CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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Threshold Concept: Meeting Kids Where They Are

June 23, 2017 by

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the twentieth-first article in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

David Hood’s “Paradigm of One” describes how the current model focuses on “one teacher, teaching one subject, to one class of one age, using one [textbook], at one pace, in one classroom, for one hour,” and describes this rut in which the traditional system is stuck.1 In a time-based factory-model education system, students move through grade levels with varying amounts of learning with recorded grades of A-F without ensuring mastery. This all but guarantees that students will have significant gaps in core knowledge when they move from one grade level to the next. These disparities grow over time. When different levels of expectations are held for different students, the disparities grow larger, wider and deeper.

New personalized learning environments that are competency-based and student-centered help teachers identify the strengths of individual students and help meet kids where they are. They include assessments for learning with structured feedback to pupils, setting individual learning targets, planning to support individual needs, using data to dialog and diagnose each student’s learning needs every day.

In our current, traditional educational system, there is a significant focus on old pedagogical models for delivering a one-size-fits-all lesson of grade-level content each day. The retrograde effects of accountability systems are perhaps most apparent in the challenges educators face across the United States to truly try to meet students where they are.

The research on how students learn examines how important it is to meet a student within their zone of proximal development, allow for productive struggle and design progressions effectively where learning hinges on successful prior learning. A student’s zone of proximal development is defined as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.2 We know that when students are able to address prior gaps in their learning, they can accelerate their learning dramatically. As such, educators need to be able to scaffold instruction at the appropriate level as well as offering the supports and resources depending on student needs when delivering instruction. If our old pedagogical approaches force content to be traditionally delivered through one-size-fits-all approaches within age-based grade levels, we are not truly meeting students where they are. How do we advance equity in a system that approaches it with sameness in pedagogy? Is it fundamental to create equity through a foundation that is competency-based to ensure every student reaches mastery?

Meeting students where they are requires a true fundamental shift of the learning environment to become learner-centered and to be organized around mastery-based learning progressions across a continuum over time with opportunities for in-depth teaching and learning based on each student’s goals and needs and providing extended learning opportunities and supports with flexibility. And, most importantly, competency-based systems require knowing where every student is academically and holistically and then making sure each student receives the instruction and support they need to build confidence, lifelong learning habits, knowledge, skills and competencies to be successful.

Advancing competency-based systems means meeting students where they are every day and engaging in a cycle of supporting learning academically, socially, emotionally and holistically. There are major challenges when students have moved through a time-based system with decent grades to find out when entering a competency-based educational model that they are several grade levels behind. How do we address these issues in the traditional system that leave students with major gaps in knowledge, skills and abilities, and a lack of preparedness based on the system’s focus on drilling students forward with time-based (not learning-based) progressions? (more…)

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Threshold Concept: Pedagogical Innovations Based on Learning Sciences

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This is the twentieth article in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

Learning models should be rooted in the research about how students learn best (the learning sciences), with any redesign putting student success at the center. One way to to design a system based on learning sciences research is to consider how educators are engaged in teaching as inquiry where “inquiry is the state of identifying student learning problems, hypothesizing on causes, investigating and testing causal links, and acting on the findings to improve outcomes,” according to Dr. Linda Bendikson.1

Using research and evidence as a foundation for ‘inquiry’ allows all levels of the system to engage in deep conversations around what is working in student learning and how educators are central to systemic improvement. It is important for educators to question how they are using an inquiry approach to improve culturally responsive teaching, as well.

