Skip to content
Aurora Institute

The Five Pillars of Teaching and Learning at KM Explore

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 third in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Kettle Moraine School District has introduced personalized learning into the elementary school level. Of the four district elementary schools, one is fully personalized and one is beginning to make the transition. We visited KM Explore, a charter school chartered by the district to create innovation space, sharing a campus with Wales Elementary. There are currently 148 students K-5 and 6 teachers.

The KM Explore team made the transition to personalized learning in 2015 after having invested in building their capacity in formative assessment for four years with Shirley Clark. They established a new mission and vision:

  • Mission: The mission of KM Explore is to engage a community of learners through authentic learning experiences by empowering them to be self-motivated thinkers, creators, and collaborators.
  • Vision: The vision of KM Explore is to customize student learning through an integrated learning framework that fosters authentic collaboration, engagement and reflection.

They then organized their approach to personalized learning with five pillars related to teaching and learning:

  1. Generative, Interdisciplinary Curriculum
  2. Multi-age Learning Community
  3. Habits of Mind
  4. Place Based Learning
  5. Collaborative Teaching and Learning

This approach is based on the idea that personalized learning and deeper learning experiences can be fully integrated, with students working at different levels, receiving differentiated support, and building lifelong learning skills.

Generative Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The discussion about generative, interdisciplinary curriculum was fascinating, as it suggested an entirely new way of organizing learning. KM Explore explains generative curriculum as the understanding that students, community and teachers work together to develop or create “in the moment” learning experiences.

  • Encouraging voice and choice in learning topics
  • Learning in a flexible manner, which content areas are interconnected throughout the day
  • Generating an experience that empowers a learner to question, engage and build community based on class initiatives or individual student interests
  • Growing learning pathways organically

Place Based Learning is the belief that learning takes place inside and outside of the “school walls” and that the community and its members are all part of the anytime/ everywhere learning environment.

Redefining learning spaces outside of the classroom walls

Using the community as resources, including students, community experts, and family members sharing their expertise with our learners.

The term generative curriculum was new to me, so Director Laura Dahm offered the popcorn project as an explanation. Earlier in the year students had a site visit to a farm where they had talked about plants, including corn. This site visit had been selected as a way of implementing another of the KM pillars of teaching and learning: place-based learning. From corn, the student interest then jumped to popcorn. So they learned about different kinds of corn and which ones were for popping. They then began to learn about the science of what made corn pop. Next, they created a small business to sell popcorn to high school students. The teachers could never have anticipated that the site visit to the farm was going to end up with a small business selling popcorn. KM Explore is designed to be highly responsive to follow student interest and prompting questions that would lead to multiple sets of knowledge and skills being taught.

Assistant Superintendent Theresa Ewald explained, “There is an underlying belief that the teacher isn’t expert and that our learners should have the opportunity to learn outside of the school walls from other people with a range of expertise. The teacher’s ability to learn alongside students while facilitating the learning practice and inquiry is at the core of this practice.”

It’s clear to me that there are a number of conditions that enable schools to use generative curriculum. First, it requires teachers to be fully knowledgeable of all the standards on the learner continuum across the academic domains as well as a bit below and above the multi-age bands they are teaching. Second, it requires teachers to have adequate planning time to be able to take the experiences learners had on a given day and begin to think about where the projects and learning can go. Third, the time during the day needs to be flexible enough to pursue projects, especially those that might take more time. Fourth, teachers are going to have to be skilled at formative assessment and feedback to be providing it on the spot as students are learning and doing at the same time. It would be easy for misconceptions to arise, and teachers would need to be alert and absolutely responsive to address these misconceptions before they take hold.

Multi-Age Learning Community

I sat with two teachers who taught a kindergarten and first grade band, Lisa Welch and Wanda Richardson, as they talked me through the implications of organizing multi-age learning communities to make sure students get the help they need and are making progress in developing writing skills. (I know absolutely nothing about teaching writing to young children, so this was illuminating. In case you are interested, KM Explore is using the Writing Strategies Book by Serravallo to teach writing to the younger students.) Carol pointed out, “Moving to multi-age helped us make the shift to meeting students where they are rather than delivering grade level curriculum. You have to focus on where each student is in building their reading, writing, and math skills because students may be at a kindergarten, first, second, or even third grade level.”

multi-age learning structure is built around connecting students from various grade levels spanning K-5. Multi-age learning provides an opportunity for students to build respect for each others’ differences, develop their own identity, and collectively work to create a meaningful learning experience for everyone in the classroom and school communities.

