Category: Reflection

New Resources and Future Directions in Competency-Based Education

November 7, 2019 by

The first part of our annual reflection focused on the field’s evolution and where we are now. This second part looks at how our understanding is deepening and future directions for building and strengthening the field of K-12 competency-based education.

How is our understanding deepening?

Seeing competency-based schools in action and hearing about their successes and challenges is deeply illuminating. There are a growing number of schools and districts to learn from about all stages of planning and implementation. Many of these are innovative, newer schools and districts, such as those shown in the image below from our annual strategic reflection webinar. Many more are featured in our summary of blog posts from visits to competency-based schools in 26 states.

Innovative New Schools and Organizations

An impressive array of new reports, books, and other publications have also emerged to deepen our understanding of competency-based education since 2010. New resources from the past two years are shown in the three figures below. If there are publications you think should be added, please email me or mention them in the Comments box below.

New Resources 2018-19, 1 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 2 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 3 of 3

(more…)

Where We Started and Where We Are Now: Reflecting on the Field of Competency-Based Education

November 4, 2019 by

Integrated Arts Academy Student PaintingWith the field of competency-based education growing and changing so quickly, it’s important to step back from time to time and reflect on what we’ve learned, what has changed, and what’s needed next. At the Aurora Institute we see and hear many perspectives on the field from our school visits, research, reading, conferences, policy visits, and other connections with innovators and leaders in the field. All of these views inform a reflection we do annually with our CompetencyWorks Advisory Board.

This blog post shares some of the conclusions of this year’s reflection process. We also conducted a webinar recently with a more detailed discussion of what we learned; you can find the webinar recording and slide deck here.

Where Did We Start and Where Are We Now?

From the outpouring of resources in recent years to guide CBE design and implementation, a newcomer would never know that when CompetencyWorks started ten years ago they could only find one publication on this topic. Now there are hundreds of publications, thousands of blog posts, and schools across the country in all stages of development. They have enabled great increases in the quality, quantity, and understanding of competency-based practice.

The Stages of Development figure below gives an overview of early models and policies that were fundamental in driving the field’s development. The top row focuses on innovations in practice, and this CompetencyWorks blog post from our previous strategic reflection discusses most of the entries there. The new entries under “Scaling Strategies” include support organizations, regional professional learning communities, profile of a graduate, and integrated student supports.

Many organizations are now supporting the scale-up of competency-based practice at the school, district, and state levels. A comprehensive list across the country would be a valuable resource. These organizations have grown in number, influence, and the range and sophistication of services they provide. Their growth reflects the expansion of the field and increased demand for these services. The growth of these organizations has also driven demand, because districts now have more support options than ever before. Expansion of competency-based practice has also been driven by the increased implementation of PLCs, improved student supports, and the number of districts and states that have developed a profile of a graduate. These graduate profiles enable new definitions of student success that align to and support more holistic student learning outcomes.

 

Another development is a revised definition of competency-based education, which the Aurora Institute has worked on in collaboration with dozens of leaders in the field for the past two years. The revised definition will be released by the Aurora Institute in November. It reflects a deeper understanding of key issues and developments in the field since the original definition was developed and published in 2011, after undergoing a similar process of deep discussion among early innovators. It will also include materials to help contextualize and understand the definition, including a set of belief statements, frequently asked questions, common misconceptions, and resources.

The revised 2019 definition also reflects an increased recognition from leaders in the field that addressing inequity in student opportunities and outcomes—a fundamental impetus for competency-based education since its inception—is not happening quickly enough and that greater effort is needed. The revised definition will have a new element that is specifically about equity, and the accompanying belief statements include:

  • Equity is a central goal of advancing competency-based education systems.
  • Communities that aspire to achieve equity must work toward implementing a competency-based education system.
  • Competency-based education is driven by the equity-seeking need to transform our educational system so all students can and will learn through full engagement and support and through authentic, rigorous learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.

(more…)

Conditions for Innovation: The 5 C’s

September 24, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Transcend.

Teacher With Students

How can educators set conditions for innovation?

The longer we (Transcend) engage in the work of reimagining school, the stronger our conviction grows that radical transformation is possible across a wide range of settings—districts, charter, and private; rural, urban, and suburban; and in- and out-of-school.

