Personalized Learning

10 Step Primer for Competency-based Learning Design by Josie Jordan

10 Step Primer for Competency-based Learning Design by Josie Jordan

When planning curriculum, many of us were trained to rely on content resources to lead the way: What books will I cover? What textbook will I use? What concepts do I need to address? However, to be competency-based and make more room for personalization, shifting your focus to the skills learners need to build is essential. 

Use this “paint-by-numbers” guide to confidently sketch out your competency-based curriculum with bold and broad brushstrokes. It’s a simple, powerful process by which you’ll be well on your way to designing competency-based, learner-centered curriculum.  

Tips in 10: The On-Ramp to Competency-based and Personalized Projects

Tips in 10: The On-Ramp to Competency-based and Personalized Projects

The On-Ramp

In our transition to CBE or personalized learning, we often go to the big picture, “How could I ever meet all the standards that way?”, or, “How could all my students be doing different things?” But going to questions like these is just like trying to merge onto the highway without building up your speed.

If you’re in the process of transitioning to competency-based or personalized learning, it’s good to remember you can build up your momentum, take it bit-by-bit as you and your learners adapt and adjust. You can do this by shrinking the change; start with just one learning progression or project.

Using the six steps below, you can structure a learning experience that can be learning-centered (built around the skills/standards) and learner-driven (structured to meet varying needs and interests). This step sequence can be used to design projects, short learning progression, or semester-long engagements so they are both competency-based and personalized.

Learning-Driven, Learner-Centered Curriculum

Make it Learning-Driven

1. Identify the skills learners need to master

Determine the grade appropriate skills that you’d like your learners to master. Focus on the skills, not the content.

Example: The ability to decipher difficult text by using decoding strategies and chunking text.

2. Create your performance tasks

Now consider your own content area and design the summative tasks which would allow your learners to demonstrate mastery of the identified skills in this context. What actions could they take in order to show mastery?

Example: Learners will annotate excerpts from Romeo & Juliet in order to interpret and comprehend meaning.

3. Find the models

Gather examples and exemplars of the correct usage of the identified skills to share with your learners and help them understand expectations.

Example: Multiple text selections that are annotated to show how they’re chunked, unknown words are circled, and definitions and connections are written in the margins.

Make it Learner-Centered

4. Design the practice activities

Think of your group of learners with their varying abilities and then plan the series of practice activities which would help all your learners prepare for your performance tasks.

Example: Practice chunking and decoding different sections of varying difficulty levels from Romeo and Juliet and other texts. Practice as a class, in groups with jigsaw chunking, and with partners.

5. Test your activities

Now take all of these tasks and activities you’ve generated and look at them as if you were the different types of learners in your class. How do they hold up? What changes do you need to make? Be sure to try each activity yourself and do each summative task.

6. Set your learners loose

Ask learners to practice the identified skills in a context or content area of their choice. Learners select the subject in which they have interest, or find relevance, and work to apply the skills they’ve gained through your practice activities and modeling.

Example: Learners bring in difficult text they encounter in their own lives as they pursue their own interests (i.e. credit card offers, directions or instructions,  manuals, etc.). In class, learners use the same decoding and chunking techniques to break down the difficult text.


Personalized Learning Changed Liam's Life

My Personalized Learning Experience
By Liam Corcoran

Personalized Learning Student- Liam Corcoran

In my junior year of high school I had no aspirations aside from becoming a famous rap artist. I didn’t have any fans, I didn’t have a plan and honestly, I didn’t have any skills. I had written and recorded one song when I decided my future was in music. I had been steadily getting more and more depressed for as long as I could remember and this was my only salvation. My self-esteem was at an all time low, I hated school more than ever and my frustration with the world as a whole continued to spiral. 

At seventeen, with one song under my belt, I actually had many of the trappings of a successful rapper: I was desperate, angry and insisted on going against the grain. 

That was six years ago. 

Since then, I have written and recorded over 200 songs. I worked as a supervisor at one of Vermont’s first medical cannabis dispensaries. I started a business centered around helping people overcome anxiety, boredom and loneliness. All of these opportunities stemmed directly from what I did my senior year of high school.

Looking back at where I was at seventeen, all of these accomplishments seem impossible. So what made them possible? Pathways. That was the name of the project-based, standards based personalized learning program I attended at my local high school senior year. As I reflect on my Pathways experience - now that PLPs are being implemented - I am able to identify the most important lessons I learned.

1. Confidence

I will always be grateful of how supportive my parents have been to me. The only problem is, no matter how wonderful our parents may be, the fact remains that we spend more time at school than we do at home for nine months of the year. And unfortunately, I have had very poor relationships with the majority of my teachers for as long as I can remember. 

