Rigorous Learning Alignment – Landing the Plane

Teaching personnel have always spent many hours designing learning for those in their care. Most of the time they hit the mark. Unfortunately other times they do not. This is ok because FAILing is always a First Attempt In Learning, as long as there is development, and we encourage this through valid risk taking.

With an increase and a more focused approach to Standards based professional development for staff occurring these days, the time spent designing learning hasn’t changed. If anything it has probably increased with higher compliance demands. The continued and accountable focus of differentiating learning to suit all learners with the theory of ‘one years learning equals one years growth’ no matter where the student academically lays is also big on the agenda. This is the case at St Mel’s and our staff work above and beyond to deliver quality learning programs to cater for the needs of all of our students, and just like all schools, the needs are challenging and diverse, sometimes more.

Through the excitement, consolidation and success we are experiencing through our Organic Learning programs, we discovered the need to ensure that there was rigour tied to our Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping and learning in general. Cross-curricular student outcomes that are connected to create Outcome clusters show authenticity and relevance in student learning. We need to ensure that we are hitting the mark every time and remaining true to the process, true to the mandated Syllabus Outcomes and Standards and true to ensuring our students are learning at the expected rate.

With a spark of an idea of from one of Tom Barrett’s Dialogic Learning weekly newsletters, we felt the need to further investigate curriculum alignment in order to ensure that our practices and processes were on point. Research revealed the following two definitions:

Alignment: The extent to which and how well curricular categories and the elements within them (e.g., content standards, instructional content, and assessment practices) work together to guide instruction and, ultimately, facilitate and enhance student learning (Webb, 1997).
Curriculum: Can be divided into four categories: intended, enacted, assessed, and learned curricula (Porter, 2006)

Further thought drew us to believe that alignment is a prerequisite condition for making valid inferences about learners’ attainment of objectives based upon assessment. Because alignment is a property of the relationship between retained learning and a set of standards, if alignment is found to be less than desired, then alignment can be improved by changing one of or a combination of the planned, enacted and assessment areas.

In regards to using the word ‘curriculum’, we felt compelled in light of our Organic Learning work and beliefs behind it that curriculum could be seen as just one part of the learning scope, related to mandated syllabus outcomes for students. In true sense, there is so much more that occurs in terms of learning for students, as well as for teachers, parents and leaders so a bigger and braver term was required. This being said, it was decided to change the term ‘Curriculum’ to ‘Learning’, because as we already know, learning is learning, whether you are 5, 25 or 65.


Below is the model formulated that we use at St Mel’s to ensure in the light of the work of Covey, that we remain aware and ‘keep the main thing the main thing’.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 12.03.53 pm.png

Intended Learning (What are we planning to do?): Learning always derives from a need, more or less when we become aware that we are consciously incompetent in an area. For students this requires a teacher to map out a scope of work based upon the syllabus and use relevant Learning Intentions and co-constructed Success Criteria to express to students what is required of them. For teachers it is about refining their practice against Teacher Standards or about learning how to teach the relevant content this is forever evolving. For parents, it is about developing their skills and awareness in terms of contemporary learning. For leaders it is about developing the required knowledge and keeping up with recent directives from governing bodies as well as building their own skills in leadership.

Enacted Learning (What are we actually doing?): After careful and creative construction of intended learning, how often is it actually enacted how it was intended? How good are we at keeping the main thing the main thing and ensuring we hit the target? We often witness through observations and learning walks that teachers fail to deliver what they initially planned (which was really great planned learning), leaving students at a deficit. Are teachers ensuring that they know the required content themselves before teaching it and using research based methods to deliver learning? Do students know how to go about learning a new concept through investigation and application? Are they even taught the relevant skills in order to do that? Is parent education timely and meaningful? Is it delivered through creative avenues to maximise uptake? Are leaders self-directed in their learning to ensure that they are participating in relevant learning that is going to benefit the whole school community? Are they fostering relational trust in their staff and being transparent in their decisions? Sure, this all being said, we need to adjust things along the way but is learning facilitated in the way that it should be for all stakeholders?

