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Aurora Institute

Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Rethink Instruction

blocksThis is the eleventh article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

How will learning targets and curriculum be organized within the structure?

Once a district has established what the structure will be, the next step is to organize the content areas or domains into the structure or a continuum of learning. The task at hand is to create a learning continuum for each domain that has been determined as important to graduation expectations, stretching from K through 12, with a clear indication of what it means to advance upon mastery. In thinking about the definitional elements of competency education, this is where districts create a transparent set of explicit and measurable learning objectives and a system of assessments that are designed to advance student learning.

The process of developing the learning continuum, defined as an aligned set of standards and rubrics, can be designed as embedded professional development. Working in groups, teachers unpack standards, share student work, and write the standards in user-friendly language. While a vital step, this can also become an overly iterative process when the focus turns to getting every word right rather than building a shared understanding, holding deep conversations about learning progressions that describe how students move from one concept to the next, and building assessment literacy. Schools may develop and review rubrics simultaneously or as a subsequent step. (The topic of rubrics and calibrating the determination of proficiency is discussed separately in the next article.)

Something to Think About: Districts should set the goal as creating continuums of learning across elementary and secondary schools, not just as segments for each grade level. It is important to think about vertical alignment. Once teachers have organized the learning continuums, be prepared for frustration that curriculum isn’t designed well for the competency-based classroom. Publishers create curricular resources on specific grade levels, with different products for elementary, middle, and high school. Thus, a teacher in seventh grade trying to teach students with gaps at the fourth- or fifth-grade level may not have any resources within the middle school curriculum or be familiar with the elementary school curriculum. As a partial solution, Adams 50 turned to an open source curriculum, Progressive Math Initiative from the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning.


Much of the conversation in preparing learning continuums will be in the context of the specific discipline. Jeni Gotto of Adams 50 explained that in a competency-based school, it makes a difference when teachers really understand the content discipline. They aren’t teaching ninth-grade curriculum anymore, they are teaching teenagers who may be at different places along a learning continuum. Teachers who can teach students at their grade level and diagnose why students are struggling are going to see their students make progress. Teachers with deep content knowledge will be valuable in determining which standards are worth tracking because they are pre-requisite skills for more advanced learning, rather than trying to track student progress on every standard.

Danielle Harvey, Dean of Instruction at Pittsfield, believes that writing competencies is primarily about communication. The personalized learning structure they’ve implemented helps both teachers and students recognize when the student isn’t “getting it,” thereby opening the doors for next steps. This kind of transparency carries over to the competency-based structure itself. Harvey recommends that schools should have an implementation plan and not try to tackle everything at once. There will always be refinements in improving and aligning competencies, rubrics, and assessments. For example, Pittsfield started with the standards they had rather than trying to operate on a blank slate. They relied on the Understanding by Design model to support teaches in identifying the essential learning components and designing a structure that would help students learn. They also found it helpful to make a distinction between closed competencies that are more time-bound and open competencies that might require a year to develop.

Something to Think About: Even though learning continuums may be organized in sequence, that doesn’t mean students have to learn in a rigid linear fashion. There are some standards that are prerequisite for another and need to be taught sequentially. However, if teachers are using worksheet after worksheet in their first year of implementation, it is likely they need some help to transition to a personalized approach that creates more engaging learning experiences and embeds student choice into unit design. As teachers become more comfortable with the flexibility enabled by competency education, it is likely they will begin to use more creativity in how they design units.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

Blog #10 Constructing a Common Language of Learning