their careers—data that can change the world.

Using these approaches to build for the future

Data education can take many forms, but all have the opportunity to change youths’ view of what data are and how data can help them to make a difference in the world. To help provide these opportunities to more learners in more places, we need tested, flexible data education curricula that can work across different communities and circumstances. With a diverse set of approaches, youth can come to recognize the power of data wherever they learn, both in and out of school. Locations ranging from museums to libraries, afterschool clubs, school programs, and more should be able to serve as hubs for data-intensive community inquiry projects across the world. These great examples serve as inspiring starting points for preparing tomorrow’s data-fluent citizens and workers.

For more, see:

Chad Dorsey is President and CEO of the Concord Consortium.

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Getting Smart Town Hall Recap: Let’s Talk About C.B.E.: Competency-Based Everything

On the most recent Getting Smart Town Hall, Let’s Talk about C.B.E.: Competency-Based Everything, we brought in a few of our friends to serve as guests and lend their valuable expertise to the audience’s wonderings about competency-based education (CBE). We were joined by Claudette Trujillo of Westminster Public Schools, Laura Hilger of Knowledgeworks, Deion A. Jordan of Crosstown High and Abby Benedetto of Envision Education.

As always, we started with a poem:

blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
may you open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Some attendees were moved by the word “tide” noting its implications of collaboration and how networks can bring things about. Others were inspired by the undertones of “leaning into uncertainty”. “Turning from the wind” implies having the wind at your back, letting the strength of what is already moving in the right direction help carry us along.”

Together, we unpacked what competency-based education is, what role it plays in the modern learning landscape and the profound power of learner goals. Shawnee beautifully stated that we must “Lean into the uncertainty and thrive with purpose.”

Chris Sturgis shared the following insight: “I think helping districts to understand the difference that standards-referenced is a stepping stone to standards-based and CBE. Our problem in our country is that we call standards-referenced, standards-based and makes it harder for people to understand that using standards helps improve instruction and assessment and makes learning transparent to kids. BUT the next and powerful change is to build the capacity to meet kids where they are, providing more time and instruction as needed for kids to be successful, and to create a culture that assumes that everyone will be successful.”

Themes Surfaced

Then we took the opportunity to disperse into breakout rooms, led by a Getting Smart team member and one of our esteemed guests. Here, our participants worked in Jamboards to identify wonderings, gaps and opportunities. Here are some of the themes that surfaced within these sessions:

Mindset: In order for CBE to be effective, mental models need changing.

Equity: Many attendees noted the importance of meeting learners where they are at as a key foundation for equitably enforcing CBE. One participant shared: “I love the equity theme…and I also could summarize it as: reality.”

Measurement: Many of the attendees were curious and optimistic about the ways you can show proof of learning.

Collaboration: Many educators mentioned the fact that they need time to co-design and collaborate together in order to design an effective CBE experience.

Tech: Many of the participants voiced concerns with the fact that there are still not many offerings for CBE friendly tech systems.

You can check out the links and resources mentioned in the session here.

Frequently Asked Questions

We received some of the following questions from the attendees and will be using them to inform some future blog posts as well as, perhaps, future sessions:

  • What can rigorous workplace/internship/real world learning look like beyond CTE models?
  • Would like to learn more about managing large volumes of students at different levels of proficiency.
  • Would like to learn more about: Assessment, going gradeless with a focus on individual student competency goals.

What’s Next

Next month we’re changing things up a bit. Instead of a town hall, we are excited to host a fireside chat alongside our friends: Turnaround For Children. We will facilitate a discussion about returning  to school — whole-child style. Register now — you won’t want to miss this forward-looking discussion on August 4th at 9 a.m. PT.

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Developing Racial-Cultural Literacy through Fiction Reading and Literature Guides

By: Sophia Sanchez

Since the time of civilizations, humans have been divided on various social fronts and have fought for power. Social groups with absolute power have dominated and created knowledge. An article titled Why is My Curriculum White? explores the reasons behind the predominance of “white men” and “white ideas” in the school curriculum and cites colonialism as the main reason for normalizing and internalizing whiteness. With centuries of domination, the colonial mindset has buttressed itself through literature, films, and other popular media by being reflective of the White society.

While literature has for the longest time been used as a tool to propagate racial stereotypes, it has also been a popular medium of resistance. Black and indigenous writers across generations have used literature to question and confront the exclusive whiteness in American society. And with globalization and other geopolitical events encouraging complex social interaction, multiple communities have used literature to point out systemic discrepancies and discrimination, enforcing a need for racial-cultural literacy.

