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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Ten Cornerstones of Cognitive Learning Sciences

January 18, 2018 by

I’ve read and read. Trying to understand the basics of the research from the sciences of learning. Trying to integrate the research from the cognitive with the emotional domains. Trying to understand the path from research on how children, teens, and adults learn to specific practices and strategies educators can use in school design, instruction, learning activities, and assessing student learning.

One of the best sources I’ve found for understanding the cognitive and motivational domains is the Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice published by OECD. In this article and the next, I’ll walk you through some of the highlights.

I’d probably skip the first chapter – you’ve heard it all before why change is needed. Chapter two offers a helpful review of the historical development of educational theory. For my own learning, the real value of the paper started in chapter three with these ten cornerstone findings of cognitive research:

1. Learning is an activity carried out by the learner. Teachers can’t just deliver curriculum and hope it sinks in. The trick is how to get learners to want to learn, to know how to learn, and to be mentally active. Then when teachers introduce new concepts and processes, the learners are ready to tackle it. Strategies to build make connections, student agency, motivation and engagement are all important.Teachers need to have content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge based on how students learn.

2. Optimal learning takes prior knowledge into account. Every educator knows this. However, it’s very hard to address if there is a push to cover the curriculum in preparation for tests. One big step of “meeting students where they are” is knowing where students are in terms of prior knowledge and helping them to move from there to the next step. Mistakes are important to help identify prior knowledge (and prior misconceptions). We have to ask ourselves, if we know this is important, why are we pushing so hard to cover the curriculum?

3. Learning requires the integration of knowledge structures. Children are getting information and ideas from all over the place, not just the classroom. They may be making sense of it in their own way, or it may just feel like a cluttered closet. One of the jobs of educators is to help them organize knowledge within domains and across domains. There are lots of implications for educational practice, but two jump out at me. First, competencies can be used to organize domain structures to have meaning. That’s what New Hampshire tried to do with their graduation competencies. Standards are just too small to be organizing structures. Second, interdisciplinary learning is important and schools need to be organized to support it. It’s likely that our domain silos, which often get more rigid in high school, are constraining learning.

4. Optimally, learning balances the acquisition of concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive competence. Next time someone argues that facts are all they care about and we shouldn’t be teaching concepts and meta-cognitive skills, it’s worth reminding them that if facts matter, we should turn to the facts of cognitive research. Understanding one of these without the others leaves students vulnerable when dealing with real problems in the real world. If you don’t have deep understanding of the concept, how do you know which process to use? If you can’t take a step back and see how you are dealing with a problem, how do you figure out what you need to change your behavior or build your knowledge to learn it? Being competent to take on the challenges of college and careers means having all three: concepts, skills, and meta-cognitive skills. (more…)

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Meeting Students Where They Are so that Everyone Masters Learning


This is the twelfth post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

As we move toward the design of second generation competency-based models, there is an opportunity to anchor student learning and achievement in expansive, adaptable, and developmentally appropriate learning and development trajectories informed by the learning sciences. If we are to meet all students where they are, then our commitment must be not only to an uncompromising vision for high achievement — and in practical terms, this means college and career readiness — but also to the daily work of responding to students’ individual needs in a way that fosters optimal growth.

If a competency-based system is designed to ensure that every student is learning and making progress towards the skills and knowledge for lifelong learning and preparation for college and careers, what do schools need to do in order for this to happen? They are going to have to learn how to meet students where they are — not just academically but in terms of their full development. This means knowing where students are in terms of academic performance levels, cultivating a growth mindset and social-emotional skills that shape how well students can stay engaged when learning is challenging, and cultivating the interests and topics that will ignite their motivation. Using a holistic lens to understand where students are and how to help them grow is clearly a complex process. The ideas offered in this blog are insights into this important activity and will require continued exploration and research.

The approach typically used in traditional systems is focused on exposing students to academic content with the content and duration of exposure determined by a student’s grade-level subject and at a pace designed to cover everything by end of year. As described earlier, students are then passed on to the next grade level regardless if they learned the content or not. As a result, students in a traditional system have vastly differing skills, knowledge of the content, and varied abilities to apply that knowledge in different contexts.

There is ample evidence that under these circumstances, the odds are stacked against significant numbers of students being able to access and master what they need when they need it because the learning experiences available to students may — but often do not — fall inside their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Students with skills above grade level may also disengage from boredom when they aren’t able to work in their ZPD. For example, the “reading” ZPD for an eleven-year-old who struggles with decoding is radically different from one who is flying through a Shakespearean play. Yet, they might both be in a sixth grade ELA class which is focused on summarizing a sixth grade text. In this way, their efforts to develop as readers becomes artificially constrained by the classroom learning experiences available to them: neither the student who needs to “reach back” to learn missed skills or content, nor the student who can “reach forward” due to already-mastered skills and knowledge, have access to the support they need within their ZPD. (more…)

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A Big District Strategy for Implementing Competency-Based Education

January 17, 2018 by

Commitment counts. It seems to make a difference when school boards and district/school leadership make a commitment to the vision of a more equitable education system where all students are successfully prepared for their next step (i.e., advancing based on mastery) before they begin the process of piloting or implementation.

