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Aurora Institute

Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Rethink Instruction

chessThis blog post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on October 11, 2016. 

This is the eighth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Some districts and schools may already have a strong pedagogical approach in place, while others may find they need to think more in-depth about motivation, engagement, instruction, assessment, and the role of grading. If there isn’t an explicit pedagogical approach in place, it should begin with a review of research and lead to the development of guiding principles about learning and teaching (as discussed in the section on shared purpose).

What are the research, beliefs, and assumptions that guide your pedagogical approach? Having a strong pedagogical approach isn’t the same as saying you want all teachers to teach in the same way. Instead, it is a set of general principles that help answer questions such as:

  • What do we know about the different ways to motivate and engage students?
  • Where does student agency fit in learning?
  • What role do habits of learning play, and how can they be developed in students?
  • What does the research tell us about effective instructional practices?
  • What are the types of assessment, and what role do they play in achievement?
  • What types of learning experiences are needed to help students reach graduation goals?
  • Given your current student population, their academic needs, and their life and learning experiences, how might this inform your school design or pedagogical approach?
  • What challenges and educational needs can online and blended learning help you address?
  • How do parents and the community at large think about these questions?

Lindsay Unified School District organizes beliefs and guiding principles to emphasize the growth of all learners, learning facilitators, and the overall culture of learning. (See their Guiding Beliefs.)

What is the role of the district in ensuring schools can offer a mix of instructional approaches and modalities? As you begin to think about the role and balance of direct instruction, practical application, group projects, project-and problem-based learning, independent learning, and real-life applications, you will find that school design and capacity issues begin to emerge, including those related to existing schedules, calendars, and partners for extended learning. This is the point where it may be worth spending the time to determine how blended and online learning can best support your students and teachers. Have you had difficulty serving some of your students? Are there some ways that blended and online education can help you strengthen the learning experience for them?

Is your pedagogical approach standards-driven or student centered? Many districts take a wrong turn by trying to create a competency-based system that emphasizes the standards without first putting a personalized orientation in place. The result is that classrooms may be heavily teacher-driven, with students expected to do learning tasks at a teacher pace. Lindsay Unified School District has redesigned the role of teachers into learning facilitators. Rebecca Midles, Proficiency-Based Learning Specialist, explained, “Learning facilitators guide learners through a journey that leads to self-directed learning, advocacy, and agency. Only in this way does a learning environment become truly learner centered.”

One way to determine the degree to which you have become student-centered is to ask the question of who is doing the bulk of the work in the classroom. “Teachers are often doing all the heavy lifting in a classroom to give bite-size pieces to students,” said Jane Bryson of Education Elements. “The alternative is for teachers to put their effort toward creating the structures to allow students to move more fluidly through the coursework. The goal is to ensure that teachers aren’t bottlenecks to learning, but instead facilitate the learning process.”

How is your pedagogical approach taking into consideration the academic equity challenges in your district? The first step is to review patterns of academic achievement and benchmark yourself against the districts doing the best in the country in serving low-income students, English language learners, and special education. Consider academic achievement of different racial and ethnic groups, including disciplinary patterns of suspension and expulsion. As a district, identify where and why students are disengaging from school based on attendance and failing grades, as well as the level of access for students to re-engage in school to complete their diploma. Given that high schools are still somewhat time-bound by the tradition of graduating with peers, look at how many students enter more than two years behind academically and how many students become over-age and under-credit by the end of ninth grade. Then return to your pedagogical approach and consider how it can be strengthened to ensure that it is addressing the needs of the students who are the most underserved.

Competency education is designed to address inequity and low achievement by enabling personalization through a transparent and calibrated I&A model. However, producing improvements in student engagement and achievement is dependent on the degree that a school’s pedagogical approach meets the needs of students. For example, Harvey Chism, Senior Director of School Design at EPIC Schools in New York City, points out that in a competency-based environment, culturally relevant material can be embedded to respond to diverse classrooms by offering opportunity for student choice and co-design within units. The data about patterns of inequity in academic achievement should drive the development of the pedagogical approach and the continuous improvement processes that are discussed later.

Three Things to Think About

#1 As districts are guided by the beliefs and principles about teaching and learning, many find themselves turning to performance-tasks and assessments to help lift their instruction from the knowledge levels of recall and comprehension toward analysis, application, and evaluation. Several districts are now investing in strengthening their teaching capacity by providing training on learning progressions and formative assessment to better support students in mastering concepts. 

#2 For districts operating in states that are implementing education policies, such as the Common Core and state accountability-driven assessments, without balancing them with an adequate investment in improving instruction, assessment for learning, and other capacity-building efforts, there will be substantial leadership demands to support teachers in reclaiming their