Independent Learning Plans


Alaska’s Chugach School District (CSD) is the first district to transform itself full into a competency-based school. In a blog series on CSD, Bob Crumley, CSD’s current superintendent, described their transformation, “We began to talk with community members about what they wanted for their children and their schools. We realized that first and foremost we needed to center schools around our students. We needed to be more comprehensive as we structured schools that would prepare them for life beyond graduation.”

To that end, CSD set out to develop a mission statement that could guide them in implementing this new model of learning. Here’s what they came up with:

“The Chugach School District is committed to developing and supporting a partnership with students, parents, community and business which equally shares the responsibility of empowering students to meet the needs of the ever changing world in which they live. Students shall possess the academic and personal characteristics necessary to reach their full potential. Students will contribute to their community in a manner that displays respect for human dignity and validates the history and culture of all ethnic groups.”

This competency-based model is made up of four interconnected parts:

  • Student empowerment: “Students need to be able to seek out things they are personally interested in, create a plan, and find the resources. We are always looking for ways to students to learn beyond the classroom.”
  • Assessment systems: “CSD uses a common scoring (grading) system with Emerging, Developing, Proficient, and Advanced. Reaching 80 percent on an assessment indicates proficiency and 90 percent is advanced.” – “Before a student moves onto to the next level there is a cumulative assessment based on up to three assessments. The first, described as the analytical assessment, is the student’s reflection on his or her learning. Second, there is a skill assessment that focuses on the specific content. The third, a performance assessment, is often co-designed with students. In this assessment, they show evidence of their ability to apply their skill.
  • Domains of learning (content areas): “ten content domains of standards: mathematics, technology, social sciences, reading, writing, culture & communication (student will understand and appreciate the unique aspects of their own culture, as well as Alaska Native or world cultures), personal/social/service (the values and skills necessary to reach one’s full potential and foster the development of those around them), career development, PE/health (healthy interpersonal strategies that apply in both rural and urban environments), and science.”
  • Preparing for life: “We have to be a slingshot. There is a momentum that builds to propel students forward beyond their graduating high school. They need to have a wide array of opportunities. I don’t know if we have to help them find their specific direction, as it is going to change a lot in their late teens and early twenties. It’s a rarity for teens to know exactly what they want to do and successfully pursue it. We need to help them have the capacity to take advantage of changing interests.”

For an in-depth analysis of CSD’s model, below is the blog post series that I pulled the above quotes from. It’s worth reading the whole series, but particularly the first two posts.

Post 1 – Driven by Student Empowerment: Chugach School District
Post 2 – Chugach School District’s Performance-Based Infrastructure
Post 3 – Chugach Teachers Talk about Teaching
Post 4 – Ownership, Not Buy-In: An Interview with Bob Crumley
Post 5 – Performance-Based Education in a One-Room School House
Post 6 – Teaching through the Culture: Native Education in a Performance-Based System
Post 7 – Performance-Based Home Schooling

To read about other schools that are implementing Independent Learning Plans, click here to read an article from Getting You can read more about the story behind CSD by reading the book Delivering On The Promise.

The movement towards competency based instruction is starting to pick up steam and I am looking forward to seeing the results.

Math Students: Sense Makers Not Mistake Makers

lImage by wecometolearn CC BY 2.0

For many, if not all, students, achieving mastery in mathematics involves intense struggle. Often, that struggle is seen as a negative thing, by teachers and students alike, and becomes the source of frustration. But what if we were to shift our perspective on students as “mistake-makers” to “sense makers”? What if we celebrated the process, trials and errors and all, as much as the ability to solve a problem and get a right answer?

This perspective, students as sense-makers, is championed by math teacher David Wees. In an article in MindShift, Wee is quoted:

“I want to know the ways that they [the students] are thinking rather than the ways they are making mistakes . . . My interpretation that they’re making a mistake is a judgment and usually ends my thinking about what they are doing.”

This way of thinking is also celebrated by mathematician Paul Lockhart who writes:

Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself.

Wees says that “Kids ask questions: 1) to find out if they did the problem right; 2) because the teacher is standing near them and they can, and; 3) occasionally they ask “I wonder what if” questions, which show they are thinking about the math.” In order to help his students develop their mathematical thinking abilities “Wees took to not answering the first two kinds of questions and encouraging the third. He found himself often asking the same question, whether a student had gotten the problem right or wrong. He’d ask them to explain their answer or how they could check to see if they were right or wrong.”

To explore more about this philosophy of mathematics, check out my series on parental engagement in math. And to read about how we can turn everyone into a math person, click here.

