Tipping the (Proficiency) Scales


Elevating – thinking – writing

Here I am – 35,000 feet in the air – challenging myself to not overthink this one and get this blog written and posted before I land in Toronto for a conference tomorrow. It won’t be perfect. There will likely be some sections that don’t make complete sense. That’s OK!

One year. That’s a long time (to not post a blog). But today I feel compelled to write about some of my thinking around proficiency scales and particularly the weight some choose to put on single words, short descriptors, or even numbers, letters or symbols to describe the very complex task of assessing learning. Where there is an over-reliance of these things, our attention can be drawn away from what is most important. To me, that’s:

  • An understanding of whatever competency we’re talking about. What am I learning to do?
  • Criteria for success. What will this look like if I do this well and meet the criteria?
  • Clear feedback on, and evidence of, where one is in relation to the learning goals. Where am I in relation to where I should be?IMG_0908

I also want to explore the idea that people and their learning do not fit into tidy little boxes and challenge others to contemplate the fact that we can (and are) essentially emerging, developing, proficient and extending ALL AT ONCE. I’ll hopefully do this by focussing four things that I do regularly with varying levels of success.

Report for: Antonio Vendramin

So as you can tell, I have artificially assessed myself in all these areas. I’ve done so simply to show that without added detail, without a clear picture of what each item on the scale means, and without evidence, there is little meaning to be found.


My parents are Italian immigrants so I have been surrounded by the language my whole life. If someone speaks to me in Italian, I usually have a decent idea of what they are trying to communicate with me. Now if we’re talking about my ability to speak Italian, that’s a different story. I can proficiently introduce myself, greet people, and ask very basic questions. Beyond that… So it would be more helpful to know exactly what I can and can’t do (yet) rather than say I am EMERGING in my ability to communicate in Italian. I am certainly emerging in some areas, developing in others, proficient in a very few areas, and not extending in any. An upcoming trip to Italy has prompted me to continue learning how to become more fluent. I try to listen to an Italian instructional podcast on my drive each morning, practicing aloud as I drive. So while I am clearly emerging, I am developing at the same time.

Digital Storytelling

I love telling and hearing stories. I remember and “feel” when I hear stories. Digital storytelling marries two passions of mine – stories and visual images. I’ve been doing class and school slideshows for years and years. As tools and my learning have evolved, so has my work in this area. I think growth can be demonstrated simply by taking videos created several years ago to more recent ones and comparing them. I make better use of visuals, of music, of titles, and using b-roll and archived footage. Each time I complete a new piece, I realize that my work improves, telling me that I am continuing to develop. What would “proficient” or “extending” look like. Not sure but I will keep trying to find out!


Two videos … what do you notice?


I became a runner about 8 years ago. I was getting older, not feeling as fit, and so I embarked on a new journey. First, it was 4 or 5 kilometres. I gradually developed the ability to run farther and more often. Eventually and by surprise one day, I ran 10 kilometres. I had the sudden belief that I could be a runner. I’ve since done several Sun Runs and MEC runs, and have run 10 kilometres or more dozens and dozens of times. I’ve also set up yearly challenges to keep me motivated. 1200 kilometres in one year – 100 a month. Check! Then 1300, 1400, and this year, the goal is 1500. I say I am proficient at running because I can complete the distance, recover quickly, and actually walk the next day. But could I run farther and complete the runs in less time? Perhaps. Will 1500 kilometres in a year be my end-point or can I push further? While I am not getting any younger, I don’t yet feel I have plateaued. So while I usually rank in the top 10-15% of runners my age, saying that I am a proficient runner isn’t very helpful without talking about where I was, what I can do now, and my future goals.




You always hear “we are in the relationship business” because it’s true! In fact, the need to be socially connected is wired into our very being and is the foundation of all that humans do. Developing and maintaining relationships is very important to me and has helped me to be successful in various roles I have played in the school system. I used to really worry that as a school principal, I wouldn’t know policy or finance or how to handle difficult situations. True, these are all important things, but they are all things that you can learn to do, get help with, or access information on. All things begin and end with relationships and those who are best and relationships are those I believe that “genuinely” care for others and who come to school with what I call, “a servant heart”. I have been blessed to form so many strong relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. When I hear back from someone I haven’t seen for a long time and they express what I mean to them, it validates my work. People won’t necessarily remember exactly what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel. I consider my ability to develop and maintain relationships to be extending. There’s a story in each of these images that provide evidence. At the same time, I don’t rest there. I continue to read, view, observe, learn about new ways of understanding the power of words and gestures, dealing with difficult situations, and strategies to connect myself with others. By the very nature of our work and the uniqueness of each person I meet, my abilities in this area continue to develop as well.


While I know that we are required to formally assess learning and attach one of these indicators, my only hope is that we spend the majority of our valuable time not arguing the definition of each term and how each term relates to a letter grade, but rather that we focus on what really drives learning and that is a clear understanding and evidence of where we are now, where we want or need to go next, and ways in which we will get there.

To me, that is time well spent!


Taking off from Vancouver.



Touching down in Toronto … 4 hours later.



  1. You have eloquently shared why proficiency scales do not define learning, learners or what the longing to learn throughout life journey captures. I am glad you wrote on this brief journey of yours. You should fly to Australia and we would have volumes of wisdom.

    • Thanks for this Lillah. The trip to TO was an artificial structure to get something written, but I’ve wanted for some time to share my feelings about placing so much value and importance of what, in the end, doesn’t really tell us very much about the learning and even less about the learner. I appreciate your words!!!

  2. Hey there Mr. Vendramin 🙂
    Hope you had a great time!
    Classes are going great and I’ll be coming back to Surrey next year!

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