However, that’s not always going to be possible especially for larger districts. It is much more difficult to engage the broader community and build the consensus needed for the commitment in larger communities. There are just too many people to bring together into one room or around one table. Furthermore, we don’t believe that competency-based education can be effectively implemented as a top-down, memo-driven approach. It requires building trust and engaging in dialogue for everyone to clarify values, understand how the traditional system reproduces inequity and low achievement, and understand the implications of research in the day to day operations of schools.

New York City’s Mastery Collaborative (see the video about its work) offers an option for larger districts to move forward without commitment from the top leadership. The Mastery Collaborative is a voluntary network of schools that have chosen to move to mastery-based learning. At my last count, they had approximately 10 percent of the high schools in the network.

In their continuous improvement efforts, the Mastery Collaborative has recently updated their implementation framework. (See below). The framework includes conditions for success, schoolwide shifts, classroom shifts, and the role of teachers in facilitating learning. It can be easily be placed into a rubric to allow schools to reflect on where they are in their process and identify areas they want to target for improvement.

2017-18 Mastery Collaborative Implementation Framework 2


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Creating a Peer Coaching Program to Grow Student-Centered Learning (Part 2)

January 16, 2018 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center on January 2, 2018. Read Part 1 here.

Mary Bellavance

In part I of this three-part series, I wrote about how Maine’s Biddeford School District created a peer coaching program to support our teachers as they spread a student-centered learning model across the district. Part II shares three of the most important lessons from the experience.

Develop a plan that is closely aligned to your district’s goals

  • Does your district have a strategic plan (or even just a set of well-defined goals) to help implement student-centered learning over a five-to seven-year timeframe? If so, it will help all stakeholders stay focused on the peer coaching steps necessary to help reach this goal. If not, Douglas Reeves offers recommendations in his book Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results. Reeves addresses how to create the conditions for change, then plan, implement and sustain it.
  • Also, make sure you are clear about your goals for a peer coaching initiative and how those goals connect with the district’s ambitions for student-centered learning.

Ensure leadership support

  • District and school-based leadership support are critical to the success of a peer coaching project. Make sure you have someone to coordinate the peer coach meetings and trainings and to communicate these efforts to the building principals/school leaders.
  • School leaders can help grow the culture for peer coaching by encouraging a culture of risk-taking and collaboration among staff through example and “messaging” in newsletters and other staff communication. Make sure staff understand that there is no connection between peer coaching and teacher evaluation and that coaching is a confidential process.


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Practicing What They Preach: Micro-Credentialing at Kettle Moraine

January 15, 2018 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the eighth in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Kettle Moraine School District (KM) is practicing what they preach. If one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for students, why would we think it would work for teacher professional development?

KM is embedding personalized learning throughout their organization. (Reminder: In Wisconsin, personalized learning has three core elements: learner profiles, customized learning plans, and proficiency-based progression.) With the support of the school board, they have organized learning for adults the same way they do for students in the personalized learning campuses. As one of the district team members explained, “Micro-credentials are about embedding design thinking and research into the professional lives of teachers. But it doesn’t stop with just knowing. The important step is implementing it with classroom.”

Here’s how it works: Teachers develop and submit learning plans that indicate the specific skills they want to develop. Educators can choose from micro-credentials offered through the district, select ones available through the partnership with Digital Promise, or suggest ones of their own making, thus ensuring they can meet their various needs. Teachers build the skills, apply them in their classrooms, and then submit artifacts of their learning for approval of their skill. Artifacts might include teacher self-reflection or student work. A panel of their peers reviews the artifacts submitted and award the micro-credential. After receiving a micro-credential, teachers are awarded an increase in their base salary.

Although interest in micro-credentialing is high, the interest in linking it to teacher pay is not. When Wisconsin state legislature passed Act 10 that limited collective bargaining to wages, KM was able to design a strategy to link learning with teachers’ base salary. As teachers earn micro-credentials, it increases their base salary from anywhere between $100 and $600. Patricia DeKlotz, Superintendent, explained, “If districts are going to fully transform schools, we need to make sure everything we do is aligned with our strategic goals. We need to support our teachers in a way that allows them to become familiar with personalized learning and to build the skills to effectively implement personalized learning strategies.” To date, KM may be the only district that has fully linked their micro-credential professional learning strategy to teacher salary.   (more…)

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Moving Forward with the Science of Learning

January 11, 2018 by

Deadlines do matter. They get us to focus our attention to put in the time and effort to learn something. They help us learn time management because we uncover more about our own patterns of learning, both cognitive and social & emotional.

As you probably know, I’ve been puttering along in my learning about the science of learning (SoL). However, a national meeting on the topic has forced me to actually stop the review process and move into the mode of “What do I Think?” about the SoL and what it means for our schools, educators, and learners.

Here are a few high level thoughts about the SoL:

1. There is an extraordinary amount of agreement about the science of learning. Although I’m sure as you get down into the weeds there are plenty of healthy debates going on, educators should be confident going forward. This isn’t just the newest idea developed by a foundation that will get a lot of attention and then fade away. It is solid research, there is agreement in the field, and it has huge implications.