In competency-based systems, we must engage in tough conversations around outdated pedagogical approaches. It is time to critically analyze how the current time-based models may be barriers to addressing learner needs. We should examine how we assess and determine whether our assessment strategies are consistent with the learning sciences research on how students learn best. In addition, we need to determine if our pedagogical approaches align with research on student motivation and meeting kids where they are at the appropriate level of readiness, whether the learning strategies employed are truly fit for purpose. We must ensure we are designing for equity using research on how students learn best, youth development theory, and evidence-based approaches. (more…)

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Threshold Concept: Assessment Literacy

June 22, 2017 by

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the nineteenth article in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

“Student assessment is essential to measure the progress and performance of individual students, plan further steps for the improvement of teaching and learning, and share information with relevant stakeholders.” – OECD, 2013

Assessment literacy is important for practitioners but it is also important for policymakers and stakeholders throughout the system to understand the roles that different types of assessment play in student learning, how assessment and moderation are used to comparatively and fairly judge student mastery, and how the information generated by assessments can be used toward a cycle of continuous improvement in teaching and learning. The lack of assessment literacy across the system is a major blind spot. Thus, building significant capacity for assessment literacy is needed to advance new competency-based approaches and address tough issues in our current system.

An important concept in assessment today is related to the concept of comparability. Comparability is defined as the degree to which the results of assessments intended to measure the same learning targets produce the same or similar results. This involves documenting the reliability of judgments and not assuming that comparability is stable over time or invariant across multiple subgroups such as English language learners and special education students.1

There are unique circumstances in the U.S. education system that have driven the need for much greater degrees of comparability than is true in most other nations. When the federal government became involved in K-12 education with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, it was in direct response to deep inequities that remained even after school segregation. Because of the history of inequities in education offerings among student groups, concerns for equity are much greater than in many other countries, which drives, to a significant extent, the degree to which we need to take greater care that measures are fair and have common meaning among students, schools, and districts.2 This drives the prevalence of standardized tests in our country, causing the concept of assessment to often be conflated with the end-of-year, statewide, summative accountability tests.

Practitioners working deeply in competency-based learning models realize quickly how our K-12 education systems lack systems for calibrating the quality of student work, so we know that fundamentally there is significant consistency across schools and systems. As much of a systems challenge as this would appear across the states in the U.S. today, building professional educator capacity and policymakers’ understanding of assessment literacy is fundamental to shifting to personalized, competency-based systems at scale and focusing on equity.

A common misconception about assessment literacy is that it is only about how to interpret standardized test results. In contrast, assessment literacy is a much broader and more significant concept. The New Zealand Ministry of Education defines assessment literacy as:

“the possession of knowledge about the basic principles of sound assessment practice, including its terminology, the development and use of assessment methodologies and techniques, and familiarity with standards of quality in assessment. The primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning, as both student and teacher respond to the information that it provides. Information is needed about what knowledge, understanding, or skills students need. By finding out what students currently know, understand, and can do, any gap between the two can be made apparent. Assessment is the process of gaining information about the gap, and learning is about attempts to reduce the gap.”

Personalized, competency based learning requires us to reorganize systems around doing what it takes to ensure every student is attaining mastery, rather than the ranking and sorting them into high achievers and low achievers that is created through variable A-F grading practices. Redesigned systems will need to build capacity for clear evaluation criteria to make valid and reliable comparisons of students’ progress against outcomes (commonly understood outcomes) using evidence and common rubrics.

Thus, progress isn’t measured by ranking and sorting kids against each other, or through grading “curves,” but instead for each student to measure their evidence against articulated, high-level, common expectations of success and with clear depictions for what success looks like. This process of developing clear expectations for common proficiency levels is a key part of a “calibration.” Calibration is a process that allows two or more things to be compared via a common standard (e.g., a weight in the physical sciences or commonly scored papers in an education system). The purpose of common performance tasks given to students by different schools and districts is to serve as a “calibration weight;” a way to compare the way one school or district scores students on the common task, with the way other schools and districts score those same students’ work. In order to use the common performance tasks as calibration weights, districts need to re-score other districts’ common performance tasks. Calibrating expectations as well as grading and scoring processes for learning goals, is very important in competency-based learning systems. Calibration may involve groups of educators who collaborate and develop consensus around rubrics for scoring student work. The calibration process makes scoring student work consistent and more aligned to the standards upon which rubrics and scoring criteria are based, as well as creating reflective processes focused on improving student learning.