Developing Racial-Cultural Literacy

It is vital to begin educating children about racial-cultural literacy as early as possible. And crucial to the development of this racial-cultural literacy is studying and talking about the histories and experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Whites, among others. It is also equally important that children be taught that the existing diversity is not alien or intrusive but just a culmination of factors of human evolution in certain geographic specificities.

While educating children about racial-cultural literacy is easy, conversations with adolescents about the topic could be tricky. Adolescents develop their socio-political behavior through cognition, peer groups, and other social interactions and tend to believe in them strongly. Thus, addressing them requires a nuanced approach, and encouraging diverse fiction reading is a part of this.

Can Reading Fiction Help?

As much as racial-cultural literacy is important, one cannot expect children and adolescents to understand the expansiveness of racial diversity with exclusive reliance on direct approaches like history reading and obligated interactions, which could be counterproductive. This is where reading fiction can be very helpful. The beauty of literature rests in the possibilities of counter, alter, and micro-narratives that can relay the importance of inclusion to its readers. Reading hones several cognitive muscles, and reading fiction, in particular, strengthens the emotional quotient (EQ). It also helps develop empathy and critical thinking.

Often, fiction is a stronger reflection and representation of reality than reality itself. To Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” To Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And for Khaled Hosseini, “Fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”

Also, with increased cosmopolitanism and diffusion of the English language, fiction has increasingly become a vehicle of enlightenment for race, gender, ethnicity as well as indigenous and immigrant issues.

But with fiction achieving distinct multiculturalism, are we equipped enough to understand, appreciate, and celebrate the multidimensional cultural standpoints that authors bring into their writing?

The Use of Literature Guides

Reading and understanding fiction is an art that comes with practice. And sometimes, understanding fiction requires external support, which could take the form of in-person discussions, online discussions, or internet reading. However, an effective method to understand the essence, context, and background of fiction is through the use of literature guides.

Although fiction writers create unique and distinct settings, they tend to reflect in those settings the real-world issues that affect them, and literature guides act as a bridge between the creative world constructed by the author and the social world they are referring to. Such guides help one understand the complex ideas that authors mention and draw attention to the intricate details of the writing, hence providing a fulfilling experience.

For example, an adolescent reading Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan Lori-Parks would understand that the play is set in the backdrop of the American Civil War and revolves around the character Hero (a slave), his journey as a Black Confederate, and the forced circumstances he was a part of.

However, literature guides through in-depth analysis raise bigger questions: What does it mean to be free? What is freedom? How free are people of color?

They also help one understand the many parallels that are often overlooked easily: What are the similarities between Homer’s Odyssey and Father Comes Home from the Wars?

They also provide contextual understanding for better clarity and help debunk general myths such as the common belief that the Black Confederates fought against the abolition of slavery.

Another important use of literature guides is the understanding of significant metaphors: What does the dog “Odd-see” symbolize in the story? How is freedom different to Hero (who changes his name to Ulysses at the end) and his wife Penny? What does Penny leaving Hero to run away to the Northern states symbolize?

Thus, to enhance racial-cultural literacy, understanding the social context and the writer’s perspective is necessary. While fiction is the window through which one can enter the writer’s world, literature guides act as a torchlight to explore it. When a reader can better understand the author/character’s point of view and where they operate from, social interaction and responsible behavior become internalized. Internalizing race-sensitive behavior helps break socio-political barriers and makes diversity appear more intriguing than intrusive. When differences and diversity are understood and accepted, the social world naturally becomes an easy space for co-existence.

For more, see:

Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor and a passionate educator. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When she is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking. If you want to connect, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog Essay Writing and More.

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Education is Equity Work: New Resource and Customizable Toolkit to Help

By: Rebecca E. Wolfe

Ask my son to write a paragraph on a favorite topic, and he’ll shut his door, hammer out a page in minutes and gamely take feedback – but only if you demand to see itConversely, my daughter will flop on the floor, ask for help, stare at the computer, type the bare minimum over several hours, ask you to read every new word that’s added but cry if you suggest a change. 

It doesn’t take an expert educator to know that each learner needs a trusting relationship with someone who understands how to get each writer to produce their best work. Trying to coach them to write in the same way is a recipe for failure. As every parent or good educator knows, education at its heart is an equity proposition – meeting each learner where they are and helping them become the best version of themselves.  

But equity at any kind of scale is not possible unless educators and schools have road maps and tools to build sustainable and equitable student-centered learning environments. The revised edition of Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments and new customizable toolkit is one such resource.  