This greatly affected the way I perceived myself. I had a tendency to do the “wrong” thing at school. My attitude was wrong. I talked at the wrong time. I did my work in the wrong way. So there was a constant voice of doubt in the back of my mind, second-guessing my every action. Over time, I internalized the voices of my teachers.

During my year of personalized learning, my confidence steadily grew. No longer were my ideas, my ways of being or my actions wrong. They were accepted by my teachers. I don’t remember one instance when someone said to me “No” when I presented them with an idea of what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it. Instead, they often responded with “OK, how will you make that work?”. I chose what I wanted to study and how I wanted to study it. 

I began making decisions that I had never had the power to make before. Not only because I was a senior in high school, but because I was also now part of a culture that allowed me to succeed in my own way and fail in my own way. And whether it was a success or a failure, my teachers were there to congratulate me on my effort and help me learn from the experience. 

2. Creativity

Inseparable from my feelings of self-worth were my powers of creativity. From a young age, I had the notion that creativity meant the ability to produce art. This was continually reinforced throughout my schooling career. 

I know now that creativity means the ability to face problems in different ways. There are creative ways to think, speak and move through the world. 

By these standards, I was always creative. I just was never aware of my creativity. I believed that creativity was a rare gift. The truth is, humans are inherently creative. All humans. Sure, there are varying degrees of ability, but we all possess basic creativity and most importantly, the potential to become more creative. 

Currently, there is a growing awareness of the need for people to be creative because the world is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complicated. In the context of school preparing us for life, the most prominent problem we all inevitably face is employment. At school, I had a very limited range of possibilities presented to me. It wasn’t until my experience with personalized learning that I realized I didn’t have to uncomfortably try and fit myself into one of the traditional employment boxes: business, health care, law, education, etc. I began to realize I was unique. 

During much of my life, I either felt bored or anxious because I was an individual trying to do the same thing everyone else was doing. This created a constant conflict between who I was and what I did. Personalized Learning allowed me to reconcile these two and understand that I had to create my own way of being in the world.

3. Connection

The most important experience for us when we are young (and forever afterwards) is feeling loved. This can be the love of a parent, the love of a friend or the love you have for yourself and the world around you. The more we experience love, the more our capacity to experience love grows. Love is about acceptance and belief. My personality type is hard to love in a traditional learning environment. 

I made it difficult for my teachers to accept me for who I was. I would talk to my classmates when I wasn’t supposed to be, not follow directions and question everything. Obviously, these are frustrating behaviors for someone trying to teach a classroom full of students. But these behaviors are not bad behaviors. Talking to my classmates, I’m learning social skills. Not following directions, I’m thinking for myself. Questioning everything, is inquisitive and thoughtful. 

My teachers said they believed in me, but at the same time, I didn’t feel they accepted who I was or made it possible for me to believe in myself. I used to feel a great deal of resentment towards my teachers for not treating me with respect and allowing me to follow my own path. Their task, I realize now, was near impossible. 

How can a teacher be expected to ensure the success of all of their students when they are expecting the same thing at the same time from each one? How can a teacher be expected to address behaviors when they have a whole classroom to manage? How can a teacher be expected to connect with each student and have a chance to accept and believe in each student when the student never has a chance to be themselves? 

Through my personalized learning experience, I developed relationships of trust and respect with my teachers. And my classmates. And all of the people I met in the community. And myself. I felt love more than I ever had before. My attitude toward life itself changed. I had grown to love learning, love the people around me and love myself. 

Not everyone’s experience may be as dramatic but each one is as special. Every person should have the opportunity to follow their passions, fail in their own way and experience love. We should all be empowered to find our own path.

Walking the Talk

A key step to bringing personalized and proficiency-based learning to our learners, schools, and communities is to provide targeted opportunities for professional learning. In southeastern Vermont, that’s exactly what one school district is doing. Teachers, counselors, administrators, special educators, and job-to-work coordinators from across the Two Rivers Supervisory Union (TRSU) are truly stepping into their learners’ shoes.

SchoolHack's Josie Jordan is facilitating a series of semester-long cohorts using the LiFT platform and Bray/McClaskey's, How to Personalize Learning, as the instructional texts. Designed as a graduate course through Southern New Hampshire University, TRSU follows the adage, “The ones doing the work are doing the learning.”

Participants build their own PLP’s in LiFT. They create professional and personal goals, design personalized rubrics using Job For the Future's "Educator Competencies for Personalized Learning", and then later self-assess their instructional practice. By creating their own PLP’s and responding to others' in LiFT, participants truly integrate the affective elements and relevancy of student PLP's.

TRSU educators  also work to shift their classroom culture, curriculum, and assessments to be personalized and proficiency-based. Teachers use the course time to build their proficiency-based learning modules in LiFT and then activate classes when they feel ready to implement. This course provides a unique opportunity for educators, counselors, and administrators to learn together. They have permission to experiment, receive the support and feedback of their peers, and most importantly experience hands-on practice that is actionable.

