Ideas, Influence, Impact

Posts tagged ‘education’

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.


Sam and His Pillowcase

Another family member has taught me a lesson about schooling.  Last time, it was one of my daughters, Elle.  This time, it was my oldest son, Sam.

Sam is five years old, and bright as can be.  He just soaks up everything he hears and sees.  He is already reading books, spelling, and doing math above his learning level.  Some things academically are coming easy to Sam.  So, I am glad he helped me make his bed recently.

My wife and I decided to wash the bedding for all of our children, and Sam was asked to help put his back on – like his older siblings.  Sam’s job was to put his pillows back in the pillowcases.

This was not an easy task for Sam.  He struggled to figure out how to get the pillowcase on the pillow.  He sat on the floor and tried to push the pillow into the case.  He stood up and tried to kick the pillow into the case.  And he pleaded to his father to end his suffering and do it for him.  (He does not have that type of dad.)

I told him to keep trying and tell me what he learned.  When he became less frustrated, he was able to share that he could not get the pillow into the case by pushing it in.  He stood with the pillow and the case and began to share back and forth while getting mad again.  Suddenly, he noticed that some of the pillow was slipping into the case.  Now, he began to jump up and down to get more of the pillow into the case, watching his progress with each jump.  When the end of the pillow was completely in the case, Sam threw the pillow up in the air, and announced, “I did it.”  The smile on his five-year-old face was bigger than his pillow!  Sam proceeded to do his other pillow in the same manner with the same success.

After his bed was made, I sat there while Sam picked out his clothes for school the next day, and I realized that Sam had persevered.  He had shown grit and determination, and he was successful in the end.  I sat there on his newly made bed, and I wondered if I should have modeled how to put a pillow in the case or even start it for him.  In the end, I am glad he struggled.  Yes, glad.  I want things to be difficult for Sam (some things) so he can know the depth of his resolve.  I want him to know that he can struggle and still be successful.  He should know that some successes only come from struggle.

I want the same for Sam in his school, and for all of his peers in the education system.  We must have students construct more of their learning, struggle more to find success, so they can be flexible, adaptable and resilient learners.

If we accomplish that goal, we will truly have the learners we need in the future.  Sam’s journey has already begun.  I hope others help him struggle.

Rainbows and Reflections (#ASCD13)

The 2013 ASCD Annual Conference ( was a highlight of my career for many wonderful reasons.

1. I presented at my first national conference!  It was on personalized learning and competency-based education efforts in my school district and my state.  I was lucky to have my 6-12 principal, Josh Griffith, there with me to present.  It was great to connect with other educators passionate about this work and willing to share their questions and answers with me.

2. Two teachers from my district gave their first presentation at a national conference.  It was great to know that the passion and knowledge they share every day with their students was also shared with educators who can impact thousands of other students because of their message.

3. The individual presentations that I attended such as Design Thinking, Socratic Seminars, and Off the Clock (competency-based education) truly stretched my thinking.  All presenters demonstrated a passion for improving the educational system as well as specific strategies for supporting all learners in the system.

4. The session with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was informative and entertaining.  She explained to us her video game project, iCivics, as well as shared stories from her groundbreaking life.  Justice O’Connor had me thinking and chuckling at the same time.  She is an incredible woman, a great legal mind, and a late-in-life comic!

5. Finally, the general session with Dr. Maya Angelou will be an experience I hope I never forget.  Confined to a wheelchair with one eye going bad, Dr. Angelou energized the crowd, bringing fits of laughter and moments of tears.  She reminded all of us that we are “rainbows in the clouds” – sometimes in situations we may know, but many times in situations where we had no idea we made an imprint.  She shared stories from her life about the rainbows that guided her, supported her and nurtured her.  In turn, she applauded us for being rainbows to students, to parents, to community members and to educators both in the next classroom and around the world.  I am rarely speechless, yet Dr. Angelou said all that could – and should – be said for us.