When the first Educator Competencies  was released in 2015, the idea of student-centered teaching and learning was just a few years into gaining attention in a handful of schools, districts and a scattering of fledgling innovation networks. Today, intentional and comprehensive personalized, learner-centered approaches have been documented in hundreds of schools, personalized learning appears in 39 states’ Elementary and Secondary Success Act plans and at least four states have made it the focus of their education reform efforts.

Doing things differently in education is no longer optional, as teachers during the past eighteen months have had to find new ways to connect with students and engage not just their minds but their hearts. In the meantime, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the health and economic well-being of immigrants, people of color and communities where families earn incomes below the poverty line threw into high profile our society’s endemic inequities. 

With this goal to better understand how to better center a critical focus on equity – we engaged with more than 60 new and diverse stakeholders for the 2020 edition of the Educator Competencies. 

This new version of the Educator Competencies aims to expressly and concretely enable educators to come to terms with and remedy the ways in which America’s schools have negatively impacted Black students, as well as children from other marginalized groups. Because of this, we’ve included an explicit discussion and definition of equity in the document, added scannable icons to pick out the competencies that directly address equity and created a companion tool, “Centering Equity,” to be used alongside the primary publication.

As a nation, we are getting clearer and braver about exposing the ways current educational systems are designed to produce inequitable and even racist outcomesAs a parent myself, I wanted to make sure this version of the competencies stood firmly as a tool to celebrate learners’ assets and point towards a more just education system.

Are you using the competencies or want to connect with others on how they’re using them? Explore the map.

For more, see:

This post was originally published at KnowledgeWorks.org.

Rebecca E. Wolfe oversees the research, impact and improvement efforts that reinforce KnowledgeWorks’ program and policy initiatives and advance the field of personalized, competency-based learning. 

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Are You Putting Learners First? Here are 8 Ways to Check Yourself

By: Rebecca Midles and Laura Hilger

For as long as there have been schools, there has been the knowledge that schools need to change. This tension often exists at the intersection of power and equity. To combat this tension, numerous new terms, new ideologies and reframings have been created — but perhaps none are as promising as learner-centered design.

When systems say they are learner-centered this means that the system is designed for and by learners. As educators, we have signed up to put learners first, a commitment that varies across the globe within different educational systems. Oftentimes, this dedication to being learner-centered is a defining characteristic of educators who are considered to be professionals and artists of their craft.

If we are really here to do the work of serving every learner, where they are, in real-time so that they become agents for their own learning who are prepared for life after high school, it’s necessary that we make a shift to students-centered practices that ground in anti-oppressive practices, inclusivity and cultural responsiveness.

Student-Centered Learning, sometimes referred to as the aforementioned learner-centered education, encompasses the idea that instruction should be shifted to focus on each and every student’s needs. This focus on students typically means disrupting traditional constraints like seat time, grade bands, state accountability, and many of the relics of education’s past that reinforce systems of power, marginalization, bias and inequitable interventions. This approach also invites radically different systems and structures at the fullest level of implementation.

Unfortunately, all too often, well-intentioned student-centered models, policies, projects and even magnet schools develop such a mission, only to veer off the path and become adult-centered before they are able to truly and deeply embed the student-centered culture and components. It can be hidden well, although often inadvertently, and in order to make needed shifts, it’s important we call out what practices can contribute to adult-centered, and student-centered learning. We have identified eight signs that educators and edleaders can look for to reflect on the ways learners are at the center of learning and whenever possible, driving the learning.

Innovative Use of Time

When looking at the daily schedule, consider how the innovative use of time and scheduling aligns to and nourishes the vision you have for your learning community, how it grows learner agency, cultivates learner readiness, and enables procedural efficiency with flexibility.

The traditional school calendar that was influenced long ago by the agrarian summer break and national holidays has not changed for the majority of our school systems. The challenge of bus schedules is still often cited when learning teams are trying to design creative use of time and move away from a universal start and end time in order to find more “flex” time. In some cases, students are having to move across campus to get to classes and often may not even choose an elective because of the distance traveled in a designated passing time. There have been attempts and some success with rethinking in-service days, instructional prep time, and interim learning sessions between semesters, but for the most part, this structure can be a significant obstacle to being more systematically set up to be learner-centered.

Guiding Questions for Innovative use of Time

  • Why is there a need to change our master schedule?
  • What is the purpose of a master schedule and how can these goals be met in other ways?
  • How might you design schedules that better align to your learner-centered shared vision?
  • What are the current barriers that your community faces when looking at changing the schedule, and which one(s) can you begin to dismantle?