Our experiences have also taught us that powerful, equitable R&D processes thrive only when strong local conditions are in place. The nature of those local conditions—and how to nurture their growth—are among the most important lessons we’ve learned.

Similar to how trees need good soil to live and grow, we’ve come to understand that extraordinary, equitable learning environments take root under specific circumstances, which we refer to as the 5C’s:

  1. Conviction,
  2. Clarity,
  3. Capacity,
  4. Coalition, and
  5. Culture.

You can download the 5 C’s here.

How to use the 5 C’s framework

The 5 C’s framework is meant to be a living document that individuals and organizations can use to guide the creation of conditions for innovation readiness in their community. To that end, we’ve seen educators and leaders use the 5 C’s in multiple ways, including:

  • Reflection
  • Self-assessment
  • Strategic planning and decision making
  • Professional development
  • Collective action
  • Partnership vetting
  • Vision casting

Origins of the 5 C’s framework

During Transcend’s founding, our team looked at previous attempts to transform antiquated school models. In particular, we looked closely at the Bensenville, Illinois-based New American Schools Project of the early 1990s, as well as more recent efforts to build and scale more personalized models of school, such as Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), XQ Super Schools, Summit Public Schools’ basecamp initiative, and Bellwether’s “U.S. Education Innovation Index: Prototype and Report.”

We learned a number of lessons from the successes and challenges that these efforts experienced. One of the most crucial is that a community’s ability to engage in innovation depends on several crucial factors, including their capacity, internal culture, conviction that change is necessary, clarity on their context, goals, and strategy, and the depth, breadth, and diversity of their coalition for change. In 2016 we codified those lessons in our “5C’s of innovation” and have since used them in the ways described above. We have continued to iterate and improve on our 5C’s framework based on lessons learned from previous years of partnerships with schools and districts. In any situation, we believe that a deep dive and reflective conversations around these conditions  are an important step prior to fully committing to a longer term innovation strategy. (more…)

Structuring Schools to Enable Deep, Student-Centered Learning in Real-World Settings

September 9, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

One of the main pillars of the Big Picture Learning design is deep, authentic student learning in the real world. For more than 20 years, BPL has experienced the power of this approach for increasing equity and deeper learning centered on the student’s talents and passions. In most schools, learning mostly takes place within the school building, and engaging with community partners is uncharted territory. So how can a school go about developing a real-world learning program? As a regional director for Big Picture Learning (and before that a BPL principal and advisor) supporting teachers and school leaders, this has been a major priority of my work. Here are some of the major lessons I’ve learned about what’s needed to make it happen.

Visionary Leadership: There needs to be a leader at the helm who holds deeply to the concept of deep, authentic student learning in the real world. A leader who leads through modeling and works tirelessly with their staff to consistently improve their practice. Why? Unfortunately, our current educational system was built and designed for in-school learning. The focus on standardized tests, daily schedule, course sequence, credits, seat time, and so on was designed to support a particular approach to education. So when a leader attempts to redefine the system by designing real-world learning structures such as an internship program, friction will arise. The gravitational pull on leaders to fit into and return to the old system will be immense, and this will be a true test of a leader’s core values and vision. In the face of this friction and in the eyes of their teachers, the leader will need to remain fully engaged in the problem-solving process to stay true to the vision. In my experience in leading and supporting systemic change, there are no silver bullets, but one thing is essential: a visionary leader who stays true to their core values.

Staffing: When I first became a principal, BPL co-founder Dennis Littky gave me a piece of advice that has served me well through the years. He said, “The single most important decision you will ever make as a leader is selecting the ‘right’ staff member.” Simple, right? As a young administrator, I took heed. But after 10 years as a school administrator, I have experienced first-hand the truth of this statement. I have made many bad decisions as a leader, but nothing has been more difficult than a bad staffing decision. Underperforming staff members can be coached to be better—but fundamentally I can coach skills, but I can’t coach will. In other words, staff mindsets about the work are equivalent to their competencies to learn and do the work. At Big Picture Learning, in order to find the “right” staff member, we developed a list of BPL Advisor Competencies that captures the skills and will needed to appropriately execute on our design.