In addition to calibration processes for consistently and accurately evaluating student work, assessment literacy also includes knowing which assessments are appropriate for what purpose (e.g., formative, progress monitoring, or summative). This idea of common expectations, and evaluating evidence against common standards and rubrics to build and evaluate comparability across schools and systems, requires careful  moderation of assessment practices across the system and perhaps across the state level. Professional development of educators to assess student evidence using calibration processes and developing rubrics with scales for evaluating performance tasks against criteria, is central to building the capacity needed in a competency-based education system. A competency-based learning system that offers personalized pathways for students to meet learning goals and learning targets must rely on multiple forms of evidence against common standards and expectations.   (more…)

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The Summit Starts Today

June 21, 2017 by

….and I’m thinking about all the incredible educators I’ve met over the past seven years and about all the bright and shiny faces of children I’ve seen enjoying and valuing their learning.

I’m also aware that our decision to only have 100 people (because it is a good size to bring in a diversity of perspectives while also small enough for people to feel safe to share and explore ideas and feel listened to) also leaves out so many of you, who would make invaluable contributions and benefit from the leadership development that takes place at these types of working meetings. Many of you participated in the Technical Advisory Groups, and we are forever grateful – they way-exceeded our expectations. Honestly, we never could have developed such rich ideas in such a short period of time on our own. Truly, the power of collaboration and collective knowledge can never be under-estimated.

So…I wanted to share two small things that can help you feel as if you are in Denver with us. First, we are using #CBESummit17 as our hashtag. Second, participants contributed to a playlist organized around the question, “What music captures your feelings when you think about competency education and making sure that students are learning?” The playlist now on Spotify is just so fun and upbeat – I had to share it right away. If you want to add songs, leave the artist and song in the comments!

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Threshold Concept: Certifying Learning

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This is the eighteenth article in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

How is it possible that our education system still graduates many students who lack basic reading and math skills when they hold a high school diploma? Unpacking what a diploma means and how we might re-envision this qualification is crucial to inform short-term policy conversations. The United States has made significant progress in improving high school graduation rates over the past decade. However, far less attention has been given to what the diploma signifies. Today, the only thing we can know for sure about a high school graduate in most U.S. school districts is that they have put in the required seat time in the requisite courses. When schools are passing students along and graduating them with major gaps in skills and knowledge, they are doing them a disservice. Sadly, we are not being honest with our high school graduates when we tell them that their diploma means they are ready for the next step. Students who require remediation in college courses are less likely to persist and graduate. Those who directly enter the workforce and lack the basic communication, problem solving, collaboration skills, and habits of learning, may face unemployment.  

How can the high school diploma align to a more comprehensive definition of success?

For the purpose of this series, let’s consider core concepts that may need to be unearthed as design flaws in our current system which may be missing from current debates. The term “curriculum redesign” is a common concept emerging in global education systems which is fundamentally asking the question, “what do our students need to know and be able to do” — especially with respect to a more holistic notion of student success for the future. Whether a community conversation or a state conversation, the idea of engaging communities and families in conversations around what is different, and around what students need to know and be able to do is increasingly important.

What do we need to think differently about a broader set of outcomes? These would include considerations for academic knowledge and skills, and competencies such as learning how to learn, lifelong learning which includes how to set goals personally, academically, professionally and attain them, learning important social emotional skills, empathy, compassion, cultural responsiveness and understanding. Lastly, it includes navigating an increasingly complex world with problem-solving, communication, and self efficacy skills to actively engage in civil society and democracy.

The fundamental question curriculum redesign attempts to answer What should students learn to succeed in the 21st century?” From Asia to Europe, from Australia and New Zealand, to Africa and India, and across the provinces of Canada there is a deep and complex debate taking hold in each community around what students need to know and be able to do. Conversations in policy in the United States around what students need to be prepared are happening around standards and graduation requirements; however, they are based on limited definitions of success centered around content proficiency. States can begin to engage districts and communities around what students need to master for true preparedness, and the implications for rethinking outdated accountability models. We need to think about redesigning education with new models of active, inquiry-based pedagogy to move forward with more holistic, learner-centered, competency-based learning models that help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive after high school graduation. Once local communities have a shared understanding of what student success looks like, they can drive state-level understanding of curriculum redesign and the implications for new accountability models, new designs for assessments, new school models and building systems capacity (and better coherence). (more…)

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Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education

June 20, 2017 by

This is the seventeenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

The purpose of Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education is to explore and reflect on the ideas that state policy needs to address in the long-term to support a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity so all students can be truly ready for success. We will explore some ways that state policy could approach tackling threshold concepts as part of a long-game strategy.  