Possible Look Fors

  • Personalized time in the schedule to focus on their learning needs
  • Offers extended learning time (exploratory, intensive, intercession, Interims) for learners to grow in fields of their choice. Options supported by equitable access (transportation, etc.)
  • A consistent dedicated time for advisory to mentor and support personalized learning needs and goals
  • A transparent and systemic procedure for schedule changes to support learner readiness so that when a learner is ready for the next level or course (depending on what is best for the learner) they do not have to wait for a quarter or semester break
  • Embedded professional learning time

Flexible Grouping of Learners

Flexible grouping aligns to learner needs and context which supports flexible pacing, leading to a system that allows learners to advance upon mastery rather than seat time or age. When cohorts of learners are based on age over strategic learner readiness, you are less likely to have personalized learning at a deep level for each and every learner. Learners deserve academic content that is appropriately challenging with support they need and teachers that are prepared for those levels – versus the artificial push and pull of getting everyone to the same spot.

Often, the grouping of learners can be directed by the teacher’s schedule and their content area with the additional layers of class sizes or timing of course offerings. Offerings such as electives, AP or math classes can be lynchpins for designing learning options and often create obstacles for personalized learning. In addition, labeling learners by permanently sorting or tracking results in an inequitable system that is based on privilege, access, and convenience. Alternatively, flexible grouping gives educators and learners the freedom to move based on learner needs by content, context, or social-emotional priorities.

In the landscape of needed equitable structures, when a freshman class requires prerequisites, a system needs to review whether all middle schools provide this opportunity. If not, is the sorting outcome worth the change? Is the prerequisite more about the adults or the learners, and if learners – for all learners or just a few? Many systems address this with pre-assessments or one-to-one meetings to share expectations, but why not reconsider the onramp by reviewing the final outcomes that are intended with this class? If it is to access higher rigor earlier, why not imbed that in all courses, all the time, by implementing a more personalized learning approach within the content and context?

Guiding Questions

  • Where might you begin using learner needs to drive group formations?
  • When students show readiness for the next level of rigor that is beyond a grade-level content – what is the process? Consequently, when learners need more scaffolding to reach what is being presented, what are the supports?
  • How do you build a system that is anti-tracking, and adjusts groupings based on needs in real-time?
  • How could you provide or increase equitable access to rigorous coursework?

Possible Looks Fors

  • At the classroom level, learner groups are fluid
  • At the classroom level, depending on the learning requirement, learner groups are based on readiness, learner choice, context, engagement, and/or how the content is represented in alignment with learner needs/interests
  • As needed, learners move to different groups upon demonstration of learning
  • At the systems level, scheduling processes support flexibility and what is best for learners within that context (i.e., moving the learner now vs. waiting until the quarter or semester)
  • Learner needs drive the groupings

Sequence and Documentation of Learning

An inclusive process was used to design the systemic, aligned, accessible, and essentialized learning continuum that is culturally responsive, non-biased and anti-racist, and shows what all learners need to know and be able to do. The learning continuum drives all teaching, learning, and curricular resource decision-making.

When a system has a canon or a third-grade curriculum, the concept of this structure can often be intended for the adults that deliver the instruction and the provided resources. Personalized systems have aligned essential learning goals that show what all learners need to know and be able to do and provide options and flexibility for resource selection and context. The look fors or learning goal indicators are common but the process may vary.

Guiding Questions

  • Are standards/competencies embedded in your curriculum?
  • To what degree have you essentialized your standards/competencies, and aligned them as a system?
  • Which content areas need systemic alignment attention now?
  • How will you put together a team or create collaborative involvement opportunities for your community to co-create the learning continuum?
  • Does unit testing happen as students need it, or on Friday before the weekend? What are the gathered points of evidence to show either a learner or the group of learners are ready for a summative assessment?

Possible Look Fors

  • A systemic, aligned PK-12 continuum of learning standards and/or competencies has been prioritized for both academic and SEL/non-academic expectations
  • All levels of the learning community were involved in the design of the learning continuum
  • At the classroom level, educators and learners use these standards or competencies to drive teaching and learning
  • The continuum is accessible by all, for all levels of learning so that everyone can see what is required from one level to the next
  • Curricular resources that are being used are aligned to the learning continuum; resources are allocated based on the learning continuum

Assessment Literacy and Practices

Educators work together to design quality common measurement tools aligned to the learning continuum such as rubrics to enable both educators and learners to provide feedback on the learning, growing assessment capable learners. These assessments are transparent and accessible to the entire learning community. Based on readiness, a variety of types of aligned assessments are provided for learners over multiple opportunities, grounded in learner choice. Over time, learners are part of the assessment design process, leading how they will show what they’ve learned.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree are assessments aligned to the standards/competencies required for learning?
  • To what degree are we using common assessment tools as a PLC or content team?
  • How are we using assessments with our learners?