Another pivotal role to support real-world learning is the Internship Coordinator—the bridge that connects the school with local internship opportunities. Equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit, this staff member will need to survey students about their interests, develop marketing materials for the program, establish internship procedures for students and staff, hit the pavement to reach out to local businesses and community leaders, host informational events to educate the community about the programs, regularly check on mentors and students, and help curate activities to better prepare students for the real world.

Big Picture Learning LogoFor most schools with traditional staff structures, allocating a full-time position to support real-world learning may be difficult. In my last school, our social worker became a half-time social worker and half-time internship coordinator. Although this helped us start our program, we didn’t see the progress or success we were looking for. Finally, I decided to make her a full-time internship coordinator, and for the first time almost 100% of our students were placed in internships just one month into the school year. With her attention focused solely on internships, she was able to commit to building needed infrastructure at the end of the previous school year, expand our internship network over the summer, and solidify internships much sooner in the school year. This was the momentum we needed, and we would not have achieved it without the full-time position. (more…)

What Do You Mean When You Say “Student Agency”?

August 29, 2019 by

Jenny Poon

This article is the first part of a two-part series exploring student agency as it has been defined through decades of research and how we can apply the lessons learned in a culturally-competent frame. It originally appeared at Education Reimagined on September 11, 2018.

What the heck is “student agency”?

Those like me who frequently invoke the phrase don’t always identify it as edu-jargon. If you know what it means, kudos. But, if you try rattling it off around your everyday friends, you may discover blank stares, empty head-nods, or worse, misunderstandings. Even frequent users like me tend to kick up dust around it when we are less intentional with our words.

When trying to explain the concept in layman’s terms, I have used a hodge-podge of half-right descriptions. I might say, “It’s when students take ownership and responsibility for what they learn.” Or sometimes, I have described it as, “When students take an active role in their education rather than having school ‘done to them.’” Whenever someone else defines it as “voice and choice” or “autonomy,” I have nodded my head in agreement without really pausing to wonder if that definition is right.

But, are all these things really the same? My mom-of-a-toddler brain hears “taking responsibility” as if it’s a behavior issue that a solid timeout will solve. “Voice and choice” conjures the meme of the shotgun guy, American flag in hand, fighting for his free will. And, what do we really know about what “active” versus “passive” looks like when it comes to the inner contours of the mind? My off-the-cuff definitions are adding to the noise.

It’s only recently that I’ve become much more disciplined in my use of the term “student agency” and how I apply it. Thanks to a research assignment on behalf of the Center for Innovation in Education’s Assessment for Learning Project, I’ve learned that the term—and related terms, such as “self-regulated learning”—has a rich lineage of researchers and practitioners who have carefully defined it.

Some definitional efforts are relatively new but many are much older. And, meditating on this question—what is “student agency”?—has given me a more sophisticated understanding of what “student agency” really means and how to develop it in students.

First, I should say, there is no broad consensus on the definition of student agency. Many different words are used to describe the concept, and sometimes the same words are used to describe different concepts. That said, by looking across researchers1, practitioners, and other thought leaders2, common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.

From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of “student agency” that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:

  • Setting advantageous goals;
  • Initiating action toward those goals; and
  • Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals.

Several sources also agree on a fourth dimension, that undergirds the others—a belief in self-efficacy. That is, whether one believes they can act with agency actually enhances or diminishes that agency.

For me, this multi-part definition clears the air by allowing me to situate related terms—like voice, choice, and ownership—as valid pieces that fit within a larger whole.

Student Agency Graphic

The four components of “student agency” and some related terminology and skills.

 

 

More importantly, this definition demystifies what it means to seek agency as an outcome for students. It’s not a binary “you have it or you don’t” quality. In Education Reimagined’s lexicon, Learner Agency is the “methodical development of both the capacity and the freedom of learners to exercise choice regarding what is to be learned and to co-create how that learning is to take place” (italics mine). Meaning: educators can work with young people to intentionally and progressively develop each of the four components.

Setting Goals

For example, one can help students become more adept at setting goals. Educators can design pathways of learning that promote students’ awareness of their current strengths and weaknesses relative to a developing sense of where they want to go. They can provide opportunities to practice, self-assess, and receive feedback on specific skills such as forethought, intentionality, and “planful competence.”