2. The field of SoL hasn’t fully integrated the research. The cognitive research is often described separately from the research on the motivational and social & emotional aspects of learning. This can give one cognitive overload trying to make sense of it all. There needs to be another round of work making the research more accessible.

3. There is a chance of focusing on one piece of the SoL without understanding the risk. When you read the SoL, it will often emphasize the limitations of the working memory. It’s a very narrow door from working memory into long-term memory, and we need to learn to manage it. However, if the cognitive research is all you focus on then you get very specific practices including chunking (they’ve made that a formal word in the world of cognitive sciences), spacing, practice until it becomes routine, and other strategies to move into long-term memory. Of course, you also can think about retrieval strategies to pull information out of long-term memory as well.

It’s truly very important to help students develop routine expertise so they can use their working memory in other ways and don’t have to expend it on addition or sounding out a word. However, the research on social & emotional learning is equally as important to consider. School norms, creating a safe environment through culturally responsive strategies, helping students build social & emotional skills and meta-cognitive skills so they can manage their attention, and structuring schools around building incredibly warm, consistent relationships will all help with reducing the amount of noise in working memory. (more…)

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An Equity Framework for Competency-Based Education


This is the eleventh post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

An equitable educational system starts with a commitment to quality and excellence, is designed to personalize learning and embeds strong equity strategies into the core of the organization. This blog offers a framework for how states, districts and schools can develop an equity agenda within their competency-based systems.

The framework offers the following set of Equity Principles that can be use to create and embed equity strategies within personalized, competency-based systems.

For each principle, we then offer reflection questions to generate discussion, guide reflection and trigger capacity building:



In what ways does the school culture promote a growth mindset, build trust and inclusivity?

The culture of schools is designed so that all students and adults, especially the most marginalized, feel safe and respected and can build trusting relationships that enable direct and productive feedback. Adults regularly experience and share their own learning and model a growth mindset for students. Students unfamiliar with a school’s dominant culture may lack fluency in the social cues and language that educators use to interpret students’ readiness for learning. Acknowledging the existence of a dominant culture is important in order to open dialogue regarding student communication and engagement.  (more…)

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A Growing Movement: Behind the Shift to Competency-Based Diplomas

January 10, 2018 by

Why We Must Reconsider the High School Diploma

By at least one important metric, American education appears to be making progress. Our high school students are graduating at record rates, and the numbers have been steadily climbing in recent years.[i] However, behind this veil of graduation rates,[1] abundant evidence reveals that we still have a lot of work to do. Compared globally, the US still ranks in the bottom half of the industrialized world in graduation rates, and a sizeable attainment gap persists between whites and minorities.[ii] Among those who do graduate high school and enroll in postsecondary education, nearly half require remedial coursework.[iii] As a result, our college completion rates are alarmingly low—especially for minorities.[2] In fact, only 9.5% of students requiring remedial reading coursework in community colleges leave with a degree, while only 35% in four-year colleges graduate.[iv]

These results pose an especially dire forecast when one considers the increasing importance of postsecondary education. As Jobs for the Future adeptly noted in its 2017 recommendations for the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, “[t]here is a dire need for skilled workers and mounting evidence that postsecondary education has a direct impact on earnings. The shifting needs of the current economy make it clear that to attain real upward mobility, workers will need to be equipped with the education and skills that make them of high value to employers and able to adapt to changes in the workplace.[v]” It is likely the absence of the necessary training and skills that leads two thirds of hiring managers to say they cannot find qualified workers to fill even middle-skills jobs.[vi]

If we are to break the cycle of poverty, particularly among our minority communities, and if we are to ensure the economic welfare of our nation, the American education system must do something about our college matriculation and remediation rates. States and districts must find solutions to ensure that kids are prepared to succeed when they leave high school and not hamstrung with an unemployable skillset.

One such solution that many states are exploring is the competency-based diploma. Though policies differ among the states, competency-based diplomas (sometimes referred to as proficiency-based diplomas) typically discard traditional graduation credit requirements that rely heavily on the number of hours students spend in the classroom, instead requiring that students demonstrate certain competencies before earning credit for a course. Thus, competency-based diplomas create an advantage in that they inherently require individualized attention to each student’s mastery of standards, and they guard against time-based promotion. Only by ensuring that each student truly ascertains the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for postsecondary success can we improve college and career readiness.

The Movement for Competency-Based Diplomas

So, which states are shifting towards competency-based diplomas? To date, most states actually have laws allowing districts to issue competency-based diplomas, either by submitting a detailed proposal for a competency-based system to the state or by taking part in a state program in which districts can pilot a competency-based diploma. However, six states are taking the policy a step further and uniformly requiring that at least some portion of graduation requirements include the demonstration of proficiency for credit. Among those six states, two distinct approaches to the competency-based diploma have surfaced: a few states have fully proficiency-based graduation requirements, and a few have partially proficiency-based requirements. (more…)

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