Getting to Proficiency: Post 4 Colored Sand and Best Practices

In the last post (find it here) I described an analogy for how I am envisioning proficiency based graduation.   I suggested that I think this analogy also captures some best practices.

I have also shared with various audiences that I am going to advocate for our work to focus on practices that we would keep even if the current law changes.  In other words, my goal is to help us create a system that we truly believe is better for students than our current approaches.  I am consciously choosing to view the statutory requirements (see them here) as an opportunity to discuss, understand, and adopt those practices that are supported by each of us and by the literature or research base.


One of the best resources on pedagogy available is How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School from the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.  If you have never perused this book, you can find it here as a free download.  Some of what follows comes from this text.

Transfer is defined as the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts (NRC, p.51)

Thinking about the broad goals of educating students, most of us would agree that the transfer of learning is a fundamental outcome for our students.  There are a number of  characteristics of learning that impact transfer:

  • Initial learning is necessary for transfer, and a considerable amount is known about the kinds of learning experiences that support transfer.
  • Knowledge that is overly contextualized can reduce transfer; abstract representations of knowledge can help promote transfer.
  • Transfer is best viewed as an active, dynamic process rather than a passive end-product of a particular set of learning experiences.
  • All new learning involves transfer based on previous learning, and this fact has important implications for the design of instruction that helps students learn. (NRC, p.53)

There are a number of research based strategies discussed in How People Learn to promote transfer, but one of the important implications of teaching for transfer is that the ideas, concepts, and thinking skills that we want students to transfer must be meaty and robust enough to have application beyond the initial context in which they are introduced and mastered.  These ideas must cut across multiple disciplines, contexts, and content.

The Crosscutting Graduation Standards (Maine’s Guiding Principles found hereare transfer standards.  We might argue with how they are articulated or the performance indicators associated with each standard, but they are intended to be outcomes that students should be able to transfer.  Other transfer standards include the ELA College and Career Readiness Standards (Common Core), the Standards of Mathematical Practice (Common Core), or the Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts in the NGSS.

If we agree that transfer is an important goal for education and that the Guiding Principles are transfer standards, how do we ensure that students are proficient, i.e. can transfer their learning outside of the school setting?

WE ASK THEM TO DEMONSTRATE THE OUTCOME IN MULTIPLE CONTEXTS OVER TIME (the colored sand).  Ideally these demonstrations involve novel opportunities for students to apply their understandings of the skills, concepts, and knowledge.

Getting to proficiency really means asking students to transfer big ideas to new and multiple contexts.

Documenting or certifying proficiency means collecting multiple pieces of assessment evidence over time to create our sand mosaic.  There is no test for transfer (i.e. proficiency), there are only performances in multiple venues.

Some Implications

  • Our assessment evidence must be of sufficient rigor and importance to collect and document.  There must be enough sand of a given color to contribute to the picture of emerging proficiency.
  • Our evidence should illuminate the transfer of these learning targets across novel and multiple contexts.  There needs to be some variety in the sand collected.
  • Not every student is going to document their learning in the same way.  Each vessel is going to produce a different mosaic.
  • Students, teachers, and administrators will need to reflect upon the body of evidence.  The larger mosaic is more important than any single piece of evidence.
  • Smaller learning targets are still essential in developing the background knowledge to promote transfer, but they are not the assessment evidence that documents proficiency.  The individual grains of sand of a given color are the smaller learning targets that must be acquired to perform successfully on the assessments added to the mosaic.

Further Reading

  • Grant Wiggins Transfer as the Point of Education– I have captured some of Grant Wiggins’ thinking above, but he is a much better writer.  Read his thoughts in this post.
  • National Research Council  How People Learn – As noted above, this text captures the research base underlying many of the ideas above and others of interest to most educators.  For instance; the difference between how experts and novices organize and access their understandings, motivation and practices that impact motivation, learning theories from behavioralism to social constructivism, brain research and the implications for designing learning environments, among many others.  Everyone should read the first three chapters.
  • David Perkins Transfer of Learning– In this short scholarly article, Perkins (Harvard School of Education) describes some nuances in the theory of transfer.


Bransford, J.d., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R.R. (Eds). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C. : National Academy Press


About shawncarlson

Assistant Superintendent
This entry was posted in AOS 98, Assessment, Instruction. Bookmark the permalink.

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