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The 5 Shifts of Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is a transformative educational approach for classrooms and systems that is emerging across the country. It has its deepest roots—and greatest success—in the state of New Hampshire, as its legislature and state department of education have worked to significantly change how education occurs in the state. CBE also has strong roots in Iowa and Kentucky; it is growing in numerous other states through the work of the CCSSO’s Innovation Learning Network (ILN) and several organizations, such as iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks.

At its core, competency-based education can be defined by five major shifts in how an educational system operates:

  • Learner agency
  • Learner experience (commonly known as curriculum)
  • Learner facilitation/support (teacher instruction)
  • Learner evidence (assessment)
  • Learner environment (both the culture and the physical space).

Please note that I intentionally reworded some common educational terms, such as using learner experience instead of curriculum. The reason is that a CBE system is built on the learner. It is not just learner-centered; it is learner-driven. A CBE system is built to fully support the passion, purpose and needs of each and every learner. The learner works to reach his or her potential in all aspects of life, college, and career readiness. Therefore, I have chosen to rebrand some common educational terms to make sure the “learner” is always at the forefront of the work we need to do.

If you are interested in adopting CBE in your school or district, these are the five shifts you will need to make in order to truly transform your educational system. You cannot change your educational system merely by changing the terms you use to describe it. There are a myriad of details that need to be addressed in overhauling a system. These shifts provide a conceptual framework to address those details.

Learner agency focuses on making sure the student has a voice and choice in his/her educational journey. They are involved in setting their goals, setting their learning objectives, setting their assessment levels and setting the pace of their progress.

Learner experience means that a curriculum is not just the content standards given to the students; it is also the context that a student brings to the content.

Learner facilitation and support flips the model of teacher as sage on the stage and cements the role of guide on the side.

Learner evidence revamps the entire notion of assessment of learning to assessment for learning.

And learner environment refocuses the culture to ensure that students have a significant presence in the ownership and direction of their learning.

This framework is designed to focus on the learner foremost, and to build an educational system that supports the learner completely. It was developed based on my experiences implementing competency-based education in my school district, as well as several publications from iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks. I curated the information and attempted to conceptualize it into a framework that can be easily understood by educators and community stakeholders so there can be action taken instead of confusion and inertia.

You can use this general overview of the five shifts to begin formulating a framework for transformation in your school or district. In future blog posts, I will address each shift in greater detail.

* This blog post first appeared on the Educause/NGLC blog site on May 2, 2017.

Competency-Based Education Outdoors

coyne-prairie-img50-frank-oberle

Last week, I had the opportunity to join my son’s third grade class on a field trip to a conservation park. It was a wonderful day out side with gorgeous weather. More importantly, it was a great day for me to reflect on the “transferability” of competency-based education.

Competency-based education, or “CBE,” is a systems shift in what and how education is done in our schools.  And there are teachers, administrators, and parents across the country working to implement this new model of learning for students.  A lot of the concerns with CBE is how it gets implemented in the classrooms, buildings, and districts.  This field trip reminded me that CBE happens “any time, any place, any pathway, any pace.”  (Keep practicing that rhyme!)

First, I was reminded of the powerful potential of CBE when our naturalist gave our students some general guidelines about what insects to find in a prairie and how to best capture them.  Then, the students were let loose to explore the prairie and find their insects.  Imagine 60 third graders bounding through prairie grasses as tall as them searching for a large variety of insects.  To some, it may seem like chaos, but it’s not.  It’s CBE.

Students had the general focus of the lesson (objectives, standards) provided, yet the opportunity to learn on their own.  Some used the insect nets, others their hands, and still others had more creative ways of capturing the insects for identification.  Further, some caught only grasshoppers, while others searched for as many insects as possible, and some, even, were determined to capture as many yellow jackets as possible.  CBE allows for students to expand on the what and how of the curriculum, while still maintaining the necessary requirements for learning.

