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Aurora Institute

Creating a Learner-Driven System in Waukesha (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts one, two, three, and four.

I arrived early at Waukesha’s STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus (WSA). Entering the front door, one immediately steps into a relatively open space carved into smaller areas by bookshelves, desks, and a variety of seating options. The place was humming. Students streaming in, unpacking backpacks, clustered in corners talking, some wrapping themselves in chairs with a book or a computer. A film crew from a local station was set up in another area to interview two young women who were winners in a regional Toy and Game competition. (See for yourself in A Day in the Life or virtual tour videos.)

I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was having difficulties taking it all in. Especially the five-foot-long Ball Python in principal James Murray’s office, which luckily hadn’t had his coffee either and lay there peacefully. (I later learned that a parent, who was ready to pass on the snake to the next caretaker, had dropped it off at the school.)

WSA serves over 300 students in a middle school, all of whom are selected through a random lottery and without any criterion to enter. Jokingly, Murray points out the irony in the lottery process, because even though the school is a one-to-one technology school, full of 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC routers, saws, drills, and a flurry of digital learning platforms and 55” TV’s lining the walls like posters, the lottery is conducted through a process that uses an old-school Bingo hopper. “We want all students, “Murray points out. “We don’t want to go out and hand pick our students…we want students…period.” He shares that, “we have the 1st through the 99th percentile in academic readiness and the 1st through the 99th percentile in behaviors when they come through our doors. After Day 1, it’s a whole new ball game, and we help foster caring, compassionate citizens who end up becoming great students. One is the byproduct of the other, and I honestly don’t feel that these can be grown in isolation, nor should they be.”

He also quickly disposed of the idea that middle school simply means grades six through eight. “On paper, this campus is grades six through eight. That’s about where that antiquated theory ends, though. Students enter our school with skills that stretch from second grade and extend beyond tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Basically, we’ve eliminated grades based on your age… here is no born-on date for progress and success. We help students own the fact that when they arrive here, they are on a 540-day journey, with each student entering at a different place and moving at a different pace. We are, simply put, a competency-based school.” Although we at CompetencyWorks have anticipated schools thinking this way, to date it is few and far between. I didn’t even need my coffee anymore. I was alert to make sure I didn’t miss any of the details about how WSA had developed.

Theory of Action

WSA has a clear theory of action that drives how the school is organized and the culture of the school.

IF students have a more accurate, timely and precise understanding of their current level of proficiency and how to continually grow their level of individual learner needs, strengths, interests and approaches to learning…

THEN we will see an increase in student agency, efficacy and engagement as well as an increased understanding and ownership of reporting, evidence and feedback by students, parents and WSA staff.

This translates into core operational functions of the learners and the teachers that are used throughout the school to help students understand the full process of their learning.

  1. Student playlist is essential the daily activities, resources and assessments that have been organized for any unit or assignment.
  2. Organization, collaboration and engagement is the step in which students think through, plan and engage in the process of learning.
  3. Skill building and practice work is formative work that receives feedback through conferences, guided peer assessment, self assessment, and other methods of feedback.
  4. Summative work is used to demonstrate skill proficiencies. (FYI the fourth video explains to students and families the difference between formative and summative assessment.)
  5. Learner continuums track student academic progress and skill proficiencies in real time and are shared with staff, students and parents. These are real-time and are updated on a regular basis, based on student demonstration of mastery.

There is another theory of action at play at WSA – applied learning opportunities are both more engaging to students and provide more challenging learning opportunities for students to engage productively with the content knowledge and skills. On the WSA website, they explain the value of application by the following: Students are not just becoming masters of content, but rather, experts in context, who can not only solve real-world problems, but can come up with solutions that are unique, ground-breaking and these young lead-learners may serve as change-agents to help make our world a more efficient, productive and safe place to live in… we are growing citizens who are leaders. The focus is on five higher order skills: Engage, Collaborate, Think, Create, & Innovate. It’s important to remember this as you learn about WSA, since so much of the learning experiences are organized around students learning by doing and these five main tenets for success.

From Educator-Driven to Learner-Driven Culture

Murray, the 2017 Wisconsin Principal of the Year, explained to me that school culture is something they are building every day in everything they do. One aspect of the culture at WSA is personalization, captured when Murray said, “We are producing Rock Stars, one student at a time.” WSA, like other districts that have embraced a deep commitment to personalized learning in Wisconsin, has embraced a commitment to a learner-driven system. This isn’t about offering students choice – it’s about creating a sense of efficacy, ownership, agency, and independence. (See James Rickabaugh’s article on the Learning Independence Continuum.) Later in the day, Murray pointed out that at WSA, they emphasize readiness (where students are on the learner continuum) and willingness (their growth mindset) but avoid using the word ability. He emphasized, “It’s not up to us to determine our students’ potential. That is up to them to discover and develop.”