Thanks to TRSU's pioneering work, we at SchoolHack were able to see that the platform LiFT isn’t just a tool to support students’ personalized learning, but also a learning resource to implement professional learning. This type of powerful collaboration will allow us to watch the TRSU learning community blossom as they continue this innovative work.

Students Share Thoughts on Personalized Learning: Part Four

In the final episode of our interviews with college students, we asked them what they might say to schools, educators, parents or students considering personalized learning.

Three Starting Points For Adopting Systemic Personalized Learning

As educators, we know that making the shift to personalized learning requires more than just a technology solution. It requires us to fundamentally rethink ‘business as usual,’ dream big, take risks, encounter resistance, shift the culture, and develop many new skills. School transformation takes vision, hard work, patience, teamwork, and plenty of support.

The work the SchoolHack team has done over the years implementing personalized learning in Vermont, and the life-changing outcomes our students have experienced as a result, convinced us that students everywhere should have the same opportunities. We created the LiFT™ platform to help districts move systemically toward personalized, competency-based learning.

Choosing a Starting Point

Each school and district we’ve worked with has approached the change process differently, emphasizing a particular aspect of the LiFT platform depending on the prevailing culture, readiness, and need. Although their intention is to integrate personalized learning across the whole ecosystem, leaders typically identify one of three starting points:

  • Personalized learning plans
  • Competency-based assessment
  • Professional learning

Personalized Learning Plans

Schools that begin with Personalized Learning Plans, or PLPs, are often concerned about student engagement. They’re looking for ways to create unique, flexible pathways to graduation, to give their students voice and choice, and to respond to the ever-changing needs of students.

One way to know you’re on your way to building a truly student-centered culture: when PLPs drive the daily experience of students and teachers. This is easier said than done, and teachers need a way to efficiently integrate PLPs into instruction, which is why we created LiFT.

At the Danville School, for instance, students began by using LiFT to create PLPs during advisory.  They regularly visit their LiFT pages to identify new strengths and interests; set personal, academic, and career goals for themselves; and track their progress. As familiarity with personalized learning has grown within the school, some Danville teachers are using PLP data to personalize instruction by connecting it to student goals and interests. Yes, it does take a little effort, but when students are truly motivated, things are easier for teachers, too.

Competency-Based Assessment: All Learning Counts

Because competency-based assessment supports greater flexibility, it can be a powerful complement to your personalized learning initiative. In a competency framework, students can demonstrate skills in multiple ways, and can therefore progress at their own pace according to their unique dispositions.

Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union is an inspiring example of a leadership team approaching the change process through competencies. The district had just developed a new set of competencies and verification guides to evaluate student work when they adopted LiFT. Teachers are now using LiFT to create interactive rubrics and calibrate their assessment practices. (By the way, the leadership team asked students to evaluate LiFT and provide input before a final decision was made about which platform to adopt. Bringing student voice in early increases buy-in and can make your roll-out much easier.)

To demonstrate competency, students should be able to submit evidence from activities both inside and outside of school. By allowing many kinds of evidence to be measured, all learning counts and students are validated for who they are and what they do beyond school walls.

Personalized Professional Learning: Why Let Students Have All the Fun?

A common thread among educators committed to personalized learning is the desire for effective, ongoing professional learning. Systemic change requires everyone to take on new roles, learn new technologies, and measure efficacy along the way.

Administrators are understandably cautious about putting new demands on teachers. But sustained professional learning actually energizes teachers and guards against initiative fatigue. Districts are seeking a flexible, intuitive system to manage and personalize professional development.

Just as your students can use PLPs to sustain engagement, set goals, and collect evidence, so can your teachers. Why let students have all the fun? Many leaders we work with are excited that teachers and students can use the same tool. Erik Remmers, principal of Enosburg Falls High School, appreciates the built-in efficiency of LiFT as a “solution that supports and delivers our professional learning around personalized and competency-based curriculum design.”

Worth the Effort

By definition, there is no one right answer to personalized learning. There are certainly no magic bullets or quick fixes. Despite the challenges, I meet countless educators forging ahead for the sake of students. Though the methods may be different, they all have something in common: they don’t settle for a narrow definition of student success.  Each student is seen as a whole person with something quite unique and important to offer the world. So by all means, carry on! It’s worth the effort.


David Lipkin | Chief Executive Officer

David Lipkin, SchoolHack’s co-founder and CEO, is an effective facilitator with experience coordinating diverse treatment teams to deliver highly personalized mental health services. As a clinician and educator with over 15 years serving youth and families in many settings, David specializes in engaging with and treating populations traditionally considered difficult to reach. At SchoolHack, David enjoys envisioning a healthy educational future, and doing what it takes to make it happen. He is the proud father of three wonderful children.

This post originally appeared on the Next Gen Learning Blog

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