Category: Reflection

Making Sense of the Learning Sciences

October 24, 2017 by

I’ve been spending a year reading about the cognitive learning sciences and also about John Hattie’s work to review the effect of different strategies. Even with Bror Saxberg’s coaching (for which I’m deeply grateful), it’s been slow going for me, as I started with a pretty blank slate. I was also simply stuck. I was learning and my familiarity with the high level findings was growing, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply it. I was simply having difficulty making meaning for my work at CompetencyWorks because so much of the power of the cognitive learning sciences impacts practices of the teacher at a much more granular level than I encounter on my three- to five-hour school visits.

I had two breakthroughs recently, and now connections are being easily made. First, when reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I realized that his exploration of different systems of thinking, with System 1 operating automatically and involuntarily and System 2 operating with deliberation and reasoning, opens a door for us to challenge the bias that we bring into our work and our relationships. It opens the door for us to be more cognizant of the types of bias and how they impact the learning lives of children in our schools. Perhaps we can use the learning sciences to cleanse ourselves and our schools of bias.

Second, as we think about the competency-based cultures, structures, and pedagogical philosophy (one of which is that teaching should be grounded in the learning sciences), it’s important for us to test out how districts and schools are supporting teachers to use the cognitive learning sciences as well as those that influence engagement and motivation. In other words, what are the structures and reinforcements that make it easy for teachers to use the learning sciences, and are there ways in which districts and schools are creating obstacles that we should address?

To get started, I’ll turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning, by far the easiest summary out there. Let’s look at one of the three principles under How Do Students Understand New Ideas?

Cognitive Principle: Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?” (more…)

Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Lessons Learned

August 25, 2017 by

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

In this third post on our annual strategic reflection, the focus will be on how our understanding of competency education is deepening (i.e., lessons learned). Click here for the discussion on our progress and the growing number of organizations and literature in the field. You can hear the entire webinar on this topic here.

When it comes to competency education, everyone is learning. Below are just a few of the areas around which our learning has been deepening over the past year. We are very interested in what you are learning. Please leave comments or consider writing an article on three things you learned about competency education this year. 

1. Developing diverse leadership requires intentionality and changes in practice and processes. As a field, we got off to a bad start in terms of diversity with way too many meetings and panels that were filled with white people relatively comfortable with the fact that we were missing critical expertise and perspectives. At CompetencyWorks, we’ve been working hard to correct that situation, including ensuring that the Summit reflected the beautiful diversity of America. We surpassed our goals and learned a lot along the way. To sum it up – we had to change our processes and had to keep the commitment to diversity front and center in our decision-making. I’ll write more about this later.

2. Invest in building the culture as much as the structure. Agency and empowerment matter. We’ve known the culture of competency education is important. I used to call it the spirit of CBE. At the Summit, there was consensus in the group working on the issues related to quality that we can build a perfect technical CBE structure, but if it is rooted in the traditional culture, there is no reason to believe that there will be changes. Thus, CBE is both a cultural and structural transformation (and still requires effective instruction, by the way!). We will now start thinking and learning about what really goes into this culture and how schools are making the cultural shift. One thing we know is that it requires a commitment to equity and inclusivity.

3. We need to be able to directly confront the institutional practices and bias that leads to inequity. During the Summit process, we did a lot of research on equity, and the participatory Technical Advisory Group process introduced us to even more. We realized that you can design for a more fair system but it requires more than that. First, we have to make sure we are drawing from all the research on how to best serve students who have been historically underserved into the core instructional practices, not as add-ons. Second, it’s not just about doing the right thing. We also have to dig out the problematic practices in the institutions and be upfront that we all have biases that shape our behaviors and decisions. By committing to air out biases, we can engage in conversations that don’t have to be colored by shame, but by the shared exhilaration of working together against racism and other isms.

4. Pedagogy first – if there is a shared understanding of the principles of learning and teaching based on the learning sciences, every part of implementation will go easier. As I wrote in the paper Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems, schools that convert to competency education begin to focus on aligning and improving instruction, learning experiences (curriculum), and assessment soon after they build a shared and transparent continuum of learning. However, we have discovered that some schools clarify their pedagogy – creating a shared understanding of the principles of teaching and learning based on learning sciences (including engagement and motivation) – before they convert to competency education. They begin the commitment to doing what is best for kids by leading with instruction and assessment – the core function of schools. It’s much easier to understand and value CBE when the district or school shares the commitment to doing what is best for kids in the classroom. (more…)

Reflecting on The Field of Competency Education: Where We Started and Where We Are Now

August 22, 2017 by

Every summer, the CompetencyWorks team and our advisors reflect on the progress that is being made and the emerging issues that we see developing. This helps us know where to focus our attention in our daily work, and it is a leadership opportunity for all of us to hear from others from around the country and different perspectives about how competency education is advancing.