1. Creating an environment which encourages empathy

2. Recognizing learning as a process over time, everyone has strengths and weaknesses

3. Building stronger connections across grade levels and within the school community

4. Designing student goals around competencies, not grade levels

Students are organized into multi-age bands with flexible grouping throughout the day based on different criteria. Groupings are not just organized around the specific skills or standards students are working on. Groupings may also be organized around the goals students select.  The math flexible grouping tends to be organized around the skill or the goal that the learner has either selected or needs at that time.. Richardson explained, “It isn’t what grade you are or how old you are. The only question that is important is what is it you need right now?” Welch continued, “We are not doing units as much. We tend to focus on what students need. Units can be helpful but they can create a feeling that one has to complete the unit. The focus becomes on the unit rather than student learning.”

Students value the freedom to pick their goals. The teachers explained that the students push themselves to the next level just because they can. Richardson explained, ”Kids feel the freedom to push themselves. We encourage them to spend time writing whatever they want. We can of course push them, but then they are doing so to please the teacher. We want them to tackle new challenges because they want to.” They also pointed out that when students can select a goal or learning target and use one rubric to work on one thing at a time, it can make the stress levels go down. Welch said, “We value the process of learning and the amount of effort it takes. Students are going to feel success and begin to build their skills to scaffold one learning experience after another.”

As students build their social-emotional skills and show that they are developing a growth mindset, they are coached in creating longer-term goals. KM Explore organizes the habits of mind around persistence, managing impulsivity, thinking flexibly, listening with empathy, and striving for accuracy. Learners grow through reflection of their own habits. Please note: All of the  K-8 students at KM  are working on understanding and developing the Habits of Mind as developed by Costa and Kallick.  Goal setting includes identifying the goal and indicators of what is entailed in mastering the goal:

  •      I am working on
  •      I know when I have met my goal when I see

For example, in learning how to write a story, students will use the rubrics to help them know they need to have an introduction, add important details, and an ending. Teachers then gather students working on the same goal for a mini-lesson.

One of the ways that the teachers at KM Explore have to be fully prepared to be flexible is that when students are picking their goals, it may be hard to anticipate how many students are in a group. In one example, Welch explained how she knew that five students needed extra help on how to write different kinds of endings. However, twenty students came to her small group for a mini-lesson, as fifteen had selected it as their next goal. She reflected, “It is our job to be fully prepared. Whether it is five students or twenty students, we need to be prepared to meet them where both they and their interests are. The real trick is to make sure the five students who were still working on an earlier goal received the help they needed.”

Other times, teachers may introduce a new skill or concept to the whole group of students. For example, in the band of kindergarten and first graders, students may be working on writing with the skill to prepare a narrative for information or for opinion. Students are able to see exemplars of what proficiency in writing for kindergarten looks like compared to proficiency in first grade. (Remember, the process by which teachers agree upon this is the calibrating process, which creates a shared understanding of proficiency for standards at different performance levels).  Richardson and Welch also believe in the power of peer to peer teaching.  When a learner sees a peer striving for accuracy and pushing their learning deeper, they say to themselves, “I can do that too!”  It It is the power of example.

Rubrics are designed to indicate what proficiency means at kindergarten, first, and second grade. Students mark a green if they demonstrated proficiency, yellow if they were to do it a bit, and red if they didn’t reach it at all. Students with all green on their pieces of evidence move on to learn how to demonstrate the skill at the next level.

Teachers work with students who received yellow and green to provide feedback and develop strategies. Sometimes, students will simply revise the work. First graders are already learning the process of editing. Others might need to move to revise their goal to build up their skills and confidence. They told me a story of a student who was just not writing or willing to try writing the information or opinion pieces. Then they heard him telling a story about his interaction with a cow on a farm. By getting him to begin telling stories that were meaningful to him and that he felt success with, helped to empower his identity as that of a writer.  To write a story that was important to him sentence by sentence, the student started feeling comfortable and successful as a writer.

Fiction was his passion, and they encouraged him to write fiction until he became confident in his skills and then engaged him in writing other types of products.


Co-teaching is a critical element of KM Explore’s structure. Having two or more teachers obviously helps to use generative, interdisciplinary curriculum. It’s also going to bring more instructional expertise to bear on supporting students in developing their skills. It may also, although not necessarily, be helpful in challenging biases as teachers can understand students through perspectives other than their own.

I was only at KM Explore for about an hour, and thus was unable to do the deeper dives into the lessons learned and structures that support teachers. The clarity of the mission, vision, and a shared understanding of the principles of teaching and learning used throughout the school indicate a highly intentional and aligned system of education. There is a lot more to learn from KM Explore.

Read the Entire Series: