Proficiency, Personalization, and a Cocktail Napkin: or, How PBL Became PPBL

Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams are Proficiency Based Learning Specialists from the Champlain Valley School District in Vermont. They can be found on Twitter at @cvulearns and their first book, The Standards Based Classroom, will be published by Corwin Press in September.


This post first appeared on CVU Learns: One School’s Journey to Standards Based Learning and is reprinted with permission.

Adam (our principal) had these two sentences written on the whiteboard in his office last summer when we came in for a meeting:

Personalization creates ownership without the certainty of integrity.

Proficiency creates integrity without the certainty of ownership.

He had been playing around with the relationship between the two “initiatives” that have taken over the state of Vermont and that had been at the center of our school’s thinking and planning and implementation for years. We all created a mind map around the two sentences that day, listing programs, structures, and systems we had in place to support both proficiency and personalization, and how we would need to balance ongoing professional development to ensure equal focus on each.

But it wasn’t until last week at Lake Morey that we truly understood the implications of those claims and how we needed to make a single, simple shift in our thinking. More about that in a minute.

Our 6 member Curriculum Instruction Team was at Lake Morey for a 2-day conference with personalization expert and researcher Allison Zmuda. Allison is a bit of a legend among our CIT at CVU because of some direction she gave us years ago at a conference in San Antonio Texas. We had been struggling with some heavy thinking and she pulled us out in the hallway, listened to our rambling, abstract, unpolished ideas, asked a few questions, and then cut right to the heart of our intent, providing the direction we had been seeking. That evening we finally figured it out…on a cocktail napkin. We drank to Allison at that moment, and since then she has taken on symbolic status among our group.

The conference focused on personalization and habits of mind, and Allison had done her homework about Vermont. She had met with the Vermont Agency of Education, read extensively about the direction Vermont is headed, and had been on the websites of the schools of the participants. She had name-tags for us all with our first names printed large enough to read from across the room, and by the end of the two days, just about all of us in the room were on a first-name basis. She asked us all about our questions, our concerns, and our interests on the first morning, and then shifted her focus throughout to address them all in some form. She set clear outcomes, provided lots of structure early on, helped us design our own guiding questions a bit later, and then supported us as we broke out on our own towards the end. In other words, she personalized the experience for each of us while remaining true to the integrity of her desired outcomes; through a gradual release model, she gave us voice, co-created goals for our work together, provided opportunities for social construction of meaning, and ultimately set us up for self-discovery.

And just like in San Antonio, our self-discovery happened in the hallway where Allison sent us to push through our stuck points. We had brought tiles (small pieces of paper with words and concepts printed on them) so that we could be flexible in our thinking (we had each sat at the hotel the evening before trying to make sense of the ideas with our own sets of tiles), and we spread them out on the table and spent an hour moving them, challenging each other, revising our thinking, and trying to figure out how to represent the relationship between personalization and proficiency and the way all of our systems, structures, and programs supported this relationship. It was hard. It was unpleasant at times. There was tension, frustration, misunderstanding, disagreement, and awkward silence. But we knew our task (to represent relationships), we knew our purpose (to develop a common understanding in order to drive professional development), and we believed so strongly in the need for clarity that we kept going. And then we got it. And by “got it” we mean we finally came to common understanding of the interaction between and among complex elements driving our work. By no means was this the endpoint…in fact, it finally gave us a solid starting point.

So what did we figure out about the two sentences on the whiteboard from last summer? We figured out that we cannot move forward at CVU thinking that proficiency and personalization are separate components of or pathways to learning. We cannot plan for each separately, divvying up time between them like cake to siblings. We need to shift our thinking to see these as inseparable parts of the same system, not only relying on each other for integrity and purpose, but demanding each other in order to have any chance of transformational learning.

Transformational learning results in engagement, direction, purpose, and skills that transfer to the world outside of school. That is such a great goal for our students—so much better than a high GPA or polished transcript or a certain number of credits. And the way to encourage that type of learning for ALL students is right in front of us. We are in the middle of real transformation, not just for student learning, but for our entire school system (and state!), and it’s PPBL (Personalized, Proficiency-Based Learning) that will allow us to get there.

Personalization and proficiency are not the goals; they are the means to the greater goal of transformational learning. Many of us have experienced personalization without clarity of goals and intentional design, and while some students may have positive experiences, we cannot ensure learning or challenge for all. As Allison Zmuda said at the conference, “Creativity appreciates constraints—it thrives on constraints.” Clear goals, constant and timely feedback based on those goals, and intentionally designed opportunities for instruction, practice, and reflection allow students to find their voices, discover their strengths, interests, and challenges, and collaboratively construct meaning. When combined, the elements of both Proficiency-Based Learning and Personalized Learning provide the constraints, the creativity, and the freedom that transformational learning requires.

Now, on our whiteboard we have written:

Proficiency and personalization provide the integrity and ownership necessary for transformational learning experiences.

We have so much work to do as a school, a district, and a state as we all try to improve learning for students. One of the great reminders we took from the conference was that our profession is not about getting it right—it’s about constantly getting it better. Educators need to think of work the way artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs do using the design, prototype, iterate process of thinking. So our school will now move forward with this next iteration knowing that it too will need to be revisited, revised, and reimagined as we continue to work towards transformational learning for all.

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