Assessed Learning (What are we assessing?): When we hear this term, we straight away we jump to summative and standardised testing, but should we? Assessment opportunities as we know can be both qualitative and quantitive, opportunities to assess learning are all around us and are often way more powerful. Data needs to be relevant and must be able to be used – if not, what is the point of it sitting on a spreadsheet or data wall somewhere? Data needs to inform further and future learning. We also need to remember the relevance and power of self and peer assessment, no matter how old the learner is. Not only summative but the value of assessment for and as learning. How often do we stop and take a check of where things are at? How often do we ask for critique and feedback from others? Finally, are we assessing our intended learning? All of this can be applied by all stakeholders.

Retained Learning (What is actually learned?): This element is pretty self explanatory but is highly valuable, but unfortunately gets put in the too hard basket. What is the point of planning, teaching and assessing if learners do not retain the information a week, a month or a year later? Fail. There is growing research in the area of information retention, particularly in the field of psychology and how the brain works. Are we tapping in and learning about this research and findings? Are we trialling new ways or just doing what do because we’ve always done it? Are we reiterating our teaching methods, scope of work and how we enact learning so that learners build their knowledge and skills – and remember it! Are we assessing what was initially intended?

We need to make explicit that this model is not a linear process, hence the double headed arrow. Good practitioners and learners continually jump back and forwards at the point of learning to further ensure that they are hitting the mark.

In application of our model, staff use the model to assist in their pitch and critique sessions around their units of work. This is what we intend..? This is how we plan to enact..? This is how/what we will assess..? This is what we really hope is retained..? Then then have this as a visual reminder in their Bunker to continually remind them throughout a unit of work. To put it bluntly, the model creates a clear and concise way to articulate learning. It helps us land the plane.

More research and work needs to be put into this model to ensure that we further understand the relevance and importance of each element and how they are interrelated, but we are happy with that – it continually probes new ideas and thinking. We’d love to hear your thoughts or if you have anything that could benefit us.




Successful Literacy/Numeracy Instruction using Organic Learning

Some may assume that our Organic Learning Cycle is another version of an inquiry OLC.pngmodel. The truth is that it is purely a ‘learning model’. Indeed the cycle is designed to help pose, find and solve problems in an inquiry sense, but the model just as brilliantly aligns itself with explicit/guided instruction, and in particular, the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). Further to this, our work with Dr. Lyn Sharratt has enabled us to hone our thinking and practices to ensure that they are visible, transparent and articulated.



Pearson & Gallagher (1983) state that the “Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction suggests that cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to independent practice and application by the learner”.

Dr. Douglas Fisher then suggests, “As part of a gradual release of responsibility model, curriculum must be vertically aligned. Vertical alignment is both a process and an outcome, the result of which is a comprehensive curriculum that provides learners with a coherent sequence of content. Vertical alignment ensures that content standards and reading
skills and strategies are introduced, reinforced, and assessed. Vertical alignment 
guarantees that instruction is targeted on the intersection between student needs and content standards. In curricula with strong vertical alignment, content redundancy is reduced and the curriculum is rigorous and challenging”.

After thorough and ongoing collaborative planning sessions using Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping, staff ensure that there is rigorous vertical alignment in the ‘intended learning’ for students. Following an informed approach in collecting relevant data through assessment of/for/as learning, the process that our staff use in the teaching of effective literacy and numeracy instruction can be explained as follows using the Organic Learning Cycle:

Explore can be, but isn’t limited to, the ‘Demonstration’ phase where teachers model new knowledge and skills to students. It is more or less the  “I do, you watch” part. At the same time, students explore how this new learning is applied in life and what the purpose is of learning it, often referring to Learning Intentions. Students may or may not be aware of their competency with this knowledge and with these skills and refer to the Competency Rubric to map out their initial thoughts.

