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Aurora Institute

Reimagining the K-12 Content Map Starts with Reimagining the Process

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jon Altbergs, Laurie Gagnon, Rohan Menon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning, Rethink Instruction, Engage Community

From June 27 to July 1, reDesign convened approximately 100 content experts from diverse backgrounds and geographies to launch an effort to reimagine the K-12 content map. Two recent CompetencyWorks blog posts shared more about this work. In Let’s Just Say It Out Loud: There Isn’t Enough Time To Cover All the Standards, Jon Altbergs and Laurie Gagnon named the virtual impossibility of teaching all of the current standards in a way that is meaningful and authentic for students. And Sydney Schaef shared the why and the how of the effort and approach in Catalyzing Curriculum Redesign and Developing a Multicultural, Antiracist K-12 Content Map

Designing for Agency and Choice Supports Adult Learning Too

Design Studio AgendaThe content experts we convened devoted more than 5,000 total hours to creating prototype content maps that, when used with our transdisciplinary competencies, can ensure all students develop and demonstrate powerful skills and knowledge. This was the first step in a months-long process, so we’re not yet ready to share the maps publicly. However, we are excited to share what we learned from the process itself, because it provides valuable insight into the importance of agency and choice in adult learning.

Going into the week-long convening, we had a clear vision of the outcomes we wanted: maps of interconnected, transferable concepts to support development of expert schema through engagement with big questions and ideas within and across disciplines. To be a viable alternative to existing frameworks and standards, and to avoid the problems inherent in sprawling sets of standards, the maps needed to be tight. We wouldn’t be satisfied with “better” versions of existing resources.

If we wanted a different result, we needed to use a different process. To lead with a multicultural, anti-racist approach, we sought a diverse array of experts and created space to draw on their own experiences and infuse content maps and learning experiences with those insights. As we prepared for the week, we were mindful of avoiding common thinking traps, most especially the trap of worrying that our experts—who included not only teachers, but industry professionals, academics, and community members—needed us to share our expertise. We came to realize that the question was not, “What do our experts need to know?” but rather “How do we design the experience and get out of the way?” We needed to trust the process, lean into the messiness and uncertainty, and focus on what we wanted to draw out from our experts. In short, we needed to be sure to light the fire, rather than worry about filling the bucket.

Kickoff Event InvitationWith that end in mind, we created three shared experiences for all participants: the kickoff session, a midweek session for sharing and feedback, and a final showcase session for teams to share and celebrate their content maps. Between those events, the discipline-specific teams, each made up of 10 experts and two support personnel, had agency to self-organize and choice to set their own paths toward the final product. To create space for individual and group work, we set aside daily blocks of “open studio” to ensure some common, scheduled time for collaboration—but groups were free to use studio time as they wanted, and could meet outside of the scheduled time, too (as most did).

This design was inspired by one of our core principles, the Learner-Centered Community, where both students and teachers grow, developing and demonstrating competency through shared experiences. We believe that to empower students, to provide learning opportunities that are meaningful, and to meet the needs of individual learners, teachers themselves need to have opportunities to engage in work that is meaningful, positive, and empowering. As Beth Holland and Ling Zhang of The Learning Accelerator observe in a CompetencyWorks blog post, asking teachers to teach in a competency-based education environment is asking most of them to provide an experience unlike anything they have ever known themselves. We intended Reimagining the Content Map to be just that—a model for authentic, agency-building work that inspires powerful learning.

As the participants came together, many expressed doubt and disbelief about the open-ended nature of the task and the process. Facilitators reported that they needed to “give permission” to their groups to let go of preconceptions about how curriculum should be written and to provide assurances along the way. As one participant stated, they entered the week thinking, “I needed specific deliverables in a specific format and timeframe” but through participating in the reimagining the content map process they came to see that “Work is meant to be fluid to truly be creative, communal, and impactful.”

Trusting the process alone wasn’t enough. Facilitators encouraged team members to trust themselves as well. Schools are, unfortunately, too often places of sorting and classifying human beings. The grading and ranking of students mirrors the “1, 2, 3, 4” teacher evaluation systems in place and the credentialism inherent in professional certification and pay schedules. Due to the disempowering and demoralizing nature of these approaches, many teachers were initially reluctant to take up the mantle of “expert.” The words “I’m just a teacher,” were spoken often in the first days of the week. “I thought I couldn’t be a designer of curriculum because I wasn’t prepared enough,” wrote one teacher. “Now I think I have a unique set of skills and experience that, when compiled with other amazing individuals, can be used to make something imaginative and amazing.”

Experiencing a semi-structured, open-ended collaboration led to remarkable transformation in thinking about how to best serve students. As one participant shared, “I used to think that a curriculum had to follow a set unmovable structure. Even though I knew that I needed to approach curricular design differently, I still leaned towards traditional structure with discrete units and a very clear and standardized order. Now I think that there are so many possibilities on how curriculum can be organized and delivered to young people, and I am even more certain that we need to break away from traditional structures [that]…put young people into boxes and deny them the agency to map out their own learning experience.”

While we are still learning much from the work, it is clear that to realize the full potential of competency-based education, we need to create more opportunities and space to empower educators to organize around meaningful work. Otherwise, how can they create opportunities for their students to learn to do the same? If we define competency based education as an approach where “students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning” then we should apply that to all learners, adults and youth alike.

Reimagining the K-12 Content Map brought people together around a design task AND we also believed that both we and they would learn in authentic and relevant ways. We are excited for the meaningful, joyful, authentic learning that results when we rely on the process and on one another, because, as one teacher observed, “the process can unfold in unexpected and powerful ways when I trust my teammates and facilitators.”

Learn More

Jon M. Altbergs is a DesignerPhotos of Authors and Knowledge Builder at reDesign, specializing in the development of curriculum, instruction, and assessment resources that support competency-based learning. Jon has been a classroom teacher, as well as a school-level leader.

Laurie Gagnon is an Educational Designer at reDesign, where she works with school, district, and state practitioners to design and implement opportunities for students to explore their passions and learn what they need to reach their goals. Prior to becoming a reDesigner, Laurie was the Director of the Quality Performance Assessment Program at the Center for Collaborative Education. She began her professional life teaching English in Japan and teaching high school history in the United States. Follow @LaurieGagnon98

Rohan Menon is a Learning Experience Designer at reDesign with a background in affective neuroscience and human biology. After a few formative years at the USC Brain & Creativity Institute, he has turned his attention to designing learning experiences and advocating for learner-centered communities grounded in human biology.