Possible Look Fors

  • Common assessment tools such as rubrics are aligned to the learning continuum and being actively used at the classroom level
  • Feedback is aligned to the assessment
  • The assessment is not a secret; instead, it is accessible and used throughout the learning experience
  • A variety of formative assessment opportunities takes place through the learning journey
  • Learners have choices in how they demonstrate their learning
  • Learners are aware of the rubric, can speak about the rubric, and are using it to drive assessment practices such as self-assessments and peer assessments
  • As ready, learners can use the rubric to design how they are going to demonstrate their learning

Grading Practices (or Recording and Reporting)

The systemic grading practices focus on showing what has been learned aligned to the learning continuum rather than cumulative letter grades, seat time, or non-academic behaviors such as penalization for late assignments. The concept of grading is about what a learner earned, not what was given.

For time-based traditional systems, the final learning mark/grade for quarters/semesters can be an average of scores, and not all averaged scores are created equal. A grading process may be a mixed percentage of assignments, formative assessments (like quizzes) and summative assessments (like tests, projects, presentations) mixed in with either behavior, effort or extra work. Because educators tend to work in subjective silos with grading practices, this leads to a variety of grading methods resulting in inequitable outcomes. In addition, these individual scores can be based on a random collection of marks and different pedagogical approaches, approaches that may or may not allow retakes, or shared learning criteria, and thus can make it difficult for learners to have agency within this structure.

Some learning systems have moved toward inviting learners to revisit marks on their work to improve, grow and ultimately earn proficiency for a learning outcome. Others look at separating the habits of a learner or work ethic separate from the content learning. In a personalized learning system, the grades should not be a surprise or a feeling of wait and see. In this same vein, a grade is a point in time about where a learner is and therefore, the grade is not static.

Guiding Questions

  • What is our data telling us about our learners’ progress and how does that relate to how we report out on learning and goals?
  • How might we make our grading practices more equitable?
  • Are learners aware of learning outcomes and expectations?
  • What are the routes for learners to refine or revisit their learning?

Possible Look Fors

  • The system reports out on the progress of the learning using the standards/competencies
  • Non-academic learning such as SEL, if assessed, is assessed separately from academic learning
  • The system has a strategic plan or goal for moving away from letter grades and a first step might be that zeros and Fs are no longer used

Instructional Framework

Changing how learning is reported does not directly change the way learning happens. A shared vision of learning requires teachers and related stakeholders to come together to define what they want for their graduates and learners. This vision has to be for all learners, with thoughtful inclusion as the driver.  If the framework is not about the needs of all learners then it is not learner-centered and continues the practice of education for some or most but not all learners.

An instructional framework is about the learning design that supports this vision – the strategies, the assessment practices, the data that is collected, and how learning is supported, nurtured and captured. At the district level, it becomes the essential driver for professional learning and resource allocation.

A systemic instructional framework grounded in what the community believes about teaching and learning drives professional learning opportunities and modes and provides a common language for educators to discuss where they are in their professional practice and what they need to do in order to improve. How this framework translates into a classroom can and should have learners at the center of that work helping to co-design the environment.

Guiding Questions

  • What is an instructional framework?
  • Why is an instructional framework important?
  • Where is our learning community at with designing and/or using an instructional framework, and what might be some next steps?
  • What teaching strategies support the teaching and learning vision?
  • How does a teacher know what they are doing well and what support they need?

Possible Look Fors

  • The framework and educator readiness drives our professional learning opportunities, feedback, and continuous improvement
  • Educators can speak about the instructional framework
  • The use of the framework across different campuses, classrooms, and PLCs is evident

Learning Culture

The culture is designed with the learners to cultivate belonging. Learners are part of the decision-making, community agreement development, shared accountability processes, goal setting, and celebrations. The learning ecosystem depends on their leadership, their commitment and their needs.