Later, students were following the naturalist on a trail searching for insects and various plant types.  Again, the naturalist gave some general directions, then students were allowed to explore the woods on their own.  It was wonderful to see the curiosity of the students, as well as various “soft skills”.  Some students were quick to take charge of their exploration, while others followed.  Some asked questions of the naturalist, while others just got started on their own.  Some stayed close to the group, while others explored the edges of the woods.  What was exciting was how everyone learned from the experience.

A bonus of the day was a student who found a variety of insect that the naturalist was unfamiliar with.  The students took time sharing information about what they had learned so far to try to determine this new insect.  Finally, a parent searched online with their phone to share more information about the insect.

CBE has the power to transform our educational system – to maintain the curiosity of students through graduation, to use the unique interests and talents of the students fully, and to have teachers work collaboratively with students to be learners as well.  It is a shift with much work, and much rewards.  For students, teachers, and parents on the field trip, the rewards were evident clearly in that prairie.

Learning: Either/Or No More

Before the start of the new school year, my family took a week-long vacation to Duluth, Minnesota.  We had never been there before, but were excited by cool temperatures in July, a beach in the Midwest, and the opportunity for a lot of family fun.  During the trip, we visited a children’s museum, a coastal lighthouse, the Aerial Bridge, the Great Lakes Aquarium, the Lake Superior Marine Museum, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and so many other interesting places.

Throughout the trip, my family (five kids ages 2, 4, 7, 9, and 11) had a great time – and asked a lot of questions.  With each stop, we learned something.  It was a great trip!  It also reminded me that school may be a place, but learning is a process.  It can – and does – happen anywhere.  It happened as we spent 45 minutes learning about the locks and dams along the Great Lakes.  It occurred in the replica steam engine, and it certainly occurred standing on the beach of Lake Superior.

With each stop, new questions were asked and answers were sought.  We learned, we laughed, and we did it as a family.  Now, not all learning is family based, but it is personal.  What Grace (my 11-year-old) learned at the aquarium was different that what Elle (my 9-year-old) learned, but it all had value.  And don’t even get me started about all the train things I learned from Sam (my 7-year-old) at the old train depot.

Competency-based education does just what this family trip did.  It takes what is personal and connects learning to what is necessary.  There were a lot of science, math, English and social studies standards met while on vacation.  We learned because we wanted to, and ultimately, it will be deeper learning because of our interest.

Competency-based learning holds the potential to take each one of this moments and turn it into a learning experience.  We do not need artificial lesson, because real life did it for us.  Imagine all that can be learned, is learned, in a single day.

CBE can help us do it better, do it richer, do it deeper.

CBE can help us cross the bridge from “required to know” to “desired to know.”

Aerial_lift_bridge_duluth_mn

The Aerial Bridge in Duluth, MN

Personalized PD

Our district took an important step forward in its journey toward a competency-based learning system this semester.  Last month, our teachers began a personalized professional development plan.  Below is the document used to introduce this work:

Vision / Intent – (Why?)

  • For teachers to experience an individually-driven learning experience, similar to what is being discussed for competency-based education for students (CBE team)
  • Learn from our struggles implementing with teachers to make it a smoother transition for students

Timeline – (When?)

  • 2nd semester of this year
  • May still have some building or district PD sessions on Tuesdays – AIW, CBE, literacy, technology, etc.

Logistics – (How?)

  • Teachers are welcome to work independently or in a group – address your learning style
  • Maintain your reflections in the same PD reflection GoogleDoc
  • Complete the new iPD form  {below in bold}

Expectations – (What?)

  • Stretch yourself – focus on new learning
  • Use your time wisely – time not to be used for grading papers
  • Demonstrate professional integrity – support each other, share success and concerns
  • Need to share out with another teacher that day (Social Collaboration)
  • Need to share out with principal (Accountability)

Possible Examples –

  • CBE
  • Literacy
  • Standards-based grading
  • Technology integration
  • Performance-based assessment

Summative Evaluation – End of year

  • What worked?
  • What should be changed?
  • How does this impact PD plans for next year?
  • What are the success criteria?


