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Shifting Paradigms: Moving from an Instructional Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm

November 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Institute for Personalized Learning on June 22, 2017.

The instructional paradigm, still in place in most schools, was primarily designed to support the function of teaching, or more specifically, the delivery of information from instructor to student. For practical reasons the design favored efficiency, which led to batch processing of students, segmentation of content areas, and credits based on seat time.

More than a century of experience with instruction-driven design has proven that teaching does not always equal learning. Yet challenges to increase achievement have typically been met with more efforts to simply improve components of the instructional paradigm, rather than questioning its fundamental design. Efforts to improve achievement have also produced an ever-increasing array of accountability expectations for teachers and schools. Mandates put in place to produce “better” instructors and higher test scores have created a host of instructional interventions at the expense of authentic learning experiences.

Increasingly, the education community is recognizing that to get the achievement results we desire, and more importantly, to prepare our learners for an uncertain future, the focus must shift from an instructional paradigm to a learning paradigm. This shift in focus has launched an urgent search for approaches that will be successful under the new paradigm. Personalized learning is an ideal fit to accomplish this shift. Personalized models focus on active, participatory learning where learners are empowered to take control of their own educational pathway. The very nature of personalized learning means it will look different at each site, depending on the context. Educators may select different elements of personalized learning to focus on, but all of them share one thing – they start with the learner.

This paradigm shift, from instruction to learning, will require educators to question what they assume about learning and education, and then to redesign the education system to align with today’s vision of learning. The infographic below highlights some key attributes of each paradigm and can help educators as they work to shift from an instructional focus to one that is centered around the learner.

See also:

Personalized PD and Collaborative Teams: A Symbiotic Approach to Professional Learning, Part 1

October 19, 2017 by

Diana Lebeaux, Senior Associate, Personalized Learning Network

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on September 5, 2017.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who regularly coach schools tend to focus our support on either collaboration or personalization. Schools that worry about the isolation of the traditional teacher, and teachers who yearn to share ideas, tend to focus on establishing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), also known as Critical Friends Groups (CFGs). These groups become the mechanism of choice for propagating best practices, distributing leadership, and building collective buy-in for school reform or redesign initiatives. On the other hand, schools that fear teacher disengagement or who weary of professional development that never gains traction with teachers to foster improved student results tend to experiment with the newer approach, personalized professional development. This offshoot of personalized learning provides a structured way for teachers to share—or own—decision-making about the professional development with which they will engage, granted that it aligns with the school’s overall goals and the district’s other logistical parameters.

Both practices have promise individually, and because both represent a significant shift away from typical “sit and get” district- or school-wide professional development (PD), school leaders tend to invest their reform efforts around one or the other. After all, both approaches are ambitious and require capacity building, effective systems, and buy-in, which require time and effort. Both can result in improved teacher empowerment and even save districts money. However, unless these reforms are strategically bundled in tandem, I would argue that neither can meet its full potential to open up, and dramatically improve, classroom practice.

I have seen schools that institute PLCs begin to encounter a dreaded implementation gap when teachers mistrust (sometimes with good reason) the intention of the initiative, viewing the PLCs as a top-down, forced experience, or an attempt to further standardize practice to the detriment of teachers’ individual agency. At times, there are situations in which the PLCs are an overt means of prescribing professional development, in which principals mask top-down mandates under the guise of collaborative teamwork: arguably, these instances are poor or inauthentic implementation of PLCs. However, there are also many instances in which PLCs themselves are created with the authentic intention to build a safe community in which teachers can de-privatize practice, but the PLCs do not meet their potential to be revolutionary because they occur in isolation, providing a single outlet for teacher voice in a school that otherwise silences it.

Similarly, otherwise traditionally-structured schools that make a foray into the realm of personalized professional learning find a number of logistical hurdles that can hamper implementation. While personalized professional development plans and teacher micro-credentials, two means of personalizing PD, can provide incentives and structures that will inspire and guide teachers to learn, neither is a panacea. When poorly instituted—or done in isolation—these innovations can overly rely on educators’ knowledge of their own skills and their inevitably limited awareness of the opportunities for PD available to them. Schools may include data analysis, self-assessments and selected catalogues to mitigate some of these problems—or principals may build learning plans in tandem with their staff—but these can still result in ad hoc, sporadic instances of professional learning that may not align with the school’s overall goals or plans.  (more…)

What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?

October 18, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNew Books in Competency Education

Grant Opportunities

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation released three new requests for proposals:

Social Emotional Learning


Food for Thought


CompetencyWorks Meetup at iNACOL17

October 17, 2017 by

For all of you heading to Orlando, from 6-7 on Monday 23rd, look for the CompetencyWorks Lounge as you enter the Exhibit Hall for the President’s Reception. I’ll be there to say HI! and introduce you to your colleagues around the country. Or better yet, just introduce yourself. I promise you that you’ll quickly find something of interest to you.

We are Going to Miss You, JoEllen

October 5, 2017 by

JoEllen Lynch

The world is a different place.

We received very sad news that JoEllen Lynch, Executive Director of Springpoint and a member of the CompetencyWorks advisory, passed away on October 3rd.

Quite honestly, I find myself at a loss for words.

I’ve known JoEllen for so long, and she has always been such a force of nature in my world – stretching the role of community-based organizations to deliver educational services to students who had been pushed out of school, pushing the NYC Department of Education to better serve over-age, undercredited students, and catalyzing districts to create new high schools based on powerful principles of youth development and competency-based education. Always at the heart of her work were young people who many had forgotten. The names changed – at-risk, over-age, undercredited, opportunity youth, promise youth – but JoEllen’s dedication was unswerving.