This article highlights some of the areas of our reflection and will accompany today’s webinar Competency Education: A Reflection on the Field and Future Directions. For those of you completely new to competency education, you might want to glance at What is Competency Education? as a starting point.

Where We Started and Where We Are Now

There are different starting points for how we tell the story of where we started. Several valuable reports provide slightly different starting points and critical stepping stones, although almost everyone will recognize Benjamin Bloom’s contribution. It would actually be an interesting project to talk to leading innovators and find out the key advances in education they are building upon. For those of you interested, I suggest the following reports to learn more about the foundation for competency-based education:

At CompetencyWorks, our understanding of competency education is that it is a transformation of culture and structure. It is best approached as a district reform to enable students to have the fullest support no matter where they are on the learning continuum, from kindergarten on up to college level. The commitment to all students successfully learning the skills they will need for college, career, and life also requires a strong commitment from leadership – both school board and district level. However, there are many examples of schools within traditional districts being able to implement in a way that is highly meaningful even though there may be some limitations and work-arounds.

Thus, our starting point of competency education often begins in the mid-1990s, where, on one coast, innovators in Chugach School District were transforming their schools in response to Native Alaskan communities demanding that their children be educated. On the other side of the country, innovators were developing Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy to re-engage students by focusing on learning and skill-building, not simply accruing credits.

Since then, there have been stages of development – of practice and of policy. The most important thing to remember is that, as a movement, competency education has been educator-developed and educator-driven. For example, the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, a collaboration of districts, helped to catalyze change in Maine. Lindsay Unified, one of our lighthouse districts that continues to develop and refine their model, launched their transformation in a state that has made no effort to create innovation space. In the past five years, investments have often been directed toward creating new models, including Next Generation Learning Challenges, Opportunity by Design, and XQ schools. Some of the grantees have been intentionally competency-based, while we are seeing some schools inch their way in that direction.

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Competency Education and the Complicated Task of Communicating

August 17, 2017 by

Did you see that competency education (the same as mastery-based education) was mentioned in the New York Times? In some ways it is a very helpful article to introduce people to the idea of competency education, highlighting students taking ownership, students engaging more, the opportunity for students to really learn or master the skills and content before moving on, and the focus on growth.

Yet the article also includes examples of the difficulty we are facing in communicating what competency education is about, what it means to have a high quality competency-based school, and the noise from some of the critics. Below is a sample of the conversation I had with the author (in my mind, of course) while reading the article.

Instruction

One of the issues we are facing is that although competency education is primarily a cultural and structural shift, it also has implications for instruction. We know that instruction matters – it matters a lot. You can have strong instructional practices or weak instructional practices in a school. You can have some teachers with strong professional knowledge or some with weak professional knowledge in a school.

What competency education does is creates a structure by which teachers are talking with each other about what it means to have a student become proficient, aligning their assessments and instructional strategies, and exploring what is working and what isn’t working to help each and every student reach proficiency. Competency education, when well implemented, should be igniting the professional learning of the educators.

Competency education does introduce a few important implications for instruction and assessment:

  • Students need to be active learners with opportunity to apply their learning to new contexts (this is what makes it about competencies and not just standards). This means there also need to be assessment strategies that assess students at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (i.e., performance-based assessment).
  • Instructional strategies need to meet students where they are. Yes, we want to think about grade level standards AND we want to think about where students’ performance levels are and where they have gaps. Then using their professional knowledge and taking into consideration the needs of other students and resources, educators work with students to develop strategies that will help them progress.
  • To the degree possible, summative assessments should be aligned with the depth of knowledge and the learning goals of the students. This may mean organizing assessments to be “just-in-time” with students bringing forward evidence of their learning. A student who has completed a unit at the beginning of the week and believes they have fully learned the material shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the month to move on to higher level work. In other learning experiences, there is going to be value in students working on a large project all with the same due date. But when the curriculum can be organized into more modular units, it opens the door to more flexibility for students.

