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Aurora Institute

Let the Lifting Begin

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bill Zima

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

weight lifter
From wikicommons

This is the second post in the series on how to get started in converting your school to competency education. See Part 1, Just Start.

Futurist author Joel Barker said, “Vision without action is merely a dream.” Once upon a time, I had a dream of being an Olympic weightlifter. My name is called. I slowly rise. I adjust my weight belt as I approach the barbell. The red jumpsuit is really uncomfortable in all the wrong places. I squat with my back straight to make sure I use my knees just like my former supervisor told me when we unloaded boxes at the grocery store. I know he would be happy that his obsession with proper lifting had finally sunk in. I make the necessary grunting sound and heave upon the rod that connects the mere 350 pounds. Unlike the Olympic athletes I watched as a child, my barbell does not even budge. Sure I have a grand vision for how to clean and jerk that weight, but a vision is only the first step on a path to the true heavy lifting.So now that you have a great purpose statement for why your school or district exists –  something just short of “To make the world a better place” – and you have determined HOW you will work to realize that purpose, it is time to get to the heavy lifting.

To help move the purpose and the vision of the school from the dream state to a reality, we needed action. We created a three-year professional plan, identified what needed to happen the first year, and then created action plans for those items. The primary activities were developing a framework of skills, scoring scales and assessments.

One of the first things we did was develop a clear set of learning targets arranged in a continuum of learning. It’s a major pivot point, as it focuses all the attention of staff on what we want our students to learn and provides the structure for the rest of the system. We wanted them to be proficient. But how can we tell if a student is proficient if we have not defined what we want them to be proficient at?

We realized, looking at the Maine Learning Results and the Common Core, that they were standards and not essential skills and understandings we wanted our students to know and be able to do twenty years from now. We needed to take the standards, unpack them into unit-sized chunks of learning, and then put them into a progression of teaching that grew from simpler to more complex. We did this by deciding what the standards were asking, and then placing that into a framework of skills that showed how they progressed from sixth, to seventh, to eighth. These frameworks are not static documents. We look at them every year and adjust as needed.

To aid in reporting to parents how their children were progressing through the targets, we felt it necessary to combine the progressions into measurement topics. To report on all targets for a marking period would take quite a bit of entering into a gradebook software program developed for a numerical grade. The Maine Cohort for Customized Learning defines a measurement topic as the summary of the learning targets in a strand within a content area.  An information management system, such as Empower by Three Shapes, makes it possible for a teacher to show progress on all learning targets.

Once we had a framework of skills, then teachers could work together to understand how to use assessment as a tool to gather evidence of their students meeting those learning targets and provide feedback for improvement. We wanted to create opportunities for students to hit the target at the correct level of reasoning. We wanted to gather evidence from their attempts, and provide feedback on how to improve and then give them another shot. It was not about giving a grade for how a student did on an assignment and then allowing that grade to communicate how the child was doing at seventh grade curriculum. It was about gathering evidence on how a student was doing at demonstrating proficiency of a specific target of learning. If the learning is transparent and represented in a continuum of learning, the student is clear on where they have been and where they need to go.

To accomplish this, we created Scoring Scales, a rubric that is less about a specific product and more about the learning you expect. It is simple to understand and goes a long way to helping teachers and students understand how to demonstrate proficiency of a specific learning target. You take the target and place it in the Score 3 box. Then you choose the level of reasoning your team or department has agreed is appropriate for a given target. We chose to use Marzano’s taxonomy. Next, you create assessment questions or project prompts using the stem words.

The Foundational Knowledge, Score 2, was identified by thinking, “If we want our students to demonstrate they understand this target, they will need to know…” Those need-to-know items, or foundational pieces of knowledge, would require teachers to facilitate the input of the information into the thinking process while also assessing to build evidence that it was received.

Score Target Reasoning Level Assessment Questions / Prompts


In addition to the 3.0 knowledge, infers or applies beyond what was taught



The world population keeps increasing and the demand for food is ever increasing. How can scientists improve crop plants? Make sure to defend your inference.


No major errors or gaps in the following TARGETED ideas and processes


Understands the relationship among genes, chromosomes and inherited traits





Fur length is an inherited trait in guinea pigs. Short fur is dominant (F) and long fur is recessive (f). From your study of Mendel’s experiments, infer how two parents with short fur could have offspring with long fur. Defend your inference.


No major errors or gaps in the following FOUNDATIONAL details and processes


  • Knows what a gene, chromosome and traits are,
  • Knows heterogeneous, homogenous, genotype and phenotype.
  • Knows how to use a Punnett square.



Briefly state the meaning of the following terms.


Identify if each of the following statements are true.


With help…..has the 2.0 content



Using this scale, you can create an assessment to gather evidence on whether they have gained the knowledge. Since all the teachers in a team or department vetted the assessments, and all agreed they would provide evidence of understanding for the target, they could be used as common assessments. Unlike all students needing to take the exact assessment, we created banks of questions and prompts that could be used to help shape any test or project. Also, we could adjust the question to accommodate for a student’s strengths without minimizing the knowledge, skill or the reasoning level. Maintaining rigor for all is important to our school.

We then realized for them to truly build and demonstrate understanding, we felt it important for them to apply the knowledge in another setting. This is when we began working on Applied Learning. That was the heavy lifting round two (and will require another post).

So while a purpose, a vision and a plan to get to the vision are critical first steps, you need to put the plans into action to realize their impact. We may not wear jumpsuits and grunt while we work, but our heavy lifting is not any easier. The important thing is to get lifting.


Nina Lopez is an independent consultant, based in Boulder, CO. Nina provides facilitation, strategy and innovation design services to private foundations, non-profit and government entities in Colorado and throughout the country to help them incubate new initiatives, develop a shared vision and a clear strategy for achieving individual and collective goals.