One of the things I loved the very best about JoEllen is that she just said what she thought. Straight out. Absolutely no nonsense. If I wasn’t pushing hard enough. If I was missing an important concept. If I just wasn’t understanding the nuances. She would let me know.

JoEllen has been playing such an important role nationally as founder of Springpoint. She was dedicated to embedding youth development principles into the very core of schools so that young people were respected and empowered at school and in their lives. What you may not know is how important she has been in NYC or the number of people’s lives she touched, the number of people she inspired and mentored. I can’t imagine the fog of sadness that has drifted into the offices at Good Shepherd and youth-serving organizations all across the city.

Day in and day out – JoEllen always did what was best for kids.

Thank you, JoEllen. We are going to miss you so much.

Congratulations Are in Order

September 27, 2017 by

Brian Stack and James Murray

Congratulations to James Murray, Waukesha STEM Academy (WI), and Brian Stack, Sanborn Regional High School (NH)! They have each been recognized as State Principal of the Year, and they are both leaders in advancing competency-based education. In previous years, other leaders in competency-based education, including Derek Pierce of Casco Bay High School and Alan Tenreiro of Cumberland High School, have received similar recognition.

I imagine that over time, we will see more and more of leaders in competency-based education gain recognition.


First, competency-based education, when well designed, should be creating the culture and processes that support continuous improvement. This means that their schools should always be reflecting on how they can do better using the available data and by generating data through dialogue and surveys to enhance understanding. Who benefits? The result is that more students should be making progress, and teachers should feel valued for their input and be part of a team that has a shared understanding that they are going to make decisions based on what’s best for students.

Second, leaders in competency-based education will need to develop leadership and management strategies that engage educators and other stakeholders. The top-down bureaucratic culture that emphasizes compliance just isn’t going to work. This means that competency-based educators are going to need to develop leadership strategies that engage and empower others (these go by different names, including adaptive leadership or distributed leadership). Essentially, leaders manage the processes that bring together diverse perspectives to find solutions. (District 51 has gone the farthest I know of in trying to institutionalize these practices through holacracy.)

There are two resources available if you want to start thinking about these types of leadership/management strategies:

Maybe Brian and James will write reflections on learning to become a leader in a competency-based environment for us?

What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

September 20, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicBrian Stack and Jonathan Vander Els are publishing a book on September 27, 2017 titled: Breaking with Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. Learn more and preorder here.

California’s Lindsay Unified School District

  • Lindsey Unified released a new video on their “learning communities” and how they are transforming public education to support a healthy, empowered and sustainable community.
  • Lindsay released a new podcast, Lindsay Live, which will provide insights into what it takes to succeed in the performance based system.


  • New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) program is showing early improvements in the Smarter Balanced assessments over the past two years, with significant improvements for students with disabilities, when compared with non-PACE districts. Read more about this early evidence of student achievement gains in this blog and in this article.
  • In competency-based systems, athletic directors are rethinking what eligibility for sports looks like.
  • The New York Times covered competency-based education in New York City.

On Race and Equity

Colorado’s District 51

Policy Updates


C-BEN Response to Inspector General’s Report on Western Governors University

September 18, 2017 by

The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education released the audit of Western Governors University with a finding that WGU was not providing adequate “regular and substantive” faculty interaction. Below is the response from the Competency-Based Education Network. In addition, We Can Innovate Responsibly While Protecting Students by Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation is well worth reading – Chris Sturgis


Competency-Based Education Network

Response to Inspector General’s Report on Western Governors University


September 21, 2017    The Office of Inspector General within the U.S. Department of Education today issued an audit critical of Western Governors University’s (WGU) competency-based education programs, suggesting they are not providing the “regular and substantive” faculty interaction with students as is required for federal financial aid.

WGU is a member of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), which is a diverse group of public and private organizations such as colleges, universities, state systems and service providers collaborating to address the shared challenges of designing, developing and scaling high-quality competency-based education programs. WGU represents one of many models of competency-based education nationwide.

Federal financial aid must be spent in was that support student learning and provide safeguards against fraud and abuse of these funds. It is important to note that the requirement for regular and substantive interaction applies to distance education programs, not CBE programs specifically. CBE programs are sometimes offered via distance education, but other delivery modalities are also used.

C-BEN believes that while the Inspector General is following the letter of the law, the federal laws governing financial aid need to be updated. The 1992 law reinforces the status quo in higher education by relying on an outdated view of how learning takes place. This leaves little room for proven innovations informed by research in learning sciences, academic program design, learning assessment and education technology to be put in service of students. These innovations in CBE have led members of both parties in Congress to laud competency-based education.

Competency-based education offers high-quality education that is both affordable and convenient for millions of Americans, many of whom may not otherwise be able to gain the competencies and earn the credentials they need. In order to help a growing field ensure that emerging programs and credentials are well designed, C-BEN has released the Quality Framework for Competency-Based Education Programs that are used in the development of high-quality programs. This framework can provide guideposts and assurances to policymakers and accreditors tasked with regulating this vibrant, and still emerging, field of practice, while also ensuring that learners’ needs are met and tuition dollars are well spent. In addition, these principles can help students understand what they should expect from a CBE program.

Working in Competency Education for 1+ Years and Coming to iNACOL17?

August 31, 2017 by

If you are coming to iNACOL17 and you’ve had some experience in competency education, we’ve created a Leadership Forum during the pre-conference workshops on Monday October 23rd from 1-4. It’s a chance for you to spend a couple of hours talking with other leaders from around the country on topics that are important to you. Contact me at chris at metisnet dot net and I’ll send you the code, as the Leadership Forum doesn’t have a cost.

If you are new to competency education or can’t make the pre-conference, we also have a Pop Up Problems of Practice and Policy with Virgel Hammonds and Susan Patrick.

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.


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…)

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