Bundling Competencies, Content and Skills

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part 13:  Bundling Competencies, Content and Skills

“We need mindsets of process and learning, not of coverage and completion.”

Do you Suppose…

     …everyone should be expected to excel at the game of Jeopardy?  Does the content of Jeopardy heavily contribute to success in life?  Well, not really.  Precious few retain that volume of facts.  Instead, the approach must be to secure fundamental competencies and skills—that readily cut across subject and knowledge domains.  Transferring big ideas is timeless—well beyond any grade on Friday’s test and long after we shut the TV off!


Reality from the Teacher’s Room

     Mrs. Miller starts her prep period, working to adjust the curriculum for Denny. It’s time consuming. So much to cover and kids aren’t interested—they just do the bare minimum.  Incorporating the latest initiative, meeting standards, testing, and testing again… and developing multiple plans for the same lesson is exhausting. Finding leveled books can lower expectations and minimize relevant choice, often leading to hand-over-hand attention that bogs down progress. Keeping Denny on track and out of trouble is a full-time job. Frankly, this isn’t working. All I keep hearing is “we need to catch them up!” Catch them up to what?   Catch them up resounds between the lines of “let’s keep moving forward whether they are learning or not.”  No, not just Denny. It’s become the culture of learning in so many classrooms. Educators are overloaded and exhausted, just like many of our students. Why has teaching become so disheartening? Why do so many kids not want to learn anymore?

Re-culturing Our Thinking About Curriculum     

     For so many years, there’s always been too much content to cover. The seemingly endless curriculum never gets completed in 180 days.  The annual professional development focus, again, is on a new program that has assured district leaders that if implemented with fidelity, students would learn the standards. Packets are disseminated, discussed at grade level or department meetings, and off we go to teach. Same old content with a new cover and activities for students to do. “I already do that” resonates in every sidebar glance.  Next comes a checklist to check-in on following the steps in the manual. We were supposedly changing from standards to competencies.  However, we never changed the thinking to a competency-based curriculum for student learning. Good instruction is good instruction, regardless of the curriculum or latest initiative. However, when we think of transforming our curriculum–unpacking the competencies, skills, and content is essential to ensure the student has the opportunity for application and transference. There are three essential questions:

  • Is there a way to make our curriculum relevant for students?
  • Rather than enforce rules, ending up with compliance and task completion, is there a way to motivate kids today to enjoy learning?
  • Is there a way to make this all manageable over 180 school days?

     The answer to all questions is “yes!” The DNA of Learning Blueprint emphasizes re-culturing the thinking about competencies by focusing on two simple but important elements:

  1. Reflecting on the DNA of a Learner: How do we truly learn?
  2. Bundling competencies and skills (through understanding and identifying interdisciplinary applications) that have meaning, relevance, and interest to our students.

    These elements address the importance of transforming outdated curriculum to curricular components that give students the opportunity. They answer the question, WHY IS LEARNING THIS IMPORTANT FOR ME?


 Bundling Competencies Within and Across Curriculum Domains                

When we think of bundles, we may think of old newspapers, books or perhaps a bundle of wood.  How we group them is a personal preference: what we use to keep the bundle together may be string or wire or how heavy we make these bundles. When bundling educational competencies, the same preferences hold true to this process as well. It is imperative that collaborative teams of teachers have intellectual conversations about what selected competencies mean for their teaching and their students’ learning. How these skills and competencies are bundled and are tied together must be understood by both teachers and students alike.


Shifting Classroom Practice

Covering the “flat” curriculum and “teaching to the middle” must be replaced with identifying big ideas and concepts within the content.  When bundling competencies, the following steps are important:

  • Identify the major concepts to be learned. These are the big ideas, essential ideas, which can be addressed and applied in different content areas and across many interests and careers
  • What are the skills to be learned? When a collaborative team of teachers identify the skills to be taught by all in all content areas, thinking and learning become integrated  and transferable between studies.  Students are engaged because it is personal and relevant for them
  • How will the students demonstrate their competency? Intrinsic motivation is developed when students experience confidence in their ability to learn and see evidence of their growth. Stamina and perseverance increase when students can validate their strengths and progress.

Mrs. Miller’s New Reality

     Understanding the DNA of Learning Blueprint, Mrs. Miller began a new journey with her planning process for Denny and every student in her 9th grade class. She realized that the time spent getting to know her students was critically important in the lesson planning process. She was committed to creating a curriculum focus and learning experiences that were responsive to the learners’ personalized interests, needs, and strengths. Using interest surveys and the conferral process provided the connections she needed to know and understand the values of her students.  Now she could design learning leading to passion for learning as well as opportunities for lifelong skill development around essential ideas. The work around bundling essential ideas in competencies cut to the heart of the issue. It precisely identifies the two most important elements in the practice of personalized learning: the learner and their connection to the learning experience.

     Using the science of learning cognition, Mrs. Miller’s new lesson planning focused on three simple, very important elements:

  1. When teachers try to understand the learners, not just the curriculum, they develop patterns which shed light on student pathways and motivations for learning
  2. Understanding and bundling competencies/skills that are meaningful for the future of the student helps teachers realize that deep learning happens when students are given the opportunity to apply their learning within the context of their personal interests. Bundling the curriculum enables greater access for each learner’s curiosities and innate capabilities
  3. Developing lessons within units and courses that have meaning for the students and that transfer to specific interests or career opportunities allows the student to see the relevance and potential applications of the content. No longer will we hear… “why are we learning this?” Curiosity becomes an anchor in our teaching and learning. In doing this we, as their teachers, restore a sense of do-ability in our work, along with a contagious enthusiasm for remarkable learning outcomes

     Students’ personalized choices drive motivation and develop a deeper level of understanding. Teachers guide student thinking while students dig in, persist, and track their own learning journey and understandings. Conferrals make learning visible. Conferrals develop agency in our students, as teachers listen to their thinking about their work and guide them to keep their learning moving forward.  As students explore and uncover a depth of understanding, we guide them to identify big ideas and transferable understandings.  As they track progress, they begin to see how learning has purposes—replacing disconnected tasks with the pleasures of finding things out.  Joy!                                                                                    

Moving to Tomorrow

     Among others, students need the lifelong skills to organize, analyze, evaluate, communicate, and to navigate uncertainties.  These exist in all content, areas of interest and in all future situations.  Educators can start the process of bundling competencies and skills by convening with colleagues within and across grade/subjects by: 

  1. Discussing and agreeing on which big ideas permeate within singular content areas and then across domains of knowledge. These are a requisite path to timeless, lifelong understandings

Asking: “What are the concepts, the big ideas we want our students to learn, that can be applied across content areas and in different careers, passions, and interests?”

Asking: “What are the skills needed that cut across all content areas?  These skills begin at early ages and are developed and expanded over time.  If it helps, look over existing curriculum, underlining articulated “skills” and highlighting concepts.  This may provide a roadmap for the above conversations

  1. Discussing how students could demonstrate their competencies through their respective strengths, rather than through a single test or form of assessment
  2. Discussing how getting to know each student and their interests can provide insights that will help students see the connections between the varied activities of “today” as well as the potentials of their “tomorrows.”

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