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.

Let’s Turn Every Child Into A “Math Person”


Are you a “math person”? Most likely, the way in which you answer this question determines how well you understand mathematical concepts, and just as important, how much you appreciate/enjoy mathematics. But what if that is the wrong question?

What if we are all math people, at least until we’re convinced that we’re not?

A writer for an article on Quartz explains that the research just does not support the notion that we are genetically predisposed to either understand mathematics or not. Instead, he proposes the “love it and learn it” hypothesis, which is more supported by the research and which has three elements:

  • For anyone, the more time spent thinking about and working on math, the higher the level of mathematical skill achieved.
  • Those who love math spend more time thinking about and working on math.
  • There is a genetic component to how much someone loves math.

So what are the implications if this hypothesis is true? The article goes on:

If the “love it and learn it” hypothesis is true, it gives a simple recommendation for someone who wants to get better at math: spend more time thinking about and working on math. Best of all: spend time doing math in the kinds of ways people who love math spend time doing math.

if a kid has a bad experience trying to learn math in school, or is bored with some bits of math, the answer isn’t to say “Well maybe you just aren’t a math person.” Instead, it is to find some other way to help that kid with math and to find other bits of math that would be exciting for their particular kid to help build her or his interest and confidence.

Why do so many people get convinced that they are just “not a math person”? If someone has an awful math teacher as a student, it’s common for the student to associate his/her frustrations with math, rather than the teacher. Another big problem is that classroom instruction is not set up to be student-paced. The article quotes blogger Cathy O’Neil who writes:

There’s always someone faster than you. And it feels bad, especially when you feel slow, and especially when that person cares about being fast, because all of a sudden, in your confusion about all sort of things, speed seems important. But it’s not a race. Mathematics is patient and doesn’t mind.

Being good at math is really about how much you want to spend your time doing math. And I guess it’s true that if you’re slower you have to want to spend more time doing math, but if you love doing math then that’s totally fine.

Click here to read the rest of the article. It’s fairly lengthy but well worth reading.

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: