Student Metacognition: Using a Competency Rubric to Assess Deep Learning

We are all aware of the dependancy on quantitative collection of student learning and the high stakes associated with it. Externalised testing which results in funding, which is tied to further data collection. The cycle continues and grows moss along the way. What about the emotional connection to learning? Can we put a number on that? What about being aware of self and aware of what it takes to learn the required skills, including contemporary learning skills – no matter your age? Not to mention learner agency and general wellbeing associated with it. Sounds so complex, but is it?

As Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy state in their paper ‘A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning‘ (2014), “Many current curriculum standards, alongside standardised assessments that primarily measure content reproduction, are the greatest barriers to the widespread adoption of new pedagogies”. Can the two mesh? What if students were given a tool and skilled to articulate their thinking and their learning at any given point in time?

In developing our Competency Learning Rubric for teachers we saw a need and a way that
the same could be applied for student metacognition. We are all aware of the importance of student voice. We are finding that our students are using the rubric to their advantage so that they can clarify their thinking and learning, celebrate it, share it with others and identify future learning. They are also able to identify those, including their peers, who can help get them there.


In breaking open the above Competency Rubric with our students we modified Martin Broadwell’s Conscious Competency language to enable them to understand each stage of competency. Whilst doing this we also exposed them to the formal competency language and they were able to quickly pick this up and use the language to articulate their learning. We aligned this with knowledge of a concept, content or skill, as well as mindset, toolset, skillset (Stephen Covey and elaborated on by Nelson & Stolterman, 2003).

Using the Competency Rubric as a Visible Learning Space: Where the Magic Happens!


In order to gauge prior knowledge students write on a post-it note and explain where they feel that they are at around a certain knowledge set. An example of this could be a strand in Mathematics, a topic in Science or around their skills in writing a certain type of text. They also use the language of the rubric to assist them. After completing this students write their name on the post-it and place in on the wall, which then represents a visible, transparent, tangible, critiqueable learning space.


Through learning intentions, providing success criteria, using the gradual release of responsibility model and explicit teaching students extend their knowledge and skills in order to consolidate their learning. At the conclusion of the learning sequence or cycle students then repeat the process, externalising where they feel they are in terms of their learning at that stage. Again, the students write their name on it and place it on the wall directly above their previous post-it. This then enables all to see growth in learning. This qualitative data enables both students and the teacher to see exactly where the group of learners are at a given point in time. An instant real-time visible learning space for staff and students to access and use.


What is required of students next is for them to verbalise and articulate about their growth and story of learning. How do they know? How did they arrive there? And more importantly, how can they evidence it through their work samples, learning annotations and assessments?

By watching this YouTube link you will be able to see some of our students explaining how the Competency Rubric assists them with their learning. (Apologies about the AF noise)

The added bonus about this process is that it also allows learners to identify peers who are at both Unconsciously Competent and Reflectively Competent and use them as a resource to seek support from and to extend learning even further. One of our classroom practitioners and leaders Analiese Iliffe has implemented an Apple Style ‘Genius Bar’ in her learning space where students approach other students to become up-skilled in an identified area, in addition to her explicit teaching and facilitation of learning. Student voice in learning is booming!


Learning through Hexagonal & Triangular Thinking


So effective learning is effective learning. Visual representations of learning are a powerful way to extract, externalise and extrapolate knowledge into a tangible form in order to make meaning and ‘connect the new with what we already knew’ (Borthwick 2016).


Students using Hexagonal Thinking to synthesise information

Hexagonal thinking is a process that we use with our learners, young and old, to both convey learning and amalgam ideas and thoughts into new learning. It is a system where the learner sorts, classifies, purges and makes links in order to find a problem to solve.

As Hook explains, Hexagons can be used to determine a learner’s depth of prior knowledge and understanding before starting to learn. It can also be used as a learning experience prompt to increase and demonstrate depth of understanding, and to create new learning by introducing hexagons with additional content – ideas, symbols, images etc.


Here you can see the level of depth of Hexagonal Thinking as a tool when making connections, based on           HookED’s SOLO levels

Students find that by using the hexagonal thinking strategy they are able to articulate their learning in a more coherent and ordered manner – and this is just at the surface level. The process is multi-layered in that the learner commences the process with one relevant idea and moves to collating several relevant ideas.