When I see something like “students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers” I get worried that either the school isn’t offering enough applied learning opportunities or we aren’t communicating what is happening instructionally in the classroom. First of all, students should know where they are on their own learning paths. Second, teachers are offering instruction through several methods, including individual and small groups, online videos they have made, or perhaps online instruction. In most, most but not all, of the classrooms I have visited, students talk about the use of online adaptive programs as how they practice. Most will say they prefer to learn about new material from their teacher or from a video their teacher made. Third, there will often be choices about how students practice and then demonstrate their learning. Worksheets might be one of them, and I’ve seen students playing games to practice and build math and vocabulary fluency, working on projects, writing essays, and engaging in large, inquiry-based projects that will wrap-up with a presentation. (more…)

National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education

June 29, 2017 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

I’m still processing. I find myself waking up several times a night with my brain spinning through conversations and the notes from the Summit. Here are just two of my personal reflections on the Summit. There will be more to come as I work through all of the notes.

Who is in the Room Matters

In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens.” In advancing any social or education effort, there are many rooms where vision, ideas, goals, and strategies are shaped. In the world of competency education (like many other fields), the people in the rooms have often been all or mostly white. We were super-intentional and goal-oriented in how we planned the Summit to bring in four types of diversity – regional, perspective (teacher to national), expertise, and racial & ethnic. The mix of knowledge in the room was extraordinary, with participants actively listening to stretch across their own perspectives.

In terms of the mix based on race & ethnicity, the first Summit was about 95 percent white. The second one was 59 percent. In order to do this, we had to learn to approach the criteria and process of inviting people as well as the agenda differently. We took a “diversity lens” to just about every decision – what is the impact, how would others interpret, feel, and engage. It all paid off – so I was told by many of the participants. It shaped not only the ideas that were introduced, but the comfort of pushing us forward in thinking about what it means to have equity as the core of competency education.

We all want to be in the room where it happens. What I’ve come to realize is that it really matters who is in the room. Yes, we want people who have power and influence in the room in order to commit to making things happen. But unless we have the right mix of people, it’s likely that we are not going to make the best decisions about what will happen.

What is Competency Education?

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Beware of AnythingGoes-Ness and Bandwagonitis

May 25, 2017 by

It’s very clear to me that we, the field of competency education, are at a turning point in many ways. First, we have reached a place where there are lots of different organizations with enough knowledge about competency education that we are seeing very valuable reports and articles with important insights. (Just in the past week, three reports/articles were released that are worth taking the time to read, as they give a sense of some of the expansion and challenges: Competency-Based Education: Staying Shallow or Going Deep?; Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape; and Why There’s Little Consistency in Defining Competency-Based Education.) There are other organizations – other than CompetencyWorks, that is – that are identifying and lifting up new innovators and new practices. We’ve worked hard over the past five years to support organizations and our colleagues so that whatever knowledge we were building was being transferred and embedded into other organizations. And I can really feel that it is paying off because I’m finding that I need to put time aside now to read, not just skim, many of the things being published because they are enhancing my understanding.

Second, the field is expanding at a steady pace, and with that comes a variety of new challenges. For a while, competency education was under the radar. The folks who knew about it were all leaders who had come to the same conclusion that we weren’t going to move forward if we were handcuffed to the ranking and sorting of the traditional system. Then there was growing attention as states began to introduce the idea in their innovation zones and to take the concept of college and career readiness a step further with the idea that credits and diplomas actually had to have meaning (i.e., proficiency-based diplomas). However, we are now nearing what I used to call the “fad” stage when I was a foundation program officer: People are hearing about competency education from different organizations and feel that they may want, should, or need to get on the bandwagon. In some ways, of course, this is great news but it also carries a number of new problems: (more…)

When Young People Had a Vote in Decisions about Their Own Programs

April 12, 2017 by

Although this reflection by AYPF’s Board Chair, Tony Sarmiento (first posted at AYPF on March 13, 2017), isn’t related to competency-based education, I think it is an extraordinary piece that allows us to learn from our elders to better respect our children and youth. As we open up what is possible in competency-based education with transparent continuums of learning, we also open up new doors to how we construct education. In re-posting this article, I’m not suggesting that we should run directly to created markets. I’m saying that we should look backwards and forwards to organize the very best of what we know works best for young people to engage, motivate, and support students. Listening to them and creating formal ways to guide them is always a strong first step.