Of course, the point isn’t to set goals willy-nilly but to drive toward goals that are advantageous to the student. This is a value statement that calls into question what gets counted as a worthwhile goal and who gets to make that determination. The way we answer these questions has important ramifications on equity—a point I’ll dwell on in the second post in this conversation. (more…)

Reinventing High School: Measuring What Matters Most

July 22, 2019 by

Students in Graduation Gowns and Hats

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Transcript Consortium on June 23, 2019.

“Too many students … experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college,” writes Tony Wagner, a Mastery Transcript Consortium board member and globally recognized voice in education. “There is a better way.”

This month, approximately 3.5 million high school seniors will be granted diplomas. The rest of us will (and should) applaud their achievements, but we must also stop and consider: What did these students have to do to earn their diplomas, and what, exactly, has their schoolwork prepared them for? In 1892, The Committee of Ten, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, created a standardized framework for the high school curriculum that, in turn, dictated essential prerequisites for college admissions. This system requires that students earn between 18 and 24 “Carnegie Units” in order to graduate. A Carnegie Unit is a standardized measure of “seat time served” in a given class — roughly 120 hours of a class over the course of a year. Students’ grades in a particular class are supposed to represent how well they served that time, and students’ grade point average and class rank are taken as measures of how well individuals have performed compared to peers. And these numbers still make up the typical high school transcript, which is required by virtually every college and university in America in order to be considered for admission.

But these measures are more than a century old, and hopelessly obsolete. In this era of innovation, all students need essential skills and dispositions for work, learning, and citizenship—habits of mind and heart that cannot be measured by Carnegie Units. Students who can take initiative, learn through trial and error, collaborate, persist, understand and solve problems through interdisciplinary approaches, and who have strong moral foundations are set up to thrive in the future. The students who are merely good at the “game of school”—those with high grades but without those skills—are not.

If school is a game, then “losing” comes with stark emotional consequences. Too many students in our “best” suburban and independent schools increasingly experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college. Bright and resilient students who receive poor grades or don’t get into the “right” college often see themselves as losers for life. And, as we have seen recently, the college admissions process is even more problematic than we might have imagined. Some parents are going to extreme measures that are harmful to their children and unfair to others.

There is a better way. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC)™ is working with a growing network of nearly 300 public and private member schools to codesign the Mastery Transcript, which takes the high school transcript from a flat, two-dimensional accounting of student time spent on single subjects to an easy-to-read, interactive, digital transcript. It is an effort to change the game by creating an entirely new way to report the quality of student work and their readiness for postsecondary learning—one that is based on real evidence of mastery, rather than a grade or time spent in a particular class.

The new reporting will indicate the skills and knowledge that students have mastered. But it can also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s “fit.” The design will help colleges better understand students’ skill sets and potential to succeed on campus, and allows students to present themselves more authentically to admissions officers. The MTC is still in development; it will be built, refined and tested over the next several years. But the goal is to finally see students’ educational record in clearer focus, and in three dimensions.

(more…)

Personalized Competency-Based Learning: Maybe Not Just for Kids

July 11, 2019 by

VPL Biennale Program CoverIt can be easy and comfortable to assume that our view of the world and the assumptions we make about it are the correct perspectives and others should follow our lead. This thinking can be personal, shared across groups, or even reflected in the policies adopted by whole countries.

Of course, such thinking is narrow and ego-centric. It can also be susceptible to challenge and change, if we are open to exploring and learning from the experiences and views of others. I had one of these experiences recently, and it has led me to think differently about our work with learners and learning. The experience also has expanded my thinking about how we view the potential contributions of informally educated populations, including those who come to our country as immigrants and migrants.

Two months ago I was invited to share the Institute for Personalized Learning’s work to develop the learning skills of young people at an international conference in Berlin, Germany. The conference focused on adult learning that occurs outside of formal systems and is not in pursuit of, or recognized by, diplomas or certificates. Forty countries were represented at the conference, with heavy attendance from western and northern Europe. I was the only attendee from the United States.

The conference, or biennale as it was called, was sponsored by Validating Prior Learning (VPL), an organization made up of a variety of networks, projects, and programs aimed at capturing, documenting, and honoring the growing collection of skills and knowledge gained outside of schools, universities, and training programs, which have historically gone unrecognized.