I am a better educator now for having attending the 2013 ASCD Annual Conference.  I hope I can remain inspired by what I heard, saw, and felt.  I know my rainbow is needed!

Do we want students to live someone else’s education?

Steve Jobs once stated, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

I have thought about that quote a lot in the last few weeks since I first saw it. I keep thinking about it as I walk the hallways of my school buildings, trying to give the best educational experience I can for my district’s students. Every week, there are more blogs, more tweets, more research, about how education is changing. There is growing energy to transform the current Industrial Age model of education into the Information Age model – of even a model based on an Age of Empowerment.

To do so will require a new way of thinking about learning.  Yes, learning.  Not education.  Education is the system society constructed to support learning.  Do we have that currently?  Yes, we have a system that adequately supports learning, but does it fully?  I will never disparage the system in which I work, yet I will push to make it better, to think about how what we do every day impacts our students – either propelling them forward or stifling them.

We must – all of us – ask the questions that challenge the status quo.  If the answers reveal that our current system is best, then we can take comfort in that knowledge and continue down our current path.  I believe, though, that the answers will reveal that a new system of support for learning is needed – one that takes full advantage of technology, personalized learning opportunities, and teachers as learning facilitators.

A new system of learning at its center will require new practices, new structures and a new mindset.  Educators have always risen to the challenge to meet the needs of the students.  With this, they will rise once again, and they will finally see a better way of supporting the learning of each and every student.

We have the proven practices, the passion, and the professionalism to build a new system.  It is time we construct it so our students never again have to live someone else’s education.

Carnegie Unit Conundrum

How do you translate a measure of time into a measure of learning?

It seems to me to be the same dilemma as trying to convert a measure of length into a measure of weight.  They are fundamentally, conceptually different.  Across the country (including my state of Iowa), state Departments of Education and local school districts are struggling with converting our current Carnegie unit system into a system that measures learning competencies.

It seems impossible to me to be able to translate a Carnegie unit into a competency.

A Carnegie unit was designed to equal the amount of time in school districts across the nation.  It was a measurement that everyone could understand and use to standardize their educational offerings for comparison and accreditation.  Over time, it has become the defining unit for curriculum development, scheduling, and teacher master contracts (prep periods, anyone?).

But Carnegie units do not tell you what happens within that given time period.  The learning from one district to another can vary widely, and even within a district, because instructional styles and preferences are different.  As we begin to explore all of the facets of a competency-based educational system, we continually come back to the notion of “learning is the constant; time is the variable” versus the current Carnegie maxim of “time being the constant”.

It is the correct notion for me, but it does not make measurement of learning easier.  In fact, learning is a complex process that is not easily quantified.  I think we only further complicate our progress toward a more personalized learning system for students with CBE by trying to convert ‘Carnegie’ to ‘competency’.  This is not a first order change; it is clearly second order.  We should recognize that, and begin to build a CBE system as it was meant to be, not as the next generation of what we currently have.

A Carnegie unit can only be a measure of time.  Since its inception, though, it has taken on more meaning.  We need to strip away all of the additional connotations we have placed upon it, and call it for what it is.  And then leave it in the past, as we move forward.  Time does not equal understanding. Time is needed for understanding but it does not equal it. Therefore any conversion that we make is going to be artificial. We need to recognize that point as we are trying to create a more authentic learning system than what we currently have.  At best, we need to recognize that we have an artificial solution that calls for an authentic one. Anything that we do to continue to use time as a measure is artificial in a competency-based system.

Simply put, a competency is to be an enduring understanding or learning that transcends content as well as time.  With that deep philosophical difference, we need to be careful about what we may or may not create.  For example, all we really have is the Common Core that all students are expected to complete. It seems to me that we need a system to recognize how a student is progressing in learning the Common Core, and we need a system that will demonstrate how we parse those pieces of knowledge from the Common Core into competencies.

Instead of working to convert a Carnegie unit into a competency, we need to focus on how to build competencies and the system that best measures them for what they are.

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