Happy reading! – Chris

Tony Sarmiento, AYPF Board Chair

As I near retirement after working with older adults for nearly two decades, I was recently honored in a surprise reunion with former co-workers from almost fifty years ago, when we worked together at a neighborhood youth center in upper Northwest Washington, DC. While we shared hazy memories of dances, basketball games, and other typical summer youth center activities, all of us recalled fond and detailed memories of the youth center director, Pat McDonough, who in his late-20s hired, supervised, and inspired us. None of us had been in regular contact with Pat before his death a few years ago, but all of us acknowledged his lasting impact on our careers and lives.

The reunion reminded me of my employment during the War on Poverty as a youth worker in several of my home city’s neighborhoods. At that time, an official goal of the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was to insure youth involvement in planning, operating, and evaluating youth programs. This was consistent with the larger goal of “maximum feasible participation” by the community in all OEO programs. As stated in an official OEO Instruction, “Youth Development Program Policies,” (February 1970):

Every Community Action Agency and Delegate Agency must insure active youth involvement in all phases of its Youth Development Program. Applications which do not reflect this commitment will not be funded. (as underlined in the original)]In the District of Columbia, this mandate for youth involvement was achieved by partitioning the city into twenty Neighborhood Planning Councils (NPCs), which were administered by then-Mayor Walter Washington’s Office of Youth Opportunity Services (OYOS). Each NPC was governed by ten adults and ten youth (between 14-21 years old) elected in community elections. Every year, each of the twenty councils was responsible for developing, debating, and voting on their community’s year-round youth programs and program budgets, based on funding made available by OYOS. OYOS also provided technical assistance to the councils and monitored their compliance with OEO regulations.

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With Much Sadness We Remember Diane Smith

December 9, 2016 by
Smith Diane

Diane Smith, Jan. 28, 1950 – Nov. 30, 2016

We lost Diane Smith recently, and the world feels very different. Diane was the Teaching & Learning Initiative Director at Oregon’s Business Education Compact, author of It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning and a valuable member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board. Her death came as a shock to all of us who cared for her, respected her, and were inspired by her never-ending enthusiasm to advance proficiency-based learning.

In preparing to write this tribute, Susan Patrick reminded me that we often turn to one of Diane’s statements, “Performance or competency based learning is fundamental to personalizing learning at scale and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system.” That fact that we were forging into such new territory didn’t bother Diane at all. In fact she found it enthralling – she was simply an adventurer.

There is a passage in her obituary that I want to share with you, as I think it captures Diane’s entrepreneurial spirit perfectly:

Diane didn’t believe we needed to think outside the box with respect to educational reform, but rather asked attendees of her trainings, “what box?” She radiated joy and possibility that was contagious.

By now, you hopefully have a smile on your face thinking about her enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

Here are a few more memories of Diane from our colleagues:

I remember meeting Diane Smith and being amazed at the level of commitment and the span of influence of her work in competency education. She was an ardent supporter of examining systems change for competency-based pathways in partnership with local school systems and the state. Diane Smith was an early leader championing the need to move from a time-based system toward one that ensures mastery. She helped launch, drive, and support the work in Oregon over decades of sustained leadership. She was dedicated, passionate, and selfless with furthering the cause to ensure every student had the full range of knowledge and skills mastered for future success. She was kind and generously shared her knowledge broadly across the United States, taking lessons learned in Oregon with the state and with districts and working with others across the country to provide a pathway forward. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues and friends. – Susan Patrick, iNACOL, President and CEO

The world of competency education has lost one of its original innovators. Diane Smith, dear friend of Sandra Dop and I, died suddenly recently. Diane championed the work of teachers across the state of Oregon, creating models for all of us to follow. Sandra Dop, Diane and I were on speed dial with each other. Whether in a high level policy meeting, working with teachers, or having a problem presented to us, we knew we could count on each other at a moments notice. We valued our time together at national meetings and conferences. Whether sharing our love of Hallmark Christmas movies or helping to shape this new world of competency education as Coast to Coast pals, Sandra and I are honored to have called her friend. – Rose Colby, competency education consultant

With Diane’s passing I have lost a dear friend and colleague. Her work on personalized, proficiency-based education was an inspiration and a guide as we started personalized, competency-based education in Iowa.  As some of the early ones involved, we had few to call for help or just to talk through something. Rose Colby, Diane, and I called those calls the Coast to Coast Conversations. We called, texted, emailed anytime day or night and usually a response was there within the hour. We will miss you, Diane. Eventually that Coast to Coast will fill in as others join the movement, and those of us at the beginning of the journey will remember your dedication to the cause. Rest in Peace. Thanks for your friendship and hospitality–for the tour of schools in Oregon and the conference memories. – Sandra Dop, former consultant on competency education to Iowa Department of Education