I was struck by how this group of educators, leaders of nonprofit organizations, governmental agency officers, and community advocates are working to uncover, develop, and honor learning from sources we too often ignore. While aspects of the work are altruistic, it is also driven by economic realities. Several European Union officials who addressed the conference framed the challenge in stark economic terms.

Most striking was the difference in thinking about immigrants and migrants. While the U.S. debates policies to keep people out of our country, other countries are exploring how to capture the knowledge and skills outsiders bring with them. Low birth rates are creating the need to engage workers from other regions and countries to maintain their economies. While the assimilation of immigrants is a serious challenge for many European countries, underutilizing the valuable knowledge and skills of immigrants is no longer acceptable. (more…)

What’s College Like for Students from Mastery-Based High Schools?

April 10, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Mastery Collaborative in New York City. This post originally appeared on the Mastery Collaborative’s website on December 19, 2018.

Photos of four graduates of the Urban Assembly Maker Academy

Four college freshmen who are alums from UA Maker’s first graduating class of 2018 shared about their experience of college so far. From left: Richard attends NYC College of Technology; Jazlyn attends City College; Milam attends Dennison College; Ash attends Allegheny College.

Is mastery learning effective at preparing students for life beyond high school?

What happens when students from a mastery-based high school go to a traditional college?

Students, parents, and educators regularly ask these questions. Four alums from the first graduating class at Urban Assembly Maker Academy gave us their take on all this. They are all currently freshman at different colleges. Jazlyn and Richard are attending school in NYC. Ash attends a school in Pennsylvania, and Milam goes to college in Ohio. Here’s what they told us in a conversation over Thanksgiving break.

Understanding college work:

Ash: “We don’t get rubrics in college, but I have mental rubrics—I break it down in my head: This is what a 1 or a 5 would look like. I’m able to break down assignments into the pieces I need to get done. Having used mastery learning at UA Maker makes it a lot easier to determine what I want out of an assignment, and what the assignment entails—because we don’t get rubrics. A minus for me about attending a traditional college is that the first thing you turn in is the final. You don’t get to redo anything.

“In a mastery school it’s easy to know: This is what I’ve mastered, this is what I’m trying to get out of this assignment, because of rubrics. In college it’s: Get it done, get a good grade. I haven’t gotten anything important out of my (college) classes so far. With mastery classes, I got something out of it that I can use in day-to-day life. The things you’re learning don’t feel useless. (In college) you’re learning because (more…)

In Reflection: The Challenges and Opportunities Before Us

December 13, 2018 by

This article is the final in a three-part series of my final reflections on the field of competency-based education before I depart CompetencyWorks. You can find more about how to move from traditional to modern schools, including a series on what it means to modernize your schools to include competency education, at LearningEdge.

In this final article, I’m going to make some suggestions on what we can do about some of those hand-wringing problems facing us and then wrap up with the opportunities that bring me hand-fluttering excitement.

Facing Up to the Challenges

I honestly don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer when I talk about hand-wringing problems. I just firmly believe that we need to deal with problems that are both emerging and currently facing us, or at least have well-laid plans in hand. Otherwise, they really could be our downfall; the movement will start to dissipate and we’ll have to wait for the next cycle that will re-introduce the ideas of personalized learning and competency-based education under a new name. (more…)

In Reflection: Eight Lessons Learned Over the Past Decade

December 12, 2018 by

This article is the second in a three-part series of my final reflections on the field of competency-based education before I depart CompetencyWorks. You can find more about how to move from traditional to modern schools, including a series on what it means to modernize your schools to include competency education, at LearningEdge.

I feel like I’ve been in “the zone” for eight years. Honestly, I’ve been in the flow that is just as exciting as the crazy high of swimming among 30 whale sharks in the Yucatan. Constantly learning, readjusting the internal framework I use to cluster ideas, checking out new insights to work out whether they are partial, conditional, nuanced, or something that holds generally true. Below are just a few of the big A-HA!s I’ve had over the years. What insights and lessons learned have you had in your work? Wanna share? We all benefit by hearing from each other.

1. Student Agency is Much More Than Voice and Choice (more…)

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