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Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: Work Study Practices Matter in a Competency-Based High School

May 22, 2017 by

Competency-based schools work to separate the reporting of academic performance and behavior into separate categories as a part of their effort to move from compliance to competency. For many teachers and students, this is a very difficult transition. What we all recognize is that behaviors that lead to learning are still important and can not simply vanish from the school entirely. Instead we need to continue to address them and instruct them so our students are competent academically and possess well-developed employable skills. There are many names for these types of skills; our district uses Work Study Practices, developed by the state, and is working to improve how we instruct and assess them in our schools. It is a work in progress but essential to student success at all levels.

Lesson #1: All students at all levels benefit from instruction in work study practices.

Nothing drives me more crazy than when teachers talk about how students should already know how to do things, and this type of conversation happens a lot when talking about work study practices. We wouldn’t assess students on academic material we haven’t taught them, but teachers do that with work study practices. Teachers expect students to be mindreaders and know what they are looking for in terms of creativity, collaboration, self-direction, and communication even though it may look different with any given assignment. The simple truth of the matter is that students need developmentally appropriate instruction in order to understand the expectations for collaboration on a group project so that they can work to meet them, just like they need to know how communication might be different on a digital assignment versus an oral task. Just like with academic competencies, they need a target so they can navigate their path to success.

Lesson #2: Reflection is an important key to success for students who are practicing work study practices.

Providing students with the opportunity to reflect on work study practices is the key to them internalizing them and applying what they have learned outside of the classroom. Students have the opportunity to identify how their behaviors have impacted their success on a given task: are they contributing to or detracting from the results? I have found that asking students to write about how they have demonstrated one or more of the practices by providing examples of positive behaviors has led to increased success, and it doesn’t take very long to see changes. Another important factor when talking about collaboration is to allow for student groups to reflect together on what they are doing well and what they can improve on the next time they are together. Reflection may look different depending on the age of the students in class, but it needs to be present so students can take ownership of their progress and internalize the experience for future tasks, whether they are in school or in the workplace.

Lesson #3: It’s OK to be a beginner sometimes as long as you show growth and progress.

This might be the most difficult lesson for everyone – student, teacher, and parent – to accept because it requires people to recognize that they may not get the highest score right out of the gate. Work study practices are situational and fluid, so under certain circumstances, like working with your friend or group you have chosen, you might be very good at collaboration skills; however, in a different group with people you are less comfortable with, maybe you are a beginner. Similarly, if the task you are being asked to complete is something that comes easy to you, you may do a good job communicating your thoughts and ideas, but if it is something that you find difficult, you may be a beginner. We need to recognize that being a beginner is not a negative judgement, it’s an opportunity to improve because the most important aspect of work study practice instruction is the ability to transfer them to different types of tasks and situations. Students need to recognize the importance of applying these skills both inside and outside of school and know that as adults, they may still feel like a beginner sometimes.

Lesson #4: Collect multiple pieces of evidence of performance just like you do for academic competencies..

We used to have effort and conduct scores on our report cards in addition to academic grades. The academic grades were the result of multiple data points and assignments that teachers would collect over the course of a quarter or trimester depending on your school, but effort and conduct were one and done. When I was preparing for report cards to come out, I would sit at my computer and go through my list of students and decide what score they deserved for the quarter or trimester. I never had any concrete evidence to support the score I was giving; it was more of a gut feeling based on my most recent memories of the students in class, clearly not a data-driven system. Now I am instructing and assessing these work study practices on many different assignment and projects over the course of the year, and the students’ final scores are based on the evidence I have collected and recorded. This practice makes it easier to explain and defend scores but also allows students to have a bad day now and then without the low scores they may have received in a one and done system.

Lesson #5: A little extra time in the beginning pays you back in the end.

The fact that this is lesson number five is not at all reflective of it being less important than any of the other lessons on the list. I actually considered moving it up to emphasize its importance but settled on leaving it here instead. You see, the response we most often give and hear when people are asked to do something new or differently than they have done before is, “I couldn’t possibly find the time.” I get it! The school year seems to move faster each year and no matter how hard we try, it seems like there is never enough time to do everything we think is important. So, you might ask, why should I take more time away from what I am already doing to instruct and reflect on work study practices?? The answer is quite simple: front loading time at the beginning of the year to make work study practices a regular and important part of your school culture will save you time in the end. Your class will run more smoothly, students will be more on task, and groups will function more efficiently. You will get back the time you spent at the beginning of the year and then some!

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About the Author

Donna Harvey-Moseley is a long-time social studies educator in the Sanborn Regional School District with experience at both the middle and high schools. She has a BA in History from Merrimack College, an M.Ed. in Curriculum from Lesley University and CAGS in Administration from New England College. She has presented her work related to work study practices, personalized learning, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary project and competency-based grading and assessment at local and national conferences.

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