Laying the Foundation for Competency Education with Culture and Climate

A version of this blog ran on CompetencyWorks as the sixth 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).

The first of Mesa County Valley School District 51‘s (D51) five phases of implementation is Laying the Foundation. The foundation they are speaking of is the culture and climate in which personalized, performance-based learning can take root. 

They describe this as “a culture where each student has ownership of his/her academic, social and emotional learning resulting in readiness for success in life.” This description helps you understand their vision for a personalized, performance-based system (the policies, procedures, school design, schedules, learning experiences, supports and instructional cycle) that is going to help students build the skills they need to become lifelong learners.

D51 has focused most of their attention on creating a robust, empowered culture of learning with growth mindset, social and emotional learning and Habits of Mind at its very core. It’s important to remember that the features of their system and their process are also shaping the creation of the culture and climate.

Although I’ve described their work to date in great detail, I want to bring to your attention three things that stood out for me at D51:

  1. The integration of the sixteen Habits of Mind into a social and emotional learning framework that is organized into developmental bands that will stretch from K-12.
  2. The focus on growth mindset that emphasizes helping students learn how to be aware of self-talk and how to create productive self-talk.
  3. The growth mindset that is also influencing the efforts of designing the elements of the performance-based learning system.  

A Culture Rooted in the Growth Mindset

D51 talks about the growth mindset constantly–in professional learning sessions with teachers just becoming familiar with performance-based learning, in meetings with principals to build a culture of reflection as they stretch themselves to strengthen their understanding of their tasks as leaders and in presentations in the community.

D51 has identified five strategies to help both students and adults learn to have a growth mindset. Posters are found all over the district highlighting the five steps: Brain, Mindsets, Self-Talk, Feedback, Goal. I’ve expanded on the third strategy, productive self-talk, as it is the first time I’ve heard a district focus this specifically on it.

1. Teach About the Brain. Students need to learn about the brain and how it works. Two important points that directly relate to the growth mindset:

1) Their intelligence is not fixed and it can change.

2) Their intelligence can get stronger or weaker depending on the effort given to actually rewire the brain.

I heard a facilitator in a professional development session call out with what sounded like true joy, “LET’S REWIRE!”

Resources Used by D51:

2. Teach About Different Mindsets. Discussing the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset is the standard approach for many schools that have introduced the growth mindset. D51 goes farther, seeking ways to operationalize it as described in the next three strategies.

Resources Used by D51:

3. Teach Productive Self-Talk. What does it mean to practice a growth mindset? Persevere, put in more effort and try again. These are all the behaviors that we want to see, but what are the practices that lead to changing behavior when your impulse is to give up, take it easy and do something different? Certainly, we all know about the Power of Yet in the world of competency education: “I don’t like this…yet” leaves room for change. “I’m not good at this…yet” gives space for improvement. But that’s not enough to actually change behaviors.

D51 focuses on teachers helping students learn how to create productive self-talk. Rebecca Midles, Executive Director of Performance-Based Systems, pointed out, “Making sure students know how to have productive self-talk takes us to the very heart of equity. The quality of the self-talk depends on how they see themselves as learners. Students need to know how to identify their own self-talk, to hear it, to acknowledge it and to know how to be able to change it. This is one of the core tasks of students building agency.”

This is the first time I’ve heard this point, so I’ll emphasize this:

Students need to be able to identify, manage and change their self-talk in order to fully develop ownership over their education.

D51 is building the supports to help teachers operationalize productive self-talk by linking to the Social & Emotional Learning Framework (SEL) described below. What are the types of productive self-talk you might use with the different Habits of Mind? Can you help students identify what is happening with them emotionally (Midles referred to this as the SEL stance) so they become more self-aware and are able to tap into the metacognitive processes?

A child slow to start on tasks might be focused on perfection or is perhaps too afraid to ask for more direction to avoid looking silly. Children will need a new pattern of self-talk to help them change their behavior (in this case, to take risks), change the perception of their goal or surroundings or identify what they need to feel safe enough to do so.

Resource Used by D51:

4. Use Growth Mindset Feedback: The D51 training on growth mindset includes praise and feedback. Praise, the incredible power of reinforcing desired behaviors, should focus on the process, not the child. For example:

  • “Great choice of taking on such a hard task.”
  • “I noticed you are thinking through the steps.”
  • “I am watching the way you’re approaching this and I think your effort is outstanding.” 

In a professional development session, the facilitator explained, “If you praise a student for getting done first, then you are emphasizing speed or being smart. Without meaning to, we undermine ourselves. The counterpoint is that the task was too easy for the student. So when a student hands something in very quickly, we can say, ‘I’m sorry that the work wasn’t that challenging. Let’s try something else.'”

Praise is important, but equally so is the feedback when students haven’t met their goals. Feedback might include:

  • “You are not there/here yet.”
  • “This may be tough, but you can do it.”
  • “Let’s break it down into steps.”
  • “I expect that you are going to make mistakes. It is the kind of mistakes you make along the way that let me know how to support you.”

The power of critique, feedback, and revision will be important for students developing a growth mindset. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to draw a butterfly,” but an entirely different thing to draw a well-defined, proportionate, true-to-life butterfly that demonstrates elements of anatomy. Personally, I was blown away by the level of growth demonstrated in the video below when a child receives a detailed critique and opportunity for revision. It helped me come to terms that we are absolutely underestimating what children can do.

Resources Used by D51:

5. Set Challenging Goals To Change Habits. Students need to know how to set goals in order to change habits. Midles emphasizes that it is important to set goals that are hard–otherwise, you won’t really be able to learn the growth mindset.

The facilitator in the professional development session explained, “Do not set a growth goal for something you will eventually get. You have to set it around something you don’t think you can do and then think about what strategies you can apply to reach this fixed goal. Once students get through this process, they will be on fire. The sky is the limit.”

Students can’t just stop at setting a growth goal; they learn how to make a plan, reflect on their progress, and build in the supports they need to succeed. Goals aren’t just about academics they might include managing emotions, behaviors, habits, physical health, or relationships.

Social & Emotional Learning

With the growth mindset as a foundation, D51 wanted to deepen it to address the social-emotional aspects of learning. Yet Habits of Mind (HoM) had been introduced several years ago (although they weren’t used systematically throughout the district) without much result.

The difficulty is there are sixteen habits–all important, of course, but difficult to operationalize and certainly too numerous to integrate into the core culture. In addition, these HoM don’t touch on social and emotional learning as explicitly as we are finding we need if we are going to reach and engage every student. So how might we integrate SEL and HoM?

D51 is starting with a model used by the Anchorage School District with bands for K-2, 3-5, middle school and high school to guide conversations. Social & Emotional Learning standards are organized into four quadrants: Self-Awareness (I Am), Self-Management (I Can), Social Awareness (I Care) and Social Management (I Will). Examples of indicators of SEL standards are included in each quadrant.

Awareness Management
Self I am aware of my traits, know what I do well, and know what areas I can work on. I can set and achieve goals that will help me to be successful.
Social I care about and respect the individual differences of others. I will deal with interpersonal conflicts constructively.


The next step is to crosswalk these standards to the Habits of Mind. For example, under the category Self-Awareness, early elementary has SEL standards such as “I am aware of what I am feeling” with indicators such as “Can describe their emotions and the situations that cause them.” When you get to high school, that very same standard is related to metacognition, one of the Habits of Mind with indicators such as “Can describe how changing their interpretation of an event can alter how they feel about it.”

At this point, D51 is not going to create rubrics for the SEL standards. “Schools tend to be quick to grab onto tools and put them to use immediately,” explained Midles. “However, if you want to help students develop a growth mindset, build their social-emotional learning and develop the Habits of Mind needed to succeed, it will be important to make sure your teachers know how to coach, assess and provide productive feedback. This is likely to be a new set of instructional strategies for some teachers, and districts need to design supports for teachers before students begin to be assessed.”

“Most of all,” she continued, “it is very important to avoid anything that looks or feels like grades when helping students build this set of learning-to-learn skills. We can reinforce the fixed mindset if we assess students on S&EL and HoM too soon. We can create a stigma without meaning to because we are providing feedback that can be interpreted as personality rather than skill. Children are trying to figure out who they are as a person and can be quick to interpret feedback as something permanent. Social-emotional learning is about them building the skills they need to become lifelong learners. This is about building the skills they need to tap into their intrinsic motivation for learning.”   

D51 is as interested in helping students and adults in the district develop a growth mindset as it is in creating a growth mindset culture. They are thinking about specific practices individuals need to become adept at, the way to design and tools to be growth-generating, and the way meetings and professional development are designed to observe and capture learning. In other words, D51 is working to make the growth mindset pervasive in everything it does.

For more, see:

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Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis was the co-founder of CompetencyWorks, the go-to source about competency education. Her knowledge of modern education models have developed by visiting over 100 schools that are leading the way in the U.S. and New Zealand. In 2018, she was awarded Outstanding Individual Contribution to Personalized Learning Award by iNACOL (now Aurora Institute). You can find more articles about personalized, mastery learning approaches at LearningEdge.

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