Category: Reflection

Advancing Personalized Learning with Purpose

January 14, 2016 by

PencilThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on November 19, 2015. 

At last week’s iNACOL Symposium, the conference halls were abuzz about the promise of personalized learning. In the same week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a report in partnership with RAND profiling promising academic results across schools pursuing a range of personalized approaches over the past two to three years. These conversations and findings mark an encouraging departure from our industrial model of education. Champions of personalized learning are rejecting the century old premise that students ought to experience school on the basis of standardized curriculum, age cohorts, grade levels, and seat time. And increasingly, there’s data to support this case. (more…)

What is it Going to Mean to Have a Proficiency-Based Diploma?

January 13, 2016 by

GraduationWhat is a high school diploma and what does it mean? It certainly isn’t something written in stone – it can be whatever we want it to be. What we need it to be is meaningful to students, parents, colleges, educators, and employers. As we shift to competency education, we have the opportunity and often an urgency to revisit artifacts of the traditional system, either imbuing them with new meaning or redesigning them to better support students and their learning.

One of the strategies states are using to move toward competency education are proficiency-based diplomas. It’s an interesting strategy. It’s a strategy that demands the diploma mean something rather than an ever-increasing set of required courses and credits. It doesn’t actually say a school has to be competency-based. If they think they can get all their students to the level of proficiency required to earn a diploma in the traditional system, they wouldn’t really have to make any changes, would they? However, districts do start to change immediately to a competency-based or proficiency-based system under this strategy, as they know there is no way they can do it in the traditional system. (more…)

Time to Tackle the Elephant

December 16, 2015 by

elephantWhy do we continue to teach students grade-level standards based on their age when their skills are actually two, three, or more academic levels lower?

In states and districts across the country, educators are frustrated and wondering why their students aren’t able to learn algebra as demonstrated on state accountability exams. There are conversations about redesigning the courses, more remediation, and even questions about whether the exams are too hard or the expectations too high. All of it assumes that algebra should be taught in a specific grade and that we will just keep teaching it to kids over and over again until they get it. What’s that saying about insanity – Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Competency education suggests another solution: Ensure that students have all the pre-requisite knowledge and are able to engage in skills based on where they are, not where they should be. When we teach them in their “zone” of proximal development, it is personalized learning (or student-centered if you prefer that language). When we teach students based on their grade, we are using the batch method of the antiquated factory model. It may help some students just to have more time and instruction to learn algebra. But for some who may have been passed on to the next grade without becoming proficient or who may have missed concepts along the way due to lack of class attendance because of housing instability, being in the child welfare system, or suffering from poor health, they may need to work in their zone to build up the pre-requisite skills. (more…)

How My Understanding of Competency-Based Education Has Changed Over the Years

December 8, 2015 by

StairsNext week, I am excited to be sharing the work that my team and I have done in New Hampshire on competency-based education with a group of South Carolina educators as part of the Transform SC institute on Meeting the Needs of Every Student With Competency Based Progression. My preparation for this institute has been an opportunity for me to reflect on what has now been a six-year journey with competency education with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. This past week, our school district was recognized for the second year in a row as a “leader in competency education” by Tom Vander Ark’s organization Getting Smart, noting that Sanborn was one of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting in 2015. (more…)

Where Students are Our Students, Not Mine or Yours

December 1, 2015 by

ShepherdThese past two weeks have reminded me of something I have always known to be true in my gut and in my heart. Growth and success in schools is built upon a solid foundation of trust and an intrinsic culture of collaboration and mutual support.

Recently, our district hosted two visits to our school and district from educators and policy makers from across the country, I listened to our teachers reiterate to our guests that it is imperative to be engaged in work in a place where you feel safe to take chances and know you will be supported. It seems so simple, yet we all know it is not something that just happens. It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience. It has traditionally been easier for people to work in isolation, rather than put themselves out there with a team and be mutually accountable for the success of ALL students. (more…)

Multiple Pathways to Competency-Based Education?

October 26, 2015 by

ClassroomLast summer we published Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders based on interviews with ten districts across the country. There were strong similarities about the major steps these districts used in converting their systems from time-based to success-based. What was interesting was that most of the districts had converted without a big investment of education technology or use of blended learning.

There are more and more districts interested in competency education, but they have different starting points. Many of them have already made the transition to blended learning and are more comfortable with students working on different units or skills. I’ve also visited one district, Eminence, which started with design thinking. (University of Kentucky dLAB, led by John Nash, is bringing design thinking into the schools in the Bluegrass State.) This has raised a bunch of questions for me about how these districts might find their way to competency education. Will they follow the same implementation process or will they forge a different way to a competency-based system? And if they do forge a different way, will this lead to different understandings of competency education and new designs? Or will these districts miss important steps and encounter new challenges?

Technical or Transformational?

A few people, all of whom I have the utmost respect for, have suggested that we need to document the different models of competency education in the same way we talk about the models of blended learning. I see the value of modelizing (Is that a word? If not, it should be. ), but I also see a huge risk in that it allows people to see competency education as a technical reform.

And we at CompetencyWorks don’t think it is. (more…)

Stop the Nitpicking and Other Things We Are Doing that Are Undermining Our Efforts to Advance Competency-Based Education

October 13, 2015 by

Lock“We don’t share the details of our work anymore.”