Murray described that the school is well along the continuum of shifting from an educator-driven system to a learner-driven one, which is now supported by the educators as more of a resource. This includes being aware of mindsets that emphasize the perspective or interests of the adults. For example, Murray caught himself when he used the phrase “students need to.” He backed up and explained, “That phrase shows you the mindset of adults telling students what to do rather than students taking ownership. We listen for that phrase, as it is somewhat of a red flag that we aren’t being true to our values, mission, and our vision of a learner-driven ecosystem.” Ecosystem is also a term that Murray has been embracing and promoting for the past few years. “I feel like when people use the word culture and climate, it is something that you have to constantly work to supervise and remind students about. When you have an ecosystem where students learn, it’s organic and it just becomes the way that we do business. You don’t have to strive to keep it alive. It is the way the students respect each other, the staff, and the school, because they realize that they will only get out of their days what they put in. The intrinsic motivation this builds isn’t something that you could ever teach a person to feel. This has to be something that is developed and owned by students, to be meaningful.”

Another aspect of the culture at WSA is the teamwork, collaboration, and innovation among educators and students. Murray explained, “From day one, I have always shared with our staff that we can approach and reach our mission and vision a thousand different ways, but we can not have a thousand different mission and visions…we will always have one. We are all committed to our mission and vision, and it’s just the way that we do business. However, we can have a thousand ways to get there. We are always innovating, and with that comes new approaches to supporting learning and building opportunities for our students.”

Learner Continuum

WSA’s proficiency-based system begins with making learning visible (i.e., transparency). On WSA’s website, it describes proficiency-based pathways as Students are able to enter at different places in their educational pathway and move at different paces, based on their respective readiness-level. The backbone of WSA is the learner continuum that outlines the learning competencies that students are able to progress along. The learning competencies are organized by a progression that follows students as they move through their learning journey, with students aiming for grade level (or performance levels) based on their own readiness. However, the grade level they’re working on may not be, and often is not, the respective grade level they would be in based on their age. For example, in math, the continuum is organized around number systems, geometry, and expressions. The specific competencies are then organized within each of the performance levels, and students move along the progression as they repeatedly demonstrate mastery. One thing that Murray and company did not want was for the learner continuums to become a simple checklist that students blew through. It’s one thing to answer a question, it’s another to be able to utilize that same skill to solve a problem in a real-world context.

WSA started with a standardized progression based on standards, age-based grade levels, and the assumption that students would complete the standards within the same set of time. Murray explained, “We had a lot of grade level conversations. But we began initially looking at the learning vertically and not just horizontally…we wanted to support students moving beyond age-based placement and progression. Learning was becoming stagnant in a sense, and we needed to grow. We wanted our students to grow, instead of waiting on adult decisions and time-frames, and also at the same time, we wanted to prevent some students from being rushed and dragged through curriculum. Learning was noticeably starting and stopping with each set of grade level standards and time of the year, and we wanted to break down that barrier and let learning be the constant and time be the variable.”

Realizing that this wasn’t consistent with the reality of the skills students had when they entered the school or how students learn, they began to consider a different way of organizing the learning expectations. “We started asking ourselves whether we were creating a system of teaching or a system of learning,” Murray said. “If it’s about learning, then we should be able to meet students where they are ready to learn in ways that pique their interest, and make sure that learning at higher readiness levels and different paces is always available.” So they created learner-centered progressions that show the competencies and performance levels (described as grade levels so they are honest about where students are in terms of being on track to graduation, but assuming students might be operating at any level) that drew on research-based learning progressions. They’ve also made the 9-12 learning continuums transparent for students ready to advance into high school level work and begin earning high school credits while still attending middle school. The most recent of which was the introduction of pre-calculus and calculus A/B for high school credit and advanced placement.

Students, parents, and teachers can take a look at student progress (including artifacts that were used to demonstrate proficiency) in a portfolio. The continuum is still organized by grade levels, but it doesn’t mean students are working on the continuum based on their age. Essentially, they are using grade levels to indicate performance levels for an awareness of where they are along their journey and if they are on pace compared to their age-based peers. Readiness level is the language they use to indicate at what performance or grade level students are performing. (See the fifth video on continuums on this page.) Something that the staff at the Waukesha STEM Academy was made aware of early on was the fact that even though families and students were happy about the readiness-level progressions, stakeholders were still interested in knowing where students were, progress-wise, in relation to their age-based peers. This truly helped students, parents, and staff understand where they were on their journey and what next steps were needed to help demonstrate mastery as they began to look forward. This could be likened to having a roadmap for a trip across the country, and students are all taking different streets to get to a similar destination based on what type of scenery they like (enter varied modalities of learning).

WSA’s sister elementary school is also shifting to continuum-based learning experiences. This means that many students entering the middle school will already have the experience of working in a proficiency-based system and have had the opportunity to work above grade level. This might be one of the first times we will be able to capture the added value of a proficiency-based system.

Read the Entire Series: