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!


Why Self-Determined Learning Should Be The Main Thing


Learning is a lifelong journey, no doubt about it. If ever you get to a point in life when you believe your learning has come to an end, then you may as well lay down in bed and not bother getting out. When you stop learning, you stop living.

Covey talked about ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’ in his book, First Things First (1994). What should be ‘the main thing’ for learning in schools? Should we continue to use test scores, entry into university or the promise of a high paying job as the main drivers for learning? I remember when I was at school I asked the teachers a number of times: What is the purpose of learning trigonometry? The usual responses were something like, “To pass the test”, “You need to know trig so you can do higher order math later” or, the one I hated the most, “It helps you to think!” For a teenager, who was a passionate musician and surfer, had I known trigonometry was fundamental to sound engineering and oceanography then maybe I would have made more of an effort to engage in the learning.

As teachers, how often do we share with our students the learning intentions and the specific purpose for engaging in an explicit skill-based or concept ‘Explore’ session? What’s your response to a child who asks: Why are we doing this?

I love the concept of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle in which he describes the necessity to start with ‘The Why’. For our school-based research on Organic Learning, ‘The Why’ brings purpose to keeping ‘the main thing the main thing’.

As a school community, there are many responses to the question: Why do we do what we do? There are also many perspectives – system, teacher, leader, parent and student. For an Organic Learning perspective, the centre of ‘The Why’ is the learner. If learning is a lifelong journey, then every member of our community must be considered a learner and hence fundamentally connected to ‘The Why’. For our school community, we do what we do because we want every learner to believe they have the capacity to change the world. This means having the competency to identify or uncover authentic tensions, problems or unknowns, and the capability to do something about it and so impact on the world. The kind of learner required for this is a self-determined one, which for us fulfils ‘The How’.

We explored Hase and Kenyon’s work on Heutagogy, which is the study of Self-Determined Learning (as described by Blaschke). This learning is an ‘active and proactive process’ where ‘learners are the major agent in their own learning’. When learning how to learn they acquire competencies (knowledge and skills) and capabilities (confidence in using their competencies and an ability to determine appropriate action when finding and solving problems in familiar and unfamiliar settings). From our school’s perspective, our learners’ (students and adults) acquisition of competencies was more than adequate, but it was the area of capability that needed further unpacking. We discovered this to be true even for a number of our teachers.

During the development of our school-based research, we were exploring the tensions and commonalities between highly structured, explicit teaching and a rigorous cycle of inquiry. Whilst making connections and synthesising our observations, a debate on the difference between pedagogy and andragogy provoked our thinking to look at teaching and learning a little differently; what does learning look like without the constraints of a pedagogical or andragogical lens? That is not to say pedagogy or andragogy are unimportant. Having the right pedagogical practices in place is critical for student learning and the same goes for andragogy and adult learning. We were perplexed, on a number of occasions, by some of our teachers who found it difficult to be proactive in taking responsibility for their ongoing learning. They appeared to be more comfortable with being told what to learn, which we found quite frustrating.

We found ourselves unpacking learning, free from constraints, and came to a conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that effective learning is effective learning whether you are five, twenty-five or sixty-five. All that is needed is an authentic purpose to drive the desire for learning. This could derive from curiosity, interest, failure or need.


If we want all members in our community to be self-determined lifelong learners, we not only need them to acquire a certain level of competence based on authentic purpose, but also to develop the capability to uncover a problem and have the self efficacy to go about solving it. We wanted this idea to be applicable for all learners regardless of age. We set about aligning explicit teaching/learning and gradual release of responsibility, with inquiry and gradual increase in learner agency.


This became the impetus for exploring how we could extend our alignment of learning principles across the school in our spaces and structures, and gave purpose for developing and aligning processes. With our ‘Why’ in place and ‘How’ established, ‘The What’ became the  final piece to our unique Golden Circle jigsaw puzzle.

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’.


