Education is facing massive institutional changes right now. But one of the most important things that will stay the same, regardless of how school looks in the fall and beyond, is the importance of a clear, authentic, and shared understanding of successful learning.

Rather than focusing their energies on defining the delivery method and activities (especially since delivery will be impacted by even more things outside their control than usual such as COVID-19), learning communities from districts to classrooms should focus more time on answering these two powerful questions:

  • What are the most important things for students to learn?
  • How will we know they’ve learned it?

This idea of defining successful learning is at the core of approaches and tools such as competency-based learning, Expeditionary Learning’s Models of Excellence, performance tasks, Making Thinking Visible, and graduate profiles. It is easy to get lost in jargon and the weeds of specific systems, but we don’t need to rely on a lot of new jargon to understand the core value and function of having a clear and shared definition of successful learning.

Here are some tools and examples of how others have defined successful learning:

  1. Performance Assessment Blueprints from Center for Collaborative Education
  2. Buncombe County Early College’s Graduate Outcomes
  3. Thinking Routines from Harvard’s Project Zero
  4. Expeditionary Learning’s Models of Excellence

One of the important things about the two big questions in education (What are the most important things for students to learn, and how will we know they’ve learned it) is that every local community will (and should) answer them differently. That’s one of the core principles that Constructive Learning Design embodies. When we work with learning communities, we begin by learning. We ask what the school or community’s particular needs are, and work together to discover how we can best support and contribute to their vision and goals.

There are a lot of unknowns ahead. But some things remain the same. In the face of widespread uncertainty and change, it may help to keep asking the fundamental questions. What does this particular group of students need to learn, and how can we—as educators, administrators, and coaches—know when we’ve helped them learn it?