I was more than a bit shocked and stopped taking notes. I had heard from a national organization that districts weren’t sharing very much information anymore. I had assumed that the leading districts were working so hard to get their systems right or that examples of their competencies, rubrics, and policies had been pulled off their websites because they were undergoing a revision process.

This very honest superintendent told me they didn’t share their artifacts and the details of their system anymore because so many visitors to his district nitpicked. They’d look at their standards and question why something was set as a kindergarten goal rather than second grade. Or they’d question whether something was really written to be measurable. Or they’d say these are written at lower levels of rigor – why aren’t you assessing for higher order skills?

He explained that their teachers work hard and are in a nonstop learning trajectory. They have been absorbing and transforming to personalized learning and classrooms, building growth mindsets for themselves and their students while shaking off the practices of the fixed mindset, learning about student agency, creating more opportunity for voice and choice in the school and the classroom, becoming comfortable with the Common Core State Standards, figuring out new ways to grade using standards, learning how to build relationships with students that have the strength to address behavioral issues (since points aren’t used as much), strengthening formative assessment and learning to provide more productive feedback, strengthening their instructional strategies, exploring how to use educational technology (including how to use data from adaptive software)…the list goes on. They aren’t prepared for the nitpicking by visitors who have rarely had experience themselves in trying to convert a district to a personalized, competency-based approach. They find it demoralizing and counter-productive. So they’ve just quit sharing.

His honesty helped me to understand the problem. And it sparked me to write about the other things that state policy leaders, district leaders, and educators have told me can be problems created by national organizations. (more…)

Buyers Beware

October 7, 2015 by

CautionI am getting a bit frustrated with information management systems that claim to be competency-based. They describe themselves in a number of ways – as LMS and as tracking systems – and I’m sure the names will continue to develop as we get a better grasp on the necessary functionality.

I’ve been spending time over the past year watching demos, visiting vendor booths, and trying to be open-minded about their full functionality. Most of the time I’ve been disappointed.

So before you even spend time looking at a system, ask these questions:

Can it easily show the standards students are working on that may be different than those specifically in the age-based grade level? This is problem number one – most of the systems I have seen continue to use courses as the organizing structure. They load up the course with the grade-level standards, usually from Common Core,  for eighth grade math or ninth grade ELA. But what if a student is working on sixth grade math skills or is advancing to eleventh grade writing? There needs to be a way, an easy way, to show where students are on their learning continuum and for teachers and students to get “credit” for mastering skills even if it isn’t in the grade-level standards. One of the products drawing in a lot of funding requires teachers to add all the standards into their course if they have students working at different levels as an extra, burdensome step. This is one of the core problems of the traditional system – focusing on the curriculum instead of the students. You do not want to institutionalize this with your new information system.

Can I get a student profile that shows me how a student is advancing in all of the disciplines? When a system is teacher-centric, it only focuses on what a teacher needs to know. If it is going to be student-centric, then you should be able to customize student profiles that help students, parents, and advisors reflect on pace and progress. (more…)

Why Making Meaning Matters for Student Ownership

October 5, 2015 by

EmpanadaThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 12, 2015. 

This weekend I decided to make empanadas. I looked to my Chilean cookbook for inspiration, but ultimately determined lard, hard boiled eggs, and raisins did not belong in my version. So, I started to play. I peeked inside the refrigerator to see what ingredients might work, scanned the pantry for additional items with complementary flavors and began mixing, chopping, measuring.

At some point during my experiment, as I was standing there making the empanada dough from scratch, rolling it out, kneading it, and forming it into a meal, I felt this sense of pride and satisfaction settle in over me. I wasn’t just a consumer; I became a creator. I didn’t just heat up a Hot Pocket, I made one. And it felt good.

Learning From Scratch

I think kids feel the same way. Our students learn best when they make the meaning, when they begin to own the learning. When students start to control things like pace, product, even the content, they make more meaning from scratch.

We are simply settling for a shadow of what learning can be when we, as teachers, provide answers too soon and grant little time for students to wonder and make.

Our students need to see-think-wonder their way through new ideas and concepts instead of being told the right answer. They need to use real tools, pull back the bark and discover what is hiding underneath.

Our students need us to stop taking over, grabbing the mouse, the iPad, the pencil, or the paintbrush to show them how it’s done.

Our students need time to think, explore, and be puzzled–time to not know on their journey to knowing. Time to struggle and experiment and test hypotheses.

Our students need to know we, as their teachers, value thoughtful questions over answers. (more…)

What I Learned From My Daughter’s First “C”

September 22, 2015 by

CThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 15, 2015.

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for competency-based learning models. I’ve gone on the record lots of times as just that. I shared my thoughts on Montessori education as one of the original competency-based models and until very recently, I had two daughters who were learning in competency-based, Montessori learning environments.

This year our third grade daughter transitioned from the only formal learning environment she’s ever known–a no-grades, no-desks, pick-your-own-work Montessori classroom–to a gifted, STEM magnet in a large traditional urban school district.

We really sweated the transition, but it’s been mostly a breeze for us and our daughter. She bounces off to school every day, even though she has to get up more than a full hour earlier. She dutifully and cheerfully does her nightly (much more challenging) homework. She tells stories about how funny her teachers are and every day she mentions a new friend. She’s learning new things in new ways and even described her new school as “more like a Learning Camp” than a classroom.

In other words, all signs point to “happy, thriving, learning child.” So, why on earth did I let one grade, her first “C,” totally shift my perception of how she was doing in her new school? (more…)

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