Rubric for Deeper Thinking About Learning

As part of our ongoing school-based research in developing and embedding Organic Learning, we have experienced many instances in which our assumptions were way off the mark (always be aware of your underlying assumptions!).

When working with Tom Barrett, we were tinkering with screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-59-47-amMartin Broadwell’s Conscious Competence Learning Model and SOLO Taxonomy originally developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis. We were exploring how to make metacognitive thinking more visible for our students, keeping it aligned with our mandate to keep thinking and learning visible, transparent, tangible, critiqueable and accountable within learning spaces. At the same time we were exploring Competency Sets: Skillset, Toolset, Mindset (from Nelson & Stolterman’s Design Way) as part of our Design Thinking learning with teachers.


First Prototype created on Provocation Wall

Whilst unpacking the idea of Conscious Competence and Skillset, Toolset, Mindset with teachers, we came to realise many of them were having difficulty applying these concepts to their own learning, beyond a superficial level (assumption one – not all teachers are reflective learners). We found this quite provocative and decided to create a visual on our Leadership Provocation Wall. Initially we attempted to combine Conscious Competence, SOLO and the Competency Set into one rubric, but ended up dropping SOLO as we struggled to align it with the other two. We expanded on our initial thinking and included Reflective Competence and Knowledge Set to our rubric. Our first attempt was critiqued over many months by various critical friends and we eventually came up with a workable prototype to use with teachers. Our first rubric focused on Professional Learning Inquiry for teachers. This worked so well we decided to create one for student learning and trialled it with our Stage 3 students (10-11 year olds). They picked it up quicker than the teachers (assumption two – don’t underestimate young learners!).



Competency Rubric used with Stage 3 Students




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.



A Brief Introduction…

The Organic Learning Blog will showcase some of the school-based research we are undertaking at St Mel’s Campsie. Whilst our research began in 2015, we have not captured any of our progress until now.

Organic Learning is the synthesis of ideas, practices, risks, innovations and reflections borne out of our inquiry learning journey shared with our critical friends at NoTosh Consultancy. As our students began to engage in Design Thinking, seeds of tension were gradually being uncovered in our perception of learning, in particular the principles of learning.

As our competence in using Design Thinking with students increased, we began to experiment with the same processes for our own learning as teachers. We established a Bunker Room for collaborative planning and critiquing and applied the use of Hexagons to create a visible, tangible year-long curriculum map for each stage of learning (more to come on Hexagonal Curriculum Mapping in a later post).


The idea of aligning how we work as teachers to how we engage students in learning, made IMG_4863complete sense and encouraged us to explore how we might replicate this for our Leadership Team. With limited resources we created a 3.6m wide learning wall made from black magnet glass that we named The Provocation Space. It is used to capture our thinking, planning, observed tensions and crazy ideas. It is visible and open to critique.

We are aware that these are mere tools and it is what you actually do in the Bunker Room and what you do with the Provocation Space that demonstrate the quality and depth of learning, but for our community it highlights the start of a self-determined learning journey.

The WHY…


At the heart of a school-wide vision for learning should be the belief that every learner has the capacity to change or influence the world. We reject the view that entry into university, getting a good job or achievement in external exams should be fundamental drivers for learning.

Learning must be driven by need, interest and curiosity, as well as loads of teacher inspiration. As learners gain in proficiency, we believe a concurrent increase in responsibility and capacity for self-determined learning should become the main goal of educators. Not only should this be a goal for student learning, it should be the same for teacher and leadership team learning also.

Schools need to look beyond content, skills and behaviours, which are undeniably critical components, and promote a greater focus on aligning the principles of learning for all learners, regardless of age and experience. The impact on learning across a school is increased significantly, particularly for young learners when they can observe an unambiguous cycle of learning in action for themselves, their teachers and the school’s leaders.

This will challenge schools to redesign structures, processes and learning spaces and create learning experiences that enhance agency, metacognition, emotional intelligence and capacity for self-regulation.