A version of this blog ran on CompetencyWorks as the seventh in a blog series sharing Mesa County Valley School District 51‘s journey as it shifts to a competency-based education model (D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning).


As Leigh Grasso, Director of Academic Achievement & Growth at Mesa County Valley School District 51 (D51) emphasized, “We are shifting from a focus on professional development to professional learning.”

And there are a lot of people focusing on helping the adults in the system learn. In the district decision-making/ communication structure, there is the Learning System Support Team (LSST) that includes Content Facilitators (CFs), as well as a team of Professional Learning Facilitators (PLFs) who organize Design Labs for teachers.

D51 Personal Learning Facilitators Amy Shephard-Fowler, Bil Pfaffendorf and Heather Flick

In the past, D51 didn’t have a lot of systematic professional development. Four days a year were dedicated to event professional development with little choice available to teachers. In 2009-2010, D51 completed the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement (CADI) process and, in so doing, the emphasis on pedagogy went to an extreme emphasis on regimented delivery of curriculum and direct instruction.

This left some teachers feeling as though they had little autonomy and limited flexibility to meet the needs of their students. PLF Heather Flick explained, “We have the perfect storm to bring performance-based learning to the Grand Valley. They are ready for a system that is focused on our students.”

Feedback: The Key To Continuous Improvement For Designing Professional Learning

In considering this new strategy, the LSST wanted to embrace the same values that undergird performance-based learning: transparency, empowerment, voice, choice, relevance and meeting people where they are. It was important to design for transparent voice and choice opportunities–teachers had not had ongoing opportunities to voice their opinions thus far, either negative or positive. It was also going to be important to ensure that teachers knew the LSSTs were not only listening but responding to their opinions. The professional learning system needed to generate trust if teachers were going to feel safe taking risks and changing practices.

The team attended a Learning Forward conference to learn more about how to build learning communities. One of the most important tips they brought back was on how to generate productive feedback. It’s simple: Make sure you use the feedback.

PLF Amy Shephard-Fowler explained, “We used to ask for open feedback and much of it wasn’t very useful. When we started sharing the feedback with teachers and describing how we made adjustments based on it, the feedback became much more useful. We now use feedback protocols for everything we do. It helps teachers think about the type of feedback they are giving and they are confident that we will consider it for improving professional learning.”

There was also a shift to include more staff in the design and implementation of professional learning. Calls for proposals went out in designing the professional learning days. However, they learned that offering more voice and choice isn’t enough–there has to be a clear purpose. Shephard-Fowler recalled, “When we just asked teachers to submit proposals for presentations, we had a large range of topics and practices. There were a lot of options for teachers, but overall it was hit and miss in terms of driving a transformation in the district. So the next year we organized the professional learning and calls for proposals under the title ‘Tools for Transformation’ as we better understood we were not going to change practice unless we were more clear about the purpose.”

They also began to coach teachers who were presenting in adult education (based on andragogy, the adult learning theory of Malcolm Knowles), introducing the very same concepts of growth mindset, personalization, relevance, transferability and presentation skills. As a result, D51 is building their cadre of trainers who will be able to coach other trainers as the demand for professional learning increases.

Design Labs

D51 uses the term Design Labs to describe the professional learning sessions on the core concepts and skills related to the transition to performance-based learning. Rebecca Midles, D51’s Executive Director of Performance-Based Systems, said, “Designing is empowering. We all stay empowered when we think we can design and change the world around us.”

Shepherd-Fowler enthusiastically agreed. “Design is the teaching, learning and assessment cycle,” she said. “Kids can take this same process – where are we, what are the ideas, let’s try this one – and take it back to an authentic audience to get feedback. By introducing design thinking into the core of the pedagogy, we are laying the foundation for students to become independent learners.”

She described their approach as “contextualized design thinking” that is very clear on the context of the learners and the end result. Some might call it strategic design thinking. They’ve drawn a bit from Stanford’s approach as well as the design thinking processes promoted at the Colorado Education Initiative.

Flick emphasized, “If you want to personalize professional learning, you are going to end up using design thinking to do it. There just isn’t any way you can actually meet people where they are AND get to where you want to go. Our design process is completely iterative, as we are designing within a context of the culture of a growth mindset, effective practices to support more agency and independence in our learners, and eventually, the graduate competencies based on the graduate profile the community is creating.”

Currently, there are five offerings of Design Labs organized around three themes:

  • Culture (Social & Emotional Learning and Growth Mindset);
  • Learner-Centered Environment (Backward by Design, Shared Vision & Code of Cooperation, and Workshop); and
  • Transparency (Assessment for Learning & Rubrics).

The LSST has also drafted a Learning Continuum for each of the Design Lab modules, running from emerging and exploring to applying and refining (see Growth Mindset Learning Continuum). There are indicators for each of the five steps: the brain, understanding mindsets, self-talk, growth feedback and goal-setting.

The modules and the continuums mean that professional learning can become more personalized and teachers can eventually become more independent in their learning. In current professional learning sessions, you might walk into a room with 120 teachers, where some are clustered together learning about the adolescent brain and others on self-talk.

The PLFs hope to continue to personalize the modules, as not every teacher will learn in the same way and reactions to instructional materials will vary. They are also hoping at some point to be able to put the modules online so they are available 24/7. This will help with the issue of scaling professional learning so that all 1,500 teachers have access when they are ready for the next step.

Tips For Designing Professional Learning

What would the professional learning advisors recommend to other districts getting started?

  • Meet Teachers Where They Are. Always ask teachers what they need.
  • Use Feedback to Build Trust and Accountability. Be transparent with your feedback. Intentionally share the feedback from teachers and show how you used their feedback. In other words, hold yourself accountable.
  • Include Transferability. Professional learning has to be clear about how it can be used in the classroom. This requires making it explicit, using the practices, and modeling them for teachers. Tools need to help teachers and also be examples of what classroom tools might look like.
  • Make Connections. Don’t assume teachers learning new practices are going to make connections. Intentionally make the connections.
  • Be Prepared for a Variety of Learning Styles. Remember that teachers will have different styles and pacing of learning. Some will take small bites and practice until they feel confident before taking another bite. “Omnivores” may go after new ideas until they are overloaded, at which point they will back off, cool down and then throw themselves back in.

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