Diane was always generous with her time and knowledge as an expert source as well as a mentor in providing tremendous encouragement and support for tackling issues in how to approach proficiency based learning and teaching. – Liz Glowa, consultant and author of Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning

Diane’s combination of professionalism and warmness permeated every room she was in. She could engage people in a conversation with ease and make them feel as though they had known each other for years, even if they just met. Her dedication to the students and teachers of Oregon was evident in the way her eyes lit up when she talked about her work. I will miss her kindness, and I will always be thankful for her partnership. – Anne Olson, Director of State Advocacy, KnowledgeWorks

Donations may be made in Diane’s honor by visiting www.AlbanyPublicSchoolsFoundation.org or calling 541-979-2773. Your condolences for the family may be posted online at www.fisherfuneralhome.com.

Please, it helps all of us to remember her. We hope you will share your memories in the comments below.

Diane, we are missing you.

#iNACOL16 Day Four Learnings on the Run

November 3, 2016 by
jim-rickabaugh

Jim Rickabaugh

Resetting the Classroom Power Dynamics: Every person I’ve met from WI is so visionary, so creative, so dedicated to figuring things out systemically. Every time I get a few minutes with Jim Rickabaugh, previously the director of the Personalized Learning Institute at CESA#1 (he’s still involved as an advisor — Ryan Krohn is now the director), I feel like he opens up door after door of insights. Here are a few:

  • Different Pathways: We aren’t ready to commit to one model or one best way of implementation. Our work in personalized, competency-based education isn’t mature yet. We may discover that there are very different pathways.
  • Learning Leaders: We focus too much on instruction and instructional leaders. We want our focus to be on learning and leaders who manage learning. “Learning leaders” have to think about the whole school, the entire learning environment, and what students are learning beyond school.
  • Learning Targets and Beyond: When we focus only on specific assessments, we are asking the question, “Did you learn this or that?” However, if there is robust, inquiry-based or “deeper” learning, then we should also ask the more open question, “What did you learn?” A good caution for us – we want to be intentional and we want to include learning beyond the anticipated. Deeper learning positions us to learn more about our own learning and to be generative in our learning.
  • Do Students Feel they Belong?: Disciplinary rates are an indicator of how engaged students are and how much they feel that they belong (in other words, how inclusive the school is). Robust personalized learning in a competency-based environment should be resetting the power dynamics in a school and in the classroom. In traditional schools, sanctions are compliance-based. In PL/CBE, our goal is to help students to commit to their own learning. So if students are resistant to power, then there is something going on and we need to listen to the students. When there is nothing to fight or resist against, because the goal is for you to take ownership of your own learning, then there is some other pain that needs our attention. Rickabaugh mentioned that he had heard of schools repurposing the position of assistant principal because discipline problems had so dramatically reduced.

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#iNACOL16 Day Three Learnings on the Run

November 2, 2016 by

Well, actually, I’m not running anymore. I was able to catch my breath for the weekend before I head out to District 51 in Grand Junction to learn about their early stage implementation.

Here are some of my highlights from the final days of iNACOL16:

sajan-george

Sajan George

Productive Struggle: One of the reasons I think so highly of the Matchbook Learning team is that they are always trying to figure out how to meet the needs of students who have large gaps in foundational skills or are on a performance level that is below their grade level. (I apologize for the use of a deficit structure, but we still haven’t figured out a way to talk about students being at different levels that doesn’t use the grade level as a norm.) Sajan George described that they have concerns that leveling students and offering instruction that meets them at this level is not working the way they had hoped. Yes, it helps students build all the foundational skills they need, but it isn’t building other skills – specifically the skill and traits needed to productively struggle with challenging problems. One might think about it as the ability to apply learning, not just demonstrate the skills. Application requires us to think about which skill or approach can be helpful.

dixie-bacallao

Dixie Bacallao

Later that same day I had a chance to meet Dixie Bacallao from reDesign. How to design for productive struggle was one of the many things we touched on. She cautioned that it is important to take into consideration where students are in their own learning and development (including social-emotional learning and relationships with peers) and how big the gap between performance and grade level is in designing interventions. In other words, there is no single best intervention. (more…)

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