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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Moving Beyond Alignment to Coherence

By Jillian Kuhlmann

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


Pam Betten (top center), Chief Academic Officer of Sunnyside Unified School District, facilitates a table discussion around Sunnyside's work with convening attendees.

When Pam Betten speaks of coherence, there’s a level of emotional intelligence implied.

“We are really good in schools at creating alignment,” said Betten as she walked 230 (or so) educators and education advocates through the work that Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona has done to organize themselves around learner identity, agency and purpose. Betten is Sunnyside’s chief academic officer. “Alignment matters, but the depth of that shared understanding is where you get coherence.”

Coherence is the thing that you feel, that you know when you see it. After listening to Betten speak, Amy Harker, a personalized learning specialist with the Ohio Personalized Learning Network, described the difference between alignment and coherence with her hands.

“Alignment is like this,” Harker said, palms down, hands side-by-side and moving forward together. Then she placed one hand on top of the other, fingers entwined, and continued the motion. “But coherence is like this.”

Part of the way they’re building coherence for Sunnyside students, teachers and families is adopting a learner stance with everything they do. The adults in the room are not the experts, but the facilitators of learning that is student-centered and an educational experience that ensures graduates leave the district with an understanding of their own agency, identity and purpose.

Betten noted how taking this stance is modeled by the way their superintendent, Jose Gastelum, engages with staff, and how teachers reflect on their own learnings. When a panel of teachers and students were invited to present to the Aurora Institute, even that was an opportunity for learning and for students to see their teachers as learners, too.

“They were listening to their teachers process their learning with their principals, and it was an ah-ha moment,” said Betten, extending the experience into how students began to reflect on their own successes. “It wasn’t about, ‘I know what grade I got, what my GPA is, my class rank’ – it was, ‘I know what I understand.’ That’s the piece.”

That depth of knowledge and understanding of the “why” behind the district’s work center student identity, agency and purpose contributes to a stronger foundation going forward – and continues to serve as an inspiration for Harker, who cites the value of coherence as the thing she’s most excited to bring back to her own learning community.

“We want to align the many initiatives we have going on in education, but we want to take our understanding of the integration even deeper by bringing coherence to how they all work together as a whole,” said Harker. “I will use the idea of coherence as a foundational concept to help others develop clear learning pathways that intentionally bring interconnectedness and a true learning stance to the forefront – not only with our educators but most importantly, with our students. We are a learning community.”



About the Storytellers

Jillian Kuhlmann is the senior manager for communications at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit organization that partners with states and schools to align policy and practice, reimagining what education can do through personalized, competency-based learning – and what it must do to prepare students for a lifetime of learning.

Julie Thompson is a mentor teacher in the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction department of Tucson Unified School District.

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