On the first day of class every year, I have a student volunteer come up to the front of the classroom, and I teach them how to putt a golf ball. I use tape to put a straight line on my floor, and I demonstrate how it is possible to putt a ball straight down the line using proper technique. I then walk the student through four key elements to remember while putting:
- Have a balanced, athletic stance
- Align the ball underneath the center of your forehead
- Lock your wrists
- Use the big muscles in your core to move the club straight back and straight through the ball
After we go over the key elements, we use them to help the student practice. The student putts, and as a class we talk about which of the four elements they did well and which they can improve, and we repeat that until the student can do all four elements and move the ball down the line.
This icebreaker activity allows me to pivot the discussion with my students to the central mission of my classroom: competency based education. In other words, in my classroom and in many others like it around the world, we focus on students being able to demonstrate that they have learned and mastered the skills and the concepts required for our class, and they are graded based on their ability to demonstrate it.
This post will walk teachers through the steps to create a competency based curriculum to use in their classrooms. By clearly defining learning targets, providing multiple methods and attempts to demonstrate mastery, and offering clear, actionable feedback, teachers can dramatically improve student achievement and classroom culture during this coming school year.
Clearly Defining Learning Targets
The first step in creating a competency based curriculum in a classroom is to clearly define learning targets. The teacher and the students need to understand exactly what the students are expected to learn and be able to do throughout the semester or year. To do this, I suggest PLC teams get together and complete the following action steps:
Unpack the Standards
In most cases, core standards for classes are written in academic language and contain several ideas in one standard. Both of those aspects of standards make them difficult for students to understand and for teachers to isolate for instruction and assessment. An example of this comes from the Common Core, 9th-10th grade language arts standards:
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text. (CCSS.ELA.RL.9-10.2)
To remedy the problems posed by academic language and multiple skills or concepts in one standard, we should unpack the standard into its corresponding skills and concepts like this:
Skills (or verbs)
• Determine a theme
• Analyze its development
• Identify specific details
• Provide a summary
Concepts (or nouns)
• Theme or Central Idea
• Theme development over the course of a text
• Specific details
• Objective summary
After breaking the standard down, we can see several skills and concepts that a student needs to know in order to show proficiency in the standard. These skills and concepts can be expressed in simple “I can” statements that are easy for students to understand.
• I can determine the central theme of a text and analyze its development by looking at individual parts of the whole.
• I can write an objective summary of a text.
These statements become the backbone of a competency-based curriculum, allowing teachers to clearly define the learning targets for their students.
Create a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum
After unpacking all of the standards, the team needs to decide which of the resulting “I can” statements are critical to success moving forward. These are the skills and concepts that teachers, schools, and districts will “guarantee” that students will learn in the available time. In other words, this list of skills and concepts will become the guaranteed and viable curriculum for the course.
Robert Marzano clarifies what a guaranteed and viable curriculum is and why it is essential for student success:
“…one of the most powerful things a school can do to help enhance student achievement is to guarantee that specific content is taught in specific courses and grade levels. It is important to note the two parts in the concept of a guaranteed and viable curriculum: The fact that it is guaranteed assures us that specific content is taught in specific courses and at specific grade levels, regardless of the teacher to whom a student is assigned. The fact that it is viable indicates that there is enough instructional time available to actually teach the content identified as important,”
In Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work, Marzano explains that this list of guaranteed skills and concepts should be relatively short, allowing the teacher time to fully teach the them and the students time to grapple with them and show mastery.
“Given that one of the main barriers to implementing standards is that they contain too much content, it would be counterproductive to identify too many measurement topics. I recommend no more than 20 measurement topics per subject, per grade level, and ideally about 15 (page 23).”
In my 10th grade language arts class, I have identified 15 “I can” statements that represent the skills and concepts that I guarantee students will master before leaving my classroom at the end of the year. While I will teach the other skills and concepts represented in the core curriculum, they are secondary to those that have become my guaranteed and viable curriculum.