Our challenge is to catalyze the creation of a new, transformational theory of change for state policy to work toward in the long term. In doing so, we need to identify the blind spots – the things that we don’t even know that we don’t know – that are standing in the way of a system that is fit for purpose.

Our intent is to push current thinking beyond the assumptions that perpetuate root causes of inequity and the structural issues that perpetuate injustice. We are focusing on a strategy for policy to support systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems that ensure mastery for all students and equity for all.  

There is a growing realization that the traditional system design for American K-12 education is failing to adequately prepare students for the future. It is time to build a system on the core principle that all students can succeed and be ready for the next step in their learning, the workforce, and life. (more…)

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What Needs to Happen so that Schools Can Meet Students Where They Are?

June 19, 2017 by

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This is the sixteenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Meeting Students Where They Are. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

At the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, one of the key emerging issues we will explore is meeting students where they are. CompetencyWorks released a paper titled Meeting Students Where They Are, written by a team from reDesign, which provides school and district leaders with an in-depth exploration of the relational, pedagogical, and structural dimensions of meeting students where they are along their learning trajectories. We invite your insights and feedback on two sets of questions:

  1. Anything Else to Add? In the paper an approach to organizing schools and reaching students based on their personal academic and developmental trajectory is explored.
    • Are there any important points to raise regarding the approach provided in the paper that are missing or need to be revised or strengthened?
    • Are there other approaches to meeting students where they are that should be included in the final paper?
  2. What Should Be Done? What needs to change in the broader education system (accountability policies, systems of assessments, teacher pre-service, etc.) to enable schools and educators to better meet students where they are, and what actionable steps can be taken to expedite these changes?

In the following discussion, we offer some initial ideas for the second question with the expectation that they will be substantially enhanced at the Summit. Below, we identify five strategies that schools must put in place in order to minimize the impact of the traditional environment’s focus on organizing learning by age and time, which most districts operate within.

A. Educator Capacity

Teachers need access to personalized, competency-based professional learning that allows them to build the skills they need to better support students within their classrooms. This should include strategies for scaffolding, differentiation, knowledge of instruction in their academic domain, coaching in lifelong strategies, and knowledge of equity strategies.  

Many districts are beginning to create modules and units on a range of different issues. An initiative that would enable knowledge-building and knowledge-transfer regarding these efforts and the design of their modules would expedite the ability of districts to shift to personalized, competency-based professional learning. (more…)

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Meeting Students Where They Are: Navigating System Constraints?

June 18, 2017 by

This is the fifteenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Meeting Students Where They Are. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

Meeting students where they are is a structural challenge and will involve the work of reimagining and redesigning our school models around the needs of the individual, rather than the efficiency of the system. There is something of an accountability paradox1 at play in our educational system; namely, that the very accountability system that led to much greater transparency about the performance of the education system and its inequity is also holding the traditional system that produces inequity in place. Despite this, there are five critical, interlocking structures that will enable school models to become more effectively oriented around learner needs and outcomes rather than around operational efficiencies (without entirely ignoring the need for efficiencies in the system in order to respond to systemic constraints):

  • Modularizing learning experiences and making them available to all students creates the opportunity for students to both “reach back” to address gaps in skills and knowledge, and to reach “over” or “forward” to pursue passions or deepen learning.
  • An assessment strategy that is backwards-mapped from college-/career-readiness makes it possible for schools and systems to ensure that students have ample opportunities to practice and master core competencies.
  • Personalizing students’ learning paths allows both students and teachers to explore learning experiences in ways that meet students within their zone of proximal development, providing timely and differentiated supports as a matter of daily practice.
  • Organizational supports for learning should foster student agency, motivation, and engagement in order to ensure that supports avoid becoming enablers, limiting student growth and progress.
  • Flexible schedules support student choices about how to use their learning time, while also creating critical opportunities for teachers to provide interventions, feedback, and personalized learning experiences.