The role of student leadership within a learner-centered community is collaborative in nature and their roles entail active involvement in decision making, brainstorming solutions and creating community agreements. Leadership in this context is more than a label and creates space for codesign, mutual accountability and active responsive structures. This can also transfer to the concept of ranking learners with titles and honors; some systems have completely done away with the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian or have settled with a Latin honor distinction which makes space for recognition for groups of learners.

Another key component of every learning culture is discipline. Originally meant to convey learning, it is often an inequitable gotcha game, and counterintuitive to a system dedicated to learning. Because certain types of learner behavior are expected, a learner-centered system ensures that this is not only being taught but celebrated. Alternatively, when social-emotional learning is referred to as a soft skill it implies that it is not as important as academic learning and can be either an add-on or supplementary. If a system teaches learning behaviors, then the growth in this area should be shared alongside academic learning–if it is not, then it is truly a soft attempt and supplementary over primary in design.

Guiding Questions

  • To what degree do we have active community agreements?
  • How do we hold ourselves and each other accountable for our learning culture?
  • How do we celebrate our learning culture?
  • What is our goal-setting process for our culture?

Possible Look Fors

  • Behavior expectations and developing a culture of belonging are taught
  • Learner created community agreements drive behavior expectations
  • Discipline processes/protocols are systemic and aligned to the community agreements (Restorative Justice, Circles, Peer mentors, etc.)
  • Learners help nourish the community by making decisions for both problem-solving and celebrating
  • Goal setting structures are explicitly taught and are active at all levels of the organization

Flexible Use of Space

The learning environment is set up so that learners have agency over their learning space to decide where they will learn best for that particular context. The learning community then dedicates resources to get creative with its use of space, which includes expanding learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls as well as online learning options. Off-campus learning requires intentionality towards growing authentic community and business partnerships that are dedicated to learners.

Guiding Questions

  • In what ways do learners get to choose where they will learn? Why is this important?
  • Where is your district at with extending learning beyond the traditional classroom walls?
  • What is possible with offering rich learning experiences outside of the classroom?
  • How equitable are your extended learning opportunities?
  • How are you leveraging community partnerships?

Possible Look Fors

  • Innovative school structure and use of space
  • Collaborative spaces
  • Learner choice with where to learn
  • Access to rigorous and meaningful extended learning opportunities
  • Relationships with engaged community and business partnerships

Collaboratively, the learning community intentionally develops agency at all levels of the organization so that each and every learner graduates choice ready. Our educator’s promise to learners is that they leave our system with agency. Our charge then, is that each and every educator becomes a change agent for equitable student-centered learning systems that grow this promise of agency.

Where will you get started?

For more, see:

Laura Hilger is the Director of Teaching and Learning at KnowledgeWorks. She has spent her entire career devoted to learning communities and systemic change, working as a classroom teacher, a dean of students and an assistant principal, as well as an instructional coach in nine states. 

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School Isn’t About Classes, It’s About Learning

By: Garrett Smiley

If you found yourself in a conversation about curriculum, you would likely hear the terms “scope” and “sequence.” Scope describes the amount of content covered in a unit of time. Sequence describes the logical order the teacher will introduce the content. In other words, the scope is U.S. History; the sequence is the order the class goes through the events. These tools allow us to discuss teaching scientifically. “What if we increased the scope of this course by 10% to include this war?” Administrators feel in control because all learning is carefully planned beforehand. However, just because a class is well-planned doesn’t mean it results in authentic learning. In fact, how most schools think about scope and sequence are relics of a factory-style model of education and are in desperate need of replacement.

As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, you can’t pre-load students with knowledge. The brain is not a hard-drive. You can’t throw a student in a class about “European History” for four months and expect them to retain that information until they need to use it. How much do you remember from high school? If you’re like the rest of the population, you don’t remember much. In one study from the UK, university freshmen only remembered 40% of what they supposedly learned during their intensive, college-preparatory high school classes. Even though our school systems are designed to teach facts, they’re not even doing that well. If we’re going to align our schools with our children’s brains, we need to rethink “class” as the fundamental unit of learning.

Providing Relevance

The human brain is designed to find relevance. When we don’t see the relevance in our work, motivation plummets. Schools then resort to radical interventions like threats (a.k.a. grades) to maintain motivation. They justify their rules with nothing more than a “because I said so,” with the implied threat of punishment. However, this punishment is not comparable to those which parents have employed for generations. Instead of emotional hostility or even corporal punishment which is over in a few minutes or hours, the school convinces the student that one lousy score ruins their entire future.