Teachers need to answer the following questions:

  • What do you plan to learn?
  • How will you know you’ve learned it?  (What will be your evidence of learning?)
  • How does your learning support the work of your building and/or district?
  • What resources will you need?
  • How will your administration (building principal, superintendent) need to support your learning?
  • How will your building principal know of your progress in learning?

The design of this work is to have our teachers begin to experience the freedom (or fear) of personalized learning and use those experiences to develop a better system of learning for our students.  As we continue to look at our world, it is becoming more customized all the time.  Our educational system finally has the philosophy, tools, technology, resources, and leadership to transform itself into a personalized learning system.  We are proud of our step in this direction, and this work will allow us to take more steps faster.

The Purpose of a Transformed Educational System

MeasureYourLife

In his new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clayton Christensen speaks about a company’s purpose, and how it must be deliberately conceived and chosen – and pursued.  It is what defines the company.  And in the book, Christensen defines a purpose into three components – likeness, commitment and metrics.

I have thought a lot about those three components of purpose, and how I would translate them into a transformed system of education.  In the personalized learning (competency-based education) system I dream of and work to put into practice, a new purpose is the foundation for this new system.

  • I am working hard to develop a clear likeness (or “essence” if you listen to me much) about what this system looks like, sounds like and feels like.
  • Further, I am contemplating the new commitments that will need to be made by students, teachers, administrators, and community members.
  • Finally, I am always intrigued – and perplexed – by the right type of metrics that should be used to maintain our purpose and check our progress.

There has been a lot of discussion about the purpose of a new personalized system of learning.  I hope these three components will illuminate the conversation and lead to some resolution.

Personalized Education, Not Personalized Learning

Before you condemn me after only reading the title, let me state clearly that I am FULLY supportive of personalized learning.  I am working hard to support philosophies and practices in my district, in my state and across the country that address and support personalized earning.

But, I realize that my goal is not to personalize learning.  Learning has always been – and will always be – a personal process.  It’s kind of like breathing. I do not think there will be any “personalized breathing” reforms any time soon.

The real goal of educators, parents, and community stakeholders should be personalized education.  We really need to focus on how we make our system of learning (education) more open for personalized learning.  We need to build our system anew.

Our right will always be to have learning be personal; the goal is to make our system of education personal as well.

Leaving To Learn

I have recently finished the book, Leaving to Learn by Elliot Washor and Charles Nojkowski.  Its premise is that students that are potentially at-risk for dropping out of school would be better served if they could learn outside of school.  The entire book focuses on how schools could keep these students in school more if the schools would let them leave school more.  The whole notion is that students are not engaged in schools currently, but they are engaged in “real life”, so the students should spend more of their time out in the real world to be more engaged in learning.

It is an interesting premise, not only for those students who struggle in being engaged in schools, but for all students that attend public schools.  I read this book hoping not to solve our dropout problem, but to provide an opportunity to solve our engagement problem.  Even our best students in public education are not often fully engaged in their education.  They are the ones, who like the at-risk students, have figured out the rules of school, but unlike the at-risk students, they continue to play by the rules.

Public schools, in my opinion, are at a precarious crossroads in their existence.  They must continue to educate students to their full extent, yet grapple with the realization that their full extent is hindered by their current systemic practices.  A new system of learning is needed, and Leaving to Learn may just have a few answers.

As a proud supporter of competency-based education, I believe there are a lot of real life opportunities for learning for our students in our communities.  No, not the community college twenty miles away or the university in the other direction, but in our Main Street businesses and institutions.  If we look closely at our communities that are many, many opportunities for leadership and learning.  Our students can learn valuable skills and dispositions in finance, health care, agriculture, retail, computer science, advocacy, service and a myriad of other disciplines.  We can truly make the content more relevant and more engaging for more students.

Competency-based education can be, and should be, community-based education.  We should use the resources that surround and support the school to enhance the learning mission of the school.  I do not want our students to feel their only choice to learn is to leave; rather, I want them to connect with the community so they never have to leave this fertile place for learning opportunities.

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