Five Ideas for Building a System of Support

June 18, 2012 by

Over the last few weeks, I have been conducting interviews with national experts who are working to implement competency-based learning in districts across the country.  We have focused in particular on the topic of supportive services in a competency-based environment.  A few common themes have begun to emerge:

  1. Personalized learning requires a deep understanding of each individual learner.  By definition, this will require an assessment of learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, etc.  Every learner’s plan therefore builds in the support that is needed.
  2. “Just in time” support needs to be provided through a menu of options.  These options should become progressively more intensive, but should not require the learner to “fail” multiple times to get the support that they need.
  3. In a competency-based environment, a learner is operating at their “learning edge.”   If all learners are operating at the edge of their ability, all learners will require support, thus taking away the stigma that support is only for students who have “problems.”
  4. Creating a system where everyone is working at his or her “learning edge” requires a culture that models and reinforces a high degree of psychological safety.
  5. For students who have fallen behind, it is important to distinguish “advancing at ones own pace” from learning or social/emotional barriers that need to be addressed.

The discussions regarding the relationship between supportive services and competency-based learning reminds me of the work that has been done in areas such as Universal Design for Learning, Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.  Good teaching – where learners have agency, are active and engaged solves a high percentage of challenges that may have previously fallen into the “intervention” category.  We must take care, however that we do not mask the need for supportive services within the framework of self-paced and personalized learning.

About the Author

Laura Shubilla is currently pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Prior to entering Harvard in 2011, Laura served as Co-President and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving educational and economic outcomes for youth. Prior to coming to Philadelphia, Laura developed and opened one of the earliest New Visions High Schools, Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx.

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  1. Comment by Josh Griffith 9:06 pm, June 20, 2012

    Love the focus on personalized learning. A question that popped in my head as I was reading was: what systems are there to notify teachers when a student needs more support?
    If students are all proceeding at their pace then they will all be at different places making it much more difficult to see who is struggling if they are unwilling to talk to, or ask for help from a teacher. This emphasizes the importance further of students feeling safe in their learning environment. Loved the read, thank you.

  2. Comment by Laura Shubilla 11:48 pm, June 20, 2012

    Thank you for your comment. I too wonder how we allow learners to progress at their own pace without ignoring learning needs or creating different sets of expectations for different students given where they are on their personal learning trajectory. Ongoing formative assessments seem to be part of the answer as long as those assessments lead to learning support, especially when foundational skills are lacking. I think that another part of the answer is transparency and being forthright with students on the implications of pacing and meeting, or not meeting certain standards. While technology is a part of the answer, personalized learning also means building relationships and engaging in dialogue that support risk-taking and reaching out for support. I am curious where you or others have seen success or challenges in your work in this area. Thanks!

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