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Curriculum & Classroom Planning

Teacher-developed systems and structures designed to develop students' content and skills mastery as laid out in the Framework for Mastery Implementation. 

  • Backwards planned, focused on systematic transfer of skills across assignments, units, and courses

Backwards planning, also known as backwards design, starts with designing a summative assessment (or ideally, a meaningful choice of assessments) that give(s) students rich opportunities to demonstrate independent mastery of learning outcomes. From there, the curriculum designer considers what learning experience will build the skills and knowledge students need in order to successfully show their mastery on that final assessment. Some teachers find it helpful to separate content-based outcomes (“I need to know...)” and skill-based outcomes (“I need to be able to...”).

After determining/identifying what students must know and be able to do, a curriculum designer may design a or rubric that articulates criteria for meeting expectations and exceeding expectations, as well as not yet meeting expectations.  (It can be useful to get student feedback about the rubric, and is always a good use of time to walk through the rubric with students in detail, to create genuine shared understanding of both learning goals and criteria for success.)

From there, it becomes clearer just what learning experiences will support students’ progress toward independent mastery of the learning outcomes that are in play.

Starting the unit plan by designing the summative assessment helps to ensure that all the parts of the unit are designed to build skills and knowledge that are relevant to the learning outcomes in play.

However, a mastery curriculum designer considers the interplay between outcomes, learning activities, and assessments, ensuring that there is a strong connection between all components—and that the most active participants along the path to mastery are the students, by design.

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Across NYC, the Understanding By Design system is widespread. Some schools adapt the unit map to include competencies/learning outcomes.

  • Designed with multiple opportunities to build and demonstrate mastery

Because mastery is developed over time, formative assessments should measure progress so that students can understand what they have achieved, and what lies before them.  Frequent formative assessments afford teachers many chances to provide outcomes-based feedback and coaching to students along the way.

  • Objectives/outcomes are transparent and student-friendly

Outcomes are the coin of trade for everything that happens in a mastery system. There is much to say about creating an effective system of outcomes. In brief, consider these aspects as you design your system of outcomes.

    • Aligned to school-wide philosophy and practices
    • Granularity: the Goldilocks metric (not too big, not too small, but just right)
    • Alignment: Aligned to or in support of CCLS and NYS Standards
    • Fruitful connections/analogies/distinctions between disciplines
    • Expressed in student-friendly, academic language
    • Durable skills students can develop over time
    • Measurable
    • Relevant and useful, worth returning to over time
    • Spiraled to track progress over time

A note on language: Learning outcomes should be stated in terminology that students can grow to understand and use comfortably. However, outcomes should also be stated in academic language, to support students in learning, owning, and using Tier 2 academic vocabulary terms. (These are general, non-discipline-specific terms that are needed for success in school, and are useful across content areas. Examples: compare, infer, discover, experiment, describe, etc.)

Because transparency is such a paramount value in a mastery-based classroom, the best balance must be struck between academic terms and student-friendly language. The best and, in truth, only genuine way to gauge how well students share understanding of outcomes, rubrics, assignments, etc. is to seek their input about all aspects of the curriculum, and to engage in tweaking and shifting to keep striking the best balance between academic terminology and student-friendly language. (Ask students to review your draft rubric and to highlight the parts that they genuinely understand. The most beautiful rubric is for naught if students are not able to understand it. So, either terms must be taught and used in the classroom in a way that leads to genuine, full shared understanding among all participants in the classroom—or you risk leaving behind some of the students you are there to support toward mastery.)

  • Alignment of outcomes with Common Core Learning Standards, state standards, and other key academic/workplace learning goals

We suggest that schools create outcomes that are aligned to and/or in support of standards. An example of an outcome that supports success with Common Core Standards, for example, might be “I can communicate effectively in multiple formats (speaking/listening, writing, technology).” Other outcomes in support of CCLS could concern project planning, critical thinking, goal setting—the cross-cutting general skills that are the habits and practices of successful people in all walks of life, including academics. Ideally key high-leverage cross-cutting skills are carefully chosen, criteria for success are articulated,  and adults across a school share responsibility for teaching into these skills, giving students opportunities to learn, develop , and demonstrate evidence of these skills in multiple ways across time.

Experienced mastery practitioners often design learning targets that focus on transferable skills, rather than on content knowledge. Students in these settings of course do learn content and gain knowledge, doing so in the context of and process of developing lasting relevant skills they can bring with them into post-secondary life. Why? In the era of the internet, information comes cheap. Knowing what to do with it, how to analyze and synthesize information, is more important than ever.  “The content lives in the evidence” of mastery, says lead teacher Christy Kingham of The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, a Mastery Collaborative Living Lab School.

Research indicates that students do not retain most of the “facts” they learn in school. Research also tells us that facts stick better when students learn them in a context of actively working to  build and use key skills they need to succeed in college and careers. In order to understand how  mature mastery systems balance content knowledge and skill development, reviewing student learning outcomes is useful. Please see the sections below on departmental and schoolwide outcomes for examples.

  • Assessment designed around common/shared rubrics

    • Developing mastery rubrics 

Developing mastery rubrics provides teachers an opportunity to get really clear about what it means and looks like for students to meet, not yet meet, or exceed expectations on a learning outcome. In Social Studies, what specifically does it mean to analyze a text? In ELA, what does it mean? Often, teachers develop rubrics together, paying special attention to where transferable skills fall in departments, and where differences lie. Clear rubrics increase transparency to students, which increases equity, and gives all students a path to success.