Clearly Define Success Criteria
After creating a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the team needs to define success criteria for each standard or competency in that curriculum. Much like teaching a student to putt a golf ball above by having 4 specific things to do, these criteria need to be clear and measurable. In my classroom, I like to define 4 levels of success: Advanced, Proficient, Approaching, and Emerging. Each of these levels should show what student work should look like at each level of success.
The table below shows how I have chosen to define success criteria for the two “I can” statements that I reference above. To create this rubric, I begin by defining the “proficient” column, which should represent grade-level achievement, and then I make changes to show steps that a learner might take before reaching that level and after.
|I can determine the central theme of a text and analyze its development by looking at individual parts of the whole.
|I have identified the central theme in the story by stating what is the prevailing idea in the story. The theme I have chosen is universal and can be applied to other stories. After stating the theme, I have offered several relevant examples from the story that support the theme I have chosen that show deep understanding and critical thinking.
|I have identified the central theme in the story by stating what is the prevailing idea in the story. After stating the theme, I have offered several relevant examples from the story that support the theme I have chosen.
|I have identified the central theme in the story by stating what is the prevailing idea in the story, but my theme lacks specificity. After stating the theme, I have offered some relevant examples from the story that support the theme I have chosen.
|I have identified a theme and tried to support it, but my theme and evidence lack the specificity to be effective.
|I can provide an objective summary of a text.
|I have included only the main ideas in my summary and used paraphrasing appropriately and effectively. My summary has a logical flow and order that reflects the original piece’s intent and structure. It also has a strong stylistic flair that distinguishes it from other summaries.
|I have included only the main ideas in my summary and used paraphrasing appropriately and effectively. My summary has a logical flow and order that reflects the original piece’s intent and structure.
|I have included the main ideas and one or two superficial ideas in my summary and used paraphrasing appropriately. My summary has an order that reflects the original piece’s intent and structure.
|My summary is a mix of main and superficial ideas. Paraphrasing and structural elements are not used effectively.
Once the team has clearly defined success criteria for each standard in my guaranteed and viable curriculum, they are ready to begin creating assessments that students can complete in order to demonstrate a mastery of the concepts.
Provide Multiple Methods and Attempts to Demonstrate Mastery
One of the key differences between a traditional and a competency based curriculum is the format and frequency of assessments to demonstrate learning. In a traditional curriculum, students will likely take a test or write an essay one time to show what they have learned. Each student will get the same assessment, and each student will have the same number of attempts. In a competency based curriculum, teachers understand that students can show success in many different ways, and students will achieve mastery at different speeds. To facilitate this, the assessments will vary by student with students having a choice of the format they prefer, and students will have as many attempts on an assessment as they need to show mastery.
Teachers can utilize a variety of strategies to provide this choice and flexibility in assessments. At the beginning of the year, I like to offer students 3-4 choices of what their assessment can look like and offer an option for suggesting their own format. Toward the end of the year, when students are more used to this type of assessment, I can provide the standard and success criteria and allow students to create their own product to demonstrate mastery with much less teacher guidance.
For the two standards I’ve been referring to in this post, the following assessments could be used by students to show mastery:
• Write an essay analyzing a theme from a piece of fiction that details how that theme is developed throughout the work.
• Create a video review of a piece of fiction that discusses the thematic elements and makes a judgement on how effectively those elements come together in the work.
• Create a social media page for an author that uses posts to talk about themes the author develops and how those themes are presented.
• Record a podcast discussing the themes in a work. The podcast could be interview or discussion style with multiple students.
Because content can be created in so many ways with technology, the opportunity for creativity and choice for students to demonstrate mastery is limitless. I have been amazed by the work my students have produced when offered a chance to be creative and choose their own form of assessment.
Offer Clear, Actionable Feedback
The final step for teachers to create a competency based curriculum in their classroom is to give students feedback on the assessments that they create. During and after the creative process for students, teachers need to actively provide feedback to help students meet the learning targets that have been established and shared. Teachers should use the rubrics they have created to help students include everything that is expected of them in their work. We should help them to struggle through the process to create a successful product that really demonstrates that they understand the skills and concepts we have been teaching.
As we do this, not only do we help students succeed, but we also create a learning environment full of mutual trust and accountability that allows all students to be successful, which is what the modern classroom should strive to be.