Age-Based Schooling? It Doesn’t Make Sense

schoolkidsWhy do we divide children into grades and classrooms based on age? Niccolò Viviani (@NiccolViviani) of Exosphere writes that it just doesn’t make sense. In an article on, he writes:

We all know (it’s true for everyone and each of us!) that what you learn out of curiosity and interest sticks with you forever, while what you study out of threat of punishment will fade away very soon after the test is passed. Given that different people are curious and interested in different topics at different times, if we really care about learning we shouldn’t build a system that force every child on earth to study this when he is 7 years old and that when he is 7 years old and a half, this other thing when he is 12 and that one when he is 13.

Niccolo points out that in the real world, we have to interact with people of all different ages. Various circumstances and contexts lead us to take on different roles in relationship to other people – employee, manager, colleague, etc.. – but in the artificially constructed classroom, there are usually only two roles for students: peer and subordinate. One of the results, Niccolo says, is that school kids become college students who accept everything their professors teach without a second thought. One can see that same problem manifested by people listening indiscriminately to the TV pundit or the smooth-talking politician as well. Niccolo writes that this phenomenon is “based on the assumption that only experts could teach.”

In contrast, here’s the model that Exosphere proposes:

Older and younger students would play different roles in the learning environment and the variety would benefit all of them. Older students relating to younger peers would learn to tolerate and act respectful towards them and teaching them would become their best way to foster self-confidence about what they learned.

Click here to read the whole article.

To compliment this article, here’s Sir Ken Robinson’s world famous TED Talk, Changing Education Paradigms:

“Disrupting Class” – Book Review

Clayton Christensen (author of Disrupted Class) speaking at the 2013 World Economic Forum
Clayton Christensen (author of Disrupted Class) speaking at the 2013 World Economic Forum CC BY-SA 2.0 Source:

Once upon a time, computers were large, cumbersome, hard-to-operate, and expensive. Then Apple created a personal computer, broke into the market, stole the market shares from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and revolutionized the world. Well, not exactly. Apple didn’t compete directly with DEC – to do so would have been futile given the stronghold DEC held. No, Apple created it’s own market by creating its model IIe personal computer which was marketed to a whole different set of consumers – children.

The true story above is the perfect example of a potent form of change. Disruptive Innovation. Apple reinvented the game. At first, Apple’s product was not nearly as capable as the computers DEC was making, but over time, as the cost of building went down even as the computing power went up, people quickly realized the personal computer wasn’t just a children’s toy – and the world has never been the same.

On the back cover of Clayton M. Christensen’s book Disrupting Class are endorsements by: a former Governor, a press syndication service operated by the Washington Post, a Chancellor of Education, and the author of Good To Great (a staple in the business world.) And while the book is focused on “How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” (subtitle), it’s equally valuable reading for its insights into business as well as education. And its vision for the reinvention of schools is one that has many leaders, myself included, excited.

Disruptive Innovations happen on the sidelines; they create a new way of doing things and once that new way has fully matured, it displaces what once was. And thus Apple PCs replace the DEC minicomputer and Wikipedia makes academic print encyclopedias almost irrelevant.  The School Choice movement is a Disruptive Innovation. Nevada’s new Universal Education Savings Account legislation is a Disruptive Innovation. And schools equipped with software that adapts in real-time to the learning styles and pacing of each student while providing ongoing assessment of learning? Well, that’s a Disruptive Innovation that is waiting just around the corner.

Currently customization in education is largely conditional on financial resources. Wealthy families pay for tutors who customize their instruction for their pupils. School districts with ample financial resources offer more AP classes and extracurricular studies. Imagine then if barriers were broken-down and students from all backgrounds had access to education that is customized to maximize their learning.

Like all disruptions, student-centric technology will make it affordable, convenient, and simple for many more students to learn in ways that are customized for them. – Disrupting Class, page 92

Are you concerned that such an approach, which turns teachers into mentor/guide/tutor and places software at the center of learning might not be effective? Consider this area (one of many) where student-centric technology would be of benefit and would alleviate a major concern of educators, parents and students: testing:

When students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn’t have to be postponed until the end of an instructional module and then administered in a batch mode. Rather, we can verify mastery continually to create tight, closed feedback loops. Misunderstandings do not have to persist for weeks until the exam has been administered and the instructor has had time to grade each student’s test.

There is a lot more great information contained within the pages of Disrupting Class. I highly recommend that you buy a copy and read it. Here’s a link to the author’s website – and here is a link to his Twitter page.