The connective tissue between these supports is a robust learning management and tracking system that provides young people, teachers, and families with real-time access to both learning experiences and rich data regarding progress.2

Strategy 1. Designing Modular Learning Experiences, Available to All

This is one of the weightiest challenges for competency-based programs, but the benefits of tackling it cannot be overstated. There are two specific challenges to be navigated: First, while the number of available tech-based resources is growing almost exponentially, there are few if any resources that are inquiry-driven, culturally responsive, organized around research-based learning progressions,3 and organized around meaningful performance assessments. Even fewer are designed to meet the needs of students who are struggling or “off-track,” or students with specific learning needs. This is a critical issue for the field to address as we move into the design of second generation competency-based models.

Second, if we truly want to meet students where they are, we must all be able to access a full range of skill- and content-based modules, as they are needed: a sixteen year old recent immigrant who did not learn to read in her native language must be able to access learning experiences that focus on learning to read and write. An eleven year old who has pursued a passion in geometric theorems shouldn’t be asked to wait several years to access school-approved courses in order to “receive credit.” And students of any age who have yet to learn how to read a map or distinguish between countries and continents should have a way to develop this competency at whatever moment makes sense: either because of a developing interest or passion, or because it is part of an established benchmarking process or learning progression.

At the classroom, school, or district level, the most significant challenge is either commissioning modules from experts or supporting practitioners as they develop the capacity to design modules that truly allow students to explore passions, develop agency, address gaps in skills and conceptual understanding, and develop college and career-oriented competencies. Beyond this, modules can be designed and hosted on an array of free and inexpensive platforms. (more…)

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What Do We Do Once We Know Where Students Are?

June 17, 2017 by

This is the fourteenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Meeting Students Where They Are. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

The only way to truly meet students where they are is for competency-based models to adopt a personalized approach to learning: an approach that accounts for students’ differing zones of proximal development with regards to specific cognitive skills, as well as within the physical, emotional, metacognitive, and other domains. In this section, we offer a prototypical framework designed to help practitioners operationalize a personalized approach in the academic realm.

At first glance, the notion of “meeting students where they are” might seem daunting, as it demands we attend to the unique, ever-evolving needs of each learner, every day. What about the eight year old student who struggles to decode? The new immigrant who didn’t learn to read in her native language? The teenager without an understanding of proportional thinking? What about the student in the same cohort who is ready for more “advanced” tasks or materials? Beyond the complex challenges related to academic skills and knowledge, we cannot ignore the significant range of learner difference in executive function and self-regulation skills,1 such as the ability to sustain focus on a task, rein in impulsive behavior, prioritize activities, or recognize when it’s time to ask for help or course-correct.

For many reasons the field is in the nascent stages of defining, in a concrete and comprehensive way, the distinguishing pedagogical practices of a personalized, approach.

In mature competency-based learning spaces, learners are active co-constructors of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of content. Learning is visibly and authentically connected to meaningful and important outcomes. Inquiry drives the learning process, as it does in the world beyond school. And finally, learning environments and experiences are purposefully designed to nurture the meta-cognitive, behavioral, and motivational attributes of engaged, autonomous, and adaptive learners.2 In short, the architecture of competency-based structures places student agency as the capstone, and every element of the design exists to support it. In this way, a personalized approach is a differentiated or individualized approach, BUT, its deep commitment to student agency is the significant distinguisher: while differentiation and individualization are also approaches to meet student needs, these needs and the strategies to address them are identified by the teacher. A personalized approach places the students in the driver seat.3

Feature 1. Learner-Centered Classrooms Support Multiple Modalities

Learner-centered classrooms start by re-designing learning configurations (spaces, learner modes) and implementing high-impact instructional practices that nurture student learning, engagement, and metacognition. (more…)

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