A best practice for a mastery-based learning environment is to create rubrics with students, in order to build genuine shared understanding. Another useful practice is to invite students to use a highlighter to mark language they understand completely—it can be surprising to see how much of a carefully detailed rubric is not comprehensible to students.

    • Formative versus summative rubrics 

Many teachers use the same rubric for both formative and summative assessments. Furthermore, students may only be assessed on certain aspects of the rubric for each assignment. It may be that for the same piece of “evidence” (or assignment) various students are being assessed on different rows of the rubric, based on what they’ve mastered in the past. This is a way to individualize grading and mastery without increasing teacher workload. This method may also allow students greater levels of autonomy (and greater levels of engagement) by inviting student input on which skill(s) they believe are ready to demonstrate mastery.

    • Using consistent rubrics across assessments

Using a single rubric over time to track progress on learning outcomes can foster student metacognition about progress, and allows teachers to track their students; points of growth and existing strengths.

Viraj Desai, a teacher at KAPPA International High School, a Mastery Collaborative Living Lab school, has decided to implement a feedback tracker for his students to understand their progress across time:

“This spring, I had a realization: I needed to provide continuity in my feedback to students about their skills. Until then, each piece of feedback from different prompts seemed to stand alone with no carryover for what each student did well and poorly. For the upcoming year, I have created a feedback tracker for students to keep in their binders. Now, each time they get writing feedback, they can continue to build on their positive work and improve where they show patterns of gaps. I am excited about this year, because I am hopeful that when students are able to track feedback they get on a specific learning outcome over time, we will see the growth in writing skills that we have been seeking.

The beauty of a mastery-based approach to learning is that it is an open door where students can keep growing regardless of their incoming level. My students and I are all trying to reach mastery. There are challenges, such as what exactly mastery looks like from grade to grade, from teacher to teacher, and from class to class. However, my colleagues at KAPPA International High School and I know this is a meaningful shift, so much so that we are proud to continue searching for the answers and continue this work.”

  • Cohesive across departments, subjects, grade levels

Departments create vertical alignment of outcomes by working across grade bands to identify skills that carry over, and increased expectations for more advanced students. Careful attention to growing expectations across grades helps to ensure that students are being prepared for more advanced work, and allows teachers to support higher level learners who may outpace the traditional grade band content.

Whether outcomes are department-wide or school-wide, a school’s system of outcomes should be coherent enough to elucidate connections, analogies, and fruitful distinctions between similar but distinct outcomes in different disciplines.

For example, supporting one’s argument with sufficient reasoning and evidence in science might mean conducting and reporting on a series of experiments; in Social Studies, it might entail analyzing and citing primary and secondary sources; in English, it might entail citing passages from complex texts and then analyzing them; in math, it might mean doing a proof. It is useful for students engaged in these varying activities to understand that they are connected, that they are various facets of supporting an argument with evidence—and also that experts and learners in each discipline undertake to do this in distinct ways.

    • Departmental competencies/outcomes

Learning targets can be developed by a department collaboratively in order to understand how content in one grade band leads into the next. This is ideal not only for norming language, but for strengthening learning targets as well. When teachers understand how a learning target in sixth grade feeds into a learning target in seventh grade, that teacher is able to provide high level work to students who are moving at a pace quicker than “grade level.” For more information about working outside of grade bands, see NYC DOE’s policy XXXX.

    • Schoolwide competencies/outcomes

Schools with more mature mastery systems tend to move toward a more schoolwide approach to creating outcomes, creating a more cohesive user experience for learners.

Using one set of outcomes across all courses requires the deep work of identifying high-leverage academic skills that come into play in all or most disciplines, and that students need for success after graduation. Teachers across all subject areas are focused on supporting student mastery of these outcomes. This is an advanced staged of mastery implementation, which requires full-school buy-in and a well-established shared vision. Often, this is easier to accomplish after using outcomes-based grading by class or department for a while, or when starting a mastery-based school from the ground up. It requires full teacher buy-in, parent understanding, and a deeply collaborative approach to work with outcomes.

    • Supporting teacher collaboration

Carving out regular blocks of time during the school day for teachers to meet and collaborate allows teams to align learning targets within or across disciplines and grade band, create common assessments, share resources, norm on meaningful feedback practices, and hone successful facilitation practices. Teaching teams may also find it useful to compare student data across classes in order to reveal patterns in student learning.

  • Interdisciplinary connections/shared learning

    • Using shared competencies/outcomes to develop interdisciplinary thinking 

Christy Kingham shares this anecdote about her student’s learning across disciplines:

"I knew the outcomes system was working for me when I was conferencing with one of my students and she was discussing her communication in writing. Both her social studies teacher and I had noticed that she needed to work on coherency within and across paragraphs, a target that we share under the “communicate” outcome. Her eyes lit up in that 'I got it' way—she shared that she learned a trick about using transitions properly from her social studies teacher that would apply perfectly to the writing we were looking at."

    • Designing interdisciplinary courses and projects

Project-based learning opens the door for interdisciplinary projects that cement student learning and ask students to engage with content at a high-level, synthesizing what they’ve learned in order to create and present material. Schools that understand the intersections of their content areas, and use skill-based outcomes have great success with projects that ask students to employ knowledge from many content areas.