SIMPLIFY: Defining Proficiency via Cheesecake


This post was originally published at on August 31, 2015.

I love cheesecake.  It’s the best dessert option… ever.  People can argue with me about apple pie a la mode; ice cream sundaes; baked Alaska; tiramisu; creme brûlée; or warm chocolate chip cookies.  All of them are delicious… all of them are amazing.  They are as almost good as cheesecake, but not quite.  The texture, flavor, and satisfaction that comes after enjoying a piece of cheesecake surpasses the emotional responses had from those other desserts.  Of course, feel free to disagree with me on this… this is my humble opinion, of course… but stay with me, here.

Since I love cheesecake so much, you can imagine my excitement going to The Cheesecake Factory.  This restaurant is the epitome of deliciousness.  It is the epicenter of yum.  The HUB of culinary satisfaction.

And it is this restaurant that has sparked one of the biggest controversies in my married life.

Before, when I wrote that I love cheesecake, I purposefully left out that I like plain New York Style cheesecake.  No sauce.  No fruit.  No peanut butter, Oreo, or pumpkin blend.  Plain.  On its own.  By itself.

“Why are we coming to the Cheesecake Factory, where there are hundreds of cheesecake combinations, when ALL you want is plain?  It makes no sense!”

This is what I’ve heard for years.  From friends, family, and my brilliant wife.  They don’t understand why I’d pass on the extravagant and go for the plain.  It confuses and frustrates.

In a word: simple.

I like it this way because I believe that the more stuff you add to something that is already delicious, you take away from its essence.  If I add strawberry sauce to my cheesecake, it changes the flavor of the cheesecake from “cheesecake” to “strawberries & cheesecake.”  In my mind, that gets in the way of my goal: eating cheesecake.  Good cheesecake doesn’t need frills, additions, or addenda.  It doesn’t need to be hidden under other flavors.  Good cheesecake should be able to stand on its own.   It’s a common theme in food: making the simple complicated.  Adding more; combining new things to create new ideas.  I’m not opposed to this, by the way.  Taking the existing and making something new is  how innovation occurs, and innovation is wonderful and necessary.  However, I do also believe that there is tremendous strength and merit in the simple.  The foundation.  If the basics aren’t strong and good, then how good can the rest of the products/outcomes truly be?

So when I work with teachers, administrators, parents, and students about the word “proficiency,” I am amazed at the mountain of other “stuff” gets brought up.  Report cards, eligibility, honor roll, grading, rubrics, scales, scholarships, diplomas…. oh, my.  I agree, there’s a lot.  And those things are really important.  They will wind up being the innovation and face of our system, but if the foundation isn’t there, then everything falls apart in the end.

When transitioning to a proficiency-based system of learning, what is the foundation?  What is the “plain New York Style Cheesecake” of proficiency-based learning?  I believe it starts with proficiency, and having a common, easily-understood and measurable definition.  I feel that one of the fears of a proficiency-based learning system is in the unknown; that it brings requirements or changes that we don’t understand, so to understand this system, let’s come to agreement on a simple definition of proficiency:

Independently applying all expectations. 

That’s it.  It’s really that simple.  The rest of it (report cards, assessment, diplomas, etc.) all feed back to this one principle: the definition of proficiency.  If you and your teams find that the policies, practices, or systems you are developing stray from this definition: proficient you will not reach.  Everything in a proficiency-based learning system comes back to this definition.  Independently applying all expectations.  Start here; end here.  Keep it simple.  Just like cheesecake.

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