This departure from internal relevance to external threats (grades) is wreaking havoc on our students’ mental health; it’s systemically externalizing each student’s locus of control. Or, in layman’s terms, making students feel like they don’t control their lives. This mindset is strongly associated with feelings of anxiety and depression. In the words of researcher and author Peter Gray, citing work from Twenge and her colleagues:

“The shift [from internal to external feelings of control] was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety. It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: ‘Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.’ When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: ‘There is no use trying; I’m doomed.’”

Teenagers today are 5x more likely to be depressed than teenagers two generations ago, suicide is now their 2nd leading cause of death, and approximately 1 out of 7 are taking powerful, psychiatric drugs for their mental health concerns. Something is seriously wrong—and schools are playing a big role in this trend.

The easiest way for schools to ensure individual relevance and therefore counteract these concerning mental health trends is by letting students lead their education through curiosity. All the school must do is fuel the interest with high-quality content and mentorship, then provide academic credit.

However, in most schools, classes just linearly progress through a textbook. Students leave their curiosity at the door. (And eventually, they stop bringing it to school altogether.) The only relevance they can decipher is that the information will be on a test—and tests determine their future, or so they’ve been told. Naturally, once the test is over, their brains can no longer find relevance, and it will quickly decay. In fact, researchers hypothesize that forgetting content may be a coping mechanism for the stressful school environment. It doesn’t have to be this way; this learning structure was invented, not discovered: it’s an artificial system that can change.

But, word of warning, when you allow students to direct their education, their aspirations won’t neatly fall within one subject. Instead, they’ll prefer to tackle interdisciplinary projects or research—which is how problems present themselves in the real world! Although this requires us to rethink the structure of our schools, interdisciplinary learning is terrific for transfer: the golden goose of education.


The term “transfer” originates from Edward Thorndike, a 20th-century pioneer in educational psychology from Columbia’s Teachers College. Put simply, transfer is the ability to use knowledge outside of its original context. Transfer can only happen when students internalize the “meaning” or “deep structures” behind a concept. If a student in a math class thinks multiplication is just a process they use when they see an “x” between two numbers, they won’t know how to solve a problem like “if there are 7 groups of 7 soldiers, how many soldiers are in the army?” They would have failed transfer because they didn’t understand the underlying meaning of multiplication. It may seem obvious, but I’ll say it nevertheless: transfer is the purpose of school. If learning didn’t transfer outside of the classroom, students’ knowledge would vanish when they walked out of the school or attempted to solve a problem outside of a textbook. Unfortunately, our schools aren’t encouraging transfer. In fact, a research team at K-State showed minimal or negative transfer between the related subjects Trigonometry and Physics among their undergrad students. Even if students are learning, their knowledge is stuffed into a file box that will never be opened. And research shows us that transfer is not natural for learners. Even if two problems are remarkably similar, surface-level traits can derail our analogical problem-solving abilities. Unless we’re taught to see the “deep structures” and interrelatedness between several fields, students will continue to build up knowledge that will never be useful. They’re memorizing steps that will only ever be helpful for a test.

How can we solve this? Before I discuss optimal school design to solve this transfer crisis, there are two more principles we need to discuss: interleaving and spacing.

Interleaving and Spacing

Schools treat students like computers. They try to load the students’ “hard-drives” with information that can be accessed upon request years later. That’s not how brains work. Instead of imagining your brain as a hierarchical file structure, think of it as a map, lattice, or ecosystem. Instead of folders, you have “nodes.” These nodes are connected with paths. Every time the path is used, it gets “wider” and is more likely to be used in the future—much like natural trails made by animals in the forest. But, if it falls out of use, the foliage will slowly reclaim the trail (forgetting). But, forgetting is good! It helps us avoid old, unused paths that may be leading us to an irrelevant destination. The underbrush obscuring the path tells us, “you haven’t needed this in a long time; go look for a more recent trail.” To ensure students can easily traverse the forest of their mind, we need to be clearing multiple paths to the same place and coming back to clean the existing paths regularly. In learning science, those two principles are interleaving and spacing, respectively.