The next stage is making connections between ideas and explaining why these connections exist. The final stage of this process is where the learner can make generalisations about their linked ideas and identify an area of inquiry or where new learning needs to occur. At this point the learner puts aside other outcome clusters in order to converge their thinking and focus on the problem at hand. The hexagonal thinking tool is powerful in that problems of practice can be identified, compared to a previously unconscious incompetence knowledge set.

Our thinking has always been provoked around the constraints of the hexagon itself and around the ‘equal weight bearing’ of sides (links) through hexagon tessellation. With the insight of one of our colleagues Lauren Johns, we have been toying with the idea of another conceptually similar prototype, this time with the use of triangles.

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Triangular Thinking Prototype

“Triangular thinking is similar to hexagonal thinking in that key thoughts and ideas are written down in order to externalise thinking. The process of triangular thinking is more fluid in that the sides of triangles are slid alongside each other in order to make connections but the level of linkage can be shown by the weight bearing of how connected the two sides are. A large tessellation indicates a strong connection whereas a small tessellation indicates a small link or connection. Of course, all connections need to be articulated by the learner in order for them to make meaning” – Lauren Johns

In conclusion, we find both hexagonal and triangular thinking to have a direct impact on learning. It is powerful in that it is a dynamic tool in order to cohere learning. Our learners are able to articulate their thinking at a higher level and are better equipped to connect the ‘new with what we already knew’.


Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping: It Works!

In schools today there are many conflicting agendas that add pressure to the planning and delivery of a quality curriculum that directly meets required syllabus Outcomes. Consciously and competently developing contemporary learning skills is also at the forefront as educators desire to not only use ‘best’, but also ‘next’ practice strategies to build and enhance these skills in both themselves as learners as well as their students.

Our goal is to use a rigorous strategy that builds capacity and empowers staff the freedom and creativity to develop quality teaching and learning programs, whilst ensuring that learning experiences link directly to mandated syllabus Outcomes. We are also mindful that learning needs to be relevant, organic and purposeful for all learners.

img_1022Through dabbling with the hexagonal thinking tool used previously in our Design Thinking journey, a process has been ideated and prototyped that saw every Stage Syllabus Outcome printed on a hexagon. Teachers come together and collaboratively make natural connections, called ‘Outcome Clusters’. These links are across all Key Learning Areas with literacy underpinning all clusters. The Outcome Clusters are then teased out by our innovative teachers who create inquiry-based units of work that inspire both them as teachers and their children to grow as learners.

The scope of works for each year is mapped on a wall so Outcome Clusters are highly visible and tangible from Early Stage 1 to Stage 3. This visual learning space is called our Bunker Room, where there is a shared language and ownership amongst all staff. There is ongoing critique and a culture of making great learning even better. We are on our third iteration of learning cycles (third year) and there is a one hundred percent buy in from all staff and ongoing conversations highlight that they prefer this model to existing methods of curriculum planning. Ongoing data collection will assist us in further refining our ‘next practice’ prototype.

img_0918You never reach the horizon:

When Creating and Innovating, it is essential to test and critique, refine and reiterate. The concept of Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping is no different. We continually test and refine our prototype by working alongside our teachers who are on the front line to cooperatively understand at a deeper level which elements work really well and those that require further refinement or reiterating.

String Links:

Using string to make physical connections between Outcome Clusters is a viable tool to make physical links. It enables all teachers to see at a glance how Outcome Clusters link with overarching English and Mathematics Outcomes. String links also show how Outcome Clusters feed into new Outcome Clusters for new steps in learning, using prior knowledge and learning. Also enabling the string link to be tangible allows links and outcomes to be fluid and a snapshot in time.

Time Constraints are Good:

Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping is a collaborative process. As creative ideas proliferate, it is easy for Outcome Clusters to grow and the original intent and line of sight become a little hazy. Using constraints are important in order to stay afloat and on track. Encouraging teachers to reorganise their thinking and synthesising into a chronological order ensure that timelines and deadlines are increasingly met. Using weeks as time blocks assist teachers to both plan and facilitate learning accordingly. As there are various lengths to generative topics, teachers have choice in how much time needs to be spent on certain elements of the inquiry process.