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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.

The effort also extends to helping those who possess few marketable skills to develop life and work skills that allow them to make a living and have their new skills recognized through assessments designed to demonstrate competency. A commitment to invest in and develop the capacity of everyone to contribute to society and the economy seems like wise policy.

As I visited with people at the conference, connections to the work of the Institute for Personalized Learning became increasingly clear. For the past decade, we have been focused on the design, testing, and application of a learner-centered approach that changes the core learning experience. We do this by supporting K-12 educators as they prepare learners to navigate and succeed in a world less dependent on formal learning and traditional education recognition.

The work to design, build out, and grow a learner-centered, competency-based model has rested on an understanding that it offers a more effective way to support learning. Much of what we know from research on learning and the brain is reflected in the design. Much of what we know about motivation, engagement, and agency is consistent with this approach. Further, best practices to help learners retain what they learn and develop their ability to apply learning effectively in a variety of circumstances can be found in this model.

My conversations at the conference also revealed the need to think about how our work might provide opportunities for and application with adults. Our overarching goal has been to nurture skilled, flexible, motivated learners who are able to learn in a variety of settings and under multiple conditions. This includes formal learning settings, but today’s youth also need to develop strategies and skills to learn when no teacher is present and there is no lesson plan to follow. We cannot predict their future, but we know that learning will play a key role in their economic survival and career success.

The alignment of the mission of VPL and our work to develop strong, flexible learning skills in young people seems obvious. However, the experience of interacting and learning from others who are engaged in developing, capturing, and honoring the informal learning of adults surfaced the question of whether the work in which so many of us have been engaged also needs to expand. Is it time to consider the learning skill needs of adults in our communities, including those who are not being well-served and respected because of their place of birth, culture or socio-economic status?

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Jim RickabaughAbout the Author:

James Rickabaugh is the Senior Advisor of the Institute for Personalized Learning @ CESA #1, an education innovation lab located within the Cooperative Educational Service Agency that serves 45 school districts in Southeastern Wisconsin. James has more than thirty years of experience in educational leadership and education related organizations. He has been honored as Superintendent of the Year in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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