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Aurora Institute

Step 1: Separate The Baby From the Bathwater

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

courtney  belolan
Courtney Belolan

Consider this moment:

I’m sitting in a summer planning session with a team of teachers from different grade levels and contents. We’re talking through a vision of student-centered, proficiency-based learning, and our goal is to have some plans in place for the start of the school year.  As we’re discussing student engagement and motivation, a teacher chimes in with:

Let’s just make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

I hear this phrase whenever talking through change, especially change related to instructional practices. I agree completely, although I’ve never been a fan of the phrase (there is just something about the imagery). We do need to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; there are many things we already do as educators that support a student-centered, proficiency-based philosophy, regardless of how we design and run our classes. The hard part is getting into that bathtub and making sure we know what really is the baby and what is bathwater.

The caution of the idiom should be felt as a call to closely examine practices, not as a justification for stagnation. A viable customized learning curriculum is just about impossible unless we take the time to do this as education professionals.

So, how do we go about taking the first step and rescuing that happy baby from being tossed and nurture it in successful student-centered, proficiency-based learning? Figure out the learning targets.

I often work with people trying to adapt previously taught units or projects to the new system of competencies. Retrofitting targets can be difficult, and it is important to approach it with an open attitude.  Be ready to leave anything, and even everything, behind. I use the following series of questions to guide this work:

  1. What makes this unit or project important?
  2. What are the skills or understandings students learn in the unit or project that have the most potential for staying with them as they progress in their learning and can be measured?
  3. What are the lessons that get directly at those skills and understandings?
  4. What are the lessons and activities that do not?
  5. Does the level of rigor of the final product, or assessment, match what it should be for the desired skill or understanding?

If you’ve read any of my other posts you’re probably sensing a recurring theme. Learning targets articulate the skills and understandings you want students to demonstrate mastery of.  If you are clear that the baby is what we want our students to learn, everything else will fall into place.


Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.