Interleaving is just a fancy word for “mixed practice.” Meaning, even though most students assume it’s best to study one thing at a time until they’re proficient, it’s actually better to learn a few things at a time. If a student has to finish physics homework from chapters 1, 2, and 3, they should complete one question from each chapter in a cycle instead of completing the questions sequentially. Solving problems from each chapter should look like 123123123 instead of 111222333. You’ve encountered the importance of interleaving if you’ve ever observed a student who aced a math practice test when the questions were separated by chapter but struggled when the questions were randomly ordered. That’s because the student never had to internalize the difference between the techniques—they just know to use factoring when they’re in the chapter called “factoring.” They become a pattern-matching machine—very minimal transfer. Furthermore, when students have to differentiate between multiple types of learning, they are automatically comparing and contrasting the “nodes” of knowledge. This means students are priming themselves for transfer because, in an interleaved environment, they won’t be successful unless they ask themselves, “how is this topic different from that topic?” This generates a multi-dimensional encoding of the material that naturally exists in relation to other nodes. Blocked practice is for hard drives; interleaving is for human brains.

Spacing, formally called “The Spacing Effect”, is the cousin of Interleaving. This effect is built on an intuitive principle: memory fades over time. Scientists have dubbed this fading “The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.” Simply put, our brains will slowly forget information if we do not use it at regular intervals. If information is only presented once—say, for a test—it will not stick; the knowledge will asymptotically approach zero within one year.

However, every time a person recalls the information, it decreases the forgetting slope and (theoretically) increases the asymptote. More exposures over more time create stronger memories. I’ll attempt to explain this through analogy with the wildly-popular SM-2 algorithm for spaced repetition used by programs like Duolingo and Anki—stay with me! This algorithm aims for the retention of information to remain above 95%. According to SM-2, even if a student is exposed to a piece of content 5 times within the first month of learning, the students would still need a review session 21.5 days later—then, 36.6 days after that. The moment we stop reviewing the content with the students, they become victims of the forgetting curve. But, every time we re-expose the students to the content, their brain thinks, “oh, this has been important multiple times, I should remember it.” So, it should be the goal of educators to expose students to the same piece of information multiple times over multiple years.

When considered together, interleaving and spacing suggest a school structure that looks very different from the traditional model. Today, classes are scoped as “English Literature” or “Physics” to take place daily for 45 minutes—that’s nearly the definition of block learning. Interdisciplinary classes should be the rule, not the exception. Students should use their learned concepts in different, increasingly difficult situations over multiple years.

A Post-Class School

Following these principles, the goal of a school should be to light the fire of interest, fan it with resources, then recognize exploration for academic credit. Achieving this requires a few paradigm shifts.

First, imagine a students’ time in school as one, long “class.” At Sora, an innovative online high school, we have hundreds of competencies students must demonstrate during their time in high school. We track each competency, which we call “Skills,” on a 5-point progression. That means students will need to demonstrate the application of each skill 3-4 times at increasing depth to be marked as “competent.” We don’t care how they show their competencies; we have projects led by industry professionals, learning goals, expeditions, independent activities, and many other opportunities. Students are allowed to enroll in whatever opportunity is most interesting to them. Out of the hundreds of options, a student won’t choose a learning opportunity unless there’s at least an inkling of curiosity. We design these learning opportunities around interdisciplinary questions like “is there a such thing as objective truth?” or “how might we raise awareness of vaccination stations in our community?”. Students learn just in time instead of just in case; by solving problems that are interesting and relevant to them, they eat up all the skills and knowledge necessary to make it happen (opposed to learning subjects on the chance they become relevant in the future, by which point they’re already forgotten).

Even though we don’t have a standardized academic sequence, students aren’t likely to focus on any one skill at a time. Each demonstration of competency is usually spread apart by a few months or even a few years. So, students at Sora are constantly experiencing The Spacing Effect. Each piece of content they learn will require at least 3 levels of depth with each application of the skill happening months apart in widely different scenarios. They may get a “level 1” by watching a documentary, a “level 2” from participating in a debate, a “level 3” by doing a hands-on project, then a “level 4” by making an informational Youtube video. We’ve built spacing and interleaving into the very foundation of our school. That’s much better than one or two nights of cramming.

Since diving head-first into this world of progressive education, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of innovation. The industry is stuck optimizing a broken system. At some point, we consider a car “totaled” because the cost of repairs is greater than the cost of replacement. Well, the education system is totaled. We can’t incrementally innovate our way out of this hole. Every metric indicates that we’re failing our children and they’re badly suffering because of it. At what point will we say, “enough is enough”? Will we wait until a third of our students are clinically anxious or depressed or knowledge retention falls below 25%? It’s painful to imagine that future, but it will soon be our reality if we allow these horrible trends to continue. In the early 1800s, the United States built its public schools with a new vision for education: fuel for the industrial revolution. We need a new vision. We need a new starting place.

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Garrett Smiley is CEO and co-founder of Sora Schools. Follow him on Twitter at @gw_smiles

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