Connect is where learners make connections with new learning. It is like a ‘Shared Demonstration’ between both teacher and student, ensuring that new knowledge and skills are correctly understood, to eliminate and eradicate ambiguity. It’s like “I do, you help”. Students can also use the help of their peers in this phase, who are Unconscious or Reflectively Competent on the visible thinking Competency Rubric on the classroom wall.

Create can be aligned with the ‘Guided Practice’ phase where students make sense of their new learning and thinking how it can be applied in a variety of contexts and ways, creating a sense of competency through “You do, I help”. This is undertaken in conjunction with co-constructed Success Criteria to scaffold and show students how to achieve success in their learning.

Innovate is where students conduct ‘Independent/Interdependent Practice’ of new knowledge and skills and can transfer this into new situations to consolidate and further refine their thinking. When learning experiences are open ended and differentiated, students have the potential to surprise themselves, as well as their teachers. There is no ceiling placed on learners and their output has purpose, is meaningful, is relatable, challenging and motivating.

Impact is always measured to ascertain learning growth. This is when students will again plot their thinking on the visible Competency Rubric and can evidence, explain and articulate their growth. In addition to this, ongoing teacher developed and diagnostic assessments are conducted by staff to ensure that syllabus outcomes/standards have been achieved/addressed.


Through our involvement in the innovative ‘Cluster 5 Project’ (Sydney Catholic Schools), we were cognisant of the need to connect the project’s requirements to Organic Learning. Its salient components were critically aligned with our organic methodology. As part of the Project, we were also fortunate enough to meet and work with international guru Dr. Lyn Sharratt.


Putting Faces on the Data – Reading Wall aligning Reading Levels, DoE Literacy Continuum Reading Clusters, EAL/D Learning Progression & Benchmarks.

An existing practice that is continually refined are our visible data walls for literacy and numeracy. These walls practice what is preached in terms of being ‘visible, tangible and critique-able’. Our version of ‘Putting Faces on the Data’ has immensely encouraged our staff  to have deeper conversations around data and even more so, allowing them to see patterns in student achievement (or lack thereof), that were not previously evident. This allows staff to conduct rigorous conversations around ‘data analysis and interrogation’, and set collaborative short term learning plans for students. Below you can see the process staff undertake when interrogating data (Adapted from Sharratt 2012). Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 4.04.58 pmscreen-shot-2017-12-29-at-4-05-05-pm-e1514596470607.png
One of the principles Organic Learning espouses is ‘transparency’, and Sharratt’s 14 Parameters add further rigour to our shared language and ability to collectively walk what we talk. It is a requisite for all stakeholders at our school to have ‘Shared Beliefs and Understandings’ (Parameter 1 – adapted from Hill & Crevola 1999) and ‘Shared Responsibility and Accountability’ (Parameter 14). Our work with Lyn Sharratt sat well with what was already happening within and across our Organic Learning community, and helped us align our practices so that we could make further sense of them.

Below is our school’s 14 Parameters & Organic Learning in Literacy/Numeracy Watermark, which outlines how we address the 14 Parameters to ensure effective literacy and numeracy practices are evident and align with our work in Organic Learning:

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 3.08.42 pm.png


Further work with Sharratt has allowed us to hone our practices in effective literacy/numeracy by using the Assessment Framework (Sharratt & Harild 2015). This is still a work in progress and requires further critique and refinement.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 3.42.23 pm.png

In conclusion, we are finding our Organic Learning Cycle can be applied to all school practices, and particularly (in the case of this post) where explicit teaching and learning takes place. It helps staff and students alike use a common language and process for learning, especially for implicit and explicit knowledge and skills. It is through using consistent and shared practices that ensures our whole teaching staff have the same approach, seek peer feedback and set collaborative data informed and differentiated learning goals for all students with verified success.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-09-29 at 12.47.15 PM.png

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.