Comprehensive Support & Programs for World Language Educators

Bundling Competencies, Content and Skills

by Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf and Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S.

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

Do you Suppose...

...everyone should be expected to excel at Jeopardy?  Does the content of Jeopardy heavily contribute to success in life?  Well, not really.  Precious few retain that volume of facts.  Thus, the approach must be to secure fundamental competencies and skills—that readily cut across subject domains.  Transferring big ideas is timeless—well beyond a grade on Friday’s test.

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 seems to lower expectations and minimizes relevant choice, which leads 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. We’re overloaded and exhausted, just like many of our students. Why has teaching become so disheartening? Why don’t kids 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 levels 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, never changing 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 transference and application. 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 over180 school days?  

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

  1. Reflecting on the DNA of a Learner: How do we learn?
  2. Identifing the initial classification scheme of 21st century learning needs
  3. Bundling competencies (through understanding the interdisciplinary applications) that have meaning, relevance, and interest to our students.

This practice addresses the importance of transforming outdated curriculum to curricular components that give students the opportunity to apply big, relevant ideas to personal areas of interest. For the student, it answers 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; and how heavy we make these bundles depends on our strength to ensure we can carry the load without injury.  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 competencies are bundled, and how they are tied together must be understood by both teachers and students alike. 

Shifting Classroom Practice

Covering the “flat” curriculum and “teaching to the middle” is replaced with identifying big ideas and concepts within the content.  Clarity and understanding of what the competency means in the teaching and learning practice leads to efficient and effective learning for the students. When bundling competencies, the following steps are important:

  • Identify the major concepts to be learned. These are the big ideas, essential ideas, that can be applied in different content areas and different careers 
  • What are the skills to be learned? When a collaborative team of teachers identify the skills to be taught by all, and in all content areas, the practice and learning over time is significant. Students are engaged because it is personal and relevant
  • How will the students demonstrate their competency? Intrinsic motivation is developed when students experience confidence in their ability to learn, and they see evidence of their growth. Stamina and perseverance increase when students can validate their strengths.   

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 are 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 so that she could design learning that led to passion for learning and 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 helped her 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 simply enables greater access for each learner’s curiosities and innate capabilities 
  3. Developing lessons within units and courses that have meaning to the students and that transfer to specific interests or career opportunities allows the student to see the relevance and potential applications for the learning. 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 and contagious enthusiasm for remarkable learning outcomes to the students work.

Students’ practice applying learning that is meaningful and has purpose to them. Instead of lock stepping progress through artificial, linear levels, 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 learning. As they track progress, they begin to see how learning has purposes—and that disconnected tasks are replaced with the pleasures of finding things out.  Joy!   

Moving to Tomorrow... Students need the lifelong skills to organize, analyze, evaluate, communicate, and in our present culture, to navigate uncertainties.  These exist in all content, areas of interest and in all future careers.  Thus, as the competencies are bundled into skills, concepts and big ideas, students experience relevant learning which drives engagement, passion, and joy of learning.  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 their “tomorrows” and the learnings of today.

Intrinsic motivation is developed when students experience confidence in their ability to learn.  This lessens the need for planning every moment or for controlling student behaviors.  When students see evidence of their growth and begin to manage their own growth, they become engaged.  Why?  Learning has become personal and relevant!

Coming soon:  Stay tuned for the next part of this DNA series, Assessment verified via analogy and transfer!  


Dr. Robert K. Greenleaf was formerly a professional development specialist at Brown University. Bob has 45 years of experience in education ranging from superintendent, principal, teacher, & special education.  As President of Greenleaf Learning Bob has traveled the world conducting Brain & Learning Institutes.  Dr. Bob’s doctoral work was at Vanderbilt with undergrad psychology.

Elaine M. Millen, M.Ed. C.A.G.S., has over 50 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of special education, curriculum director and assistant superintendent of schools.  She has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  As an educational consultant/instructional coach, she has worked countrywide with hundreds of school leaders in areas of leadership, instructional coaching, and student engagement.  She worked with Brown University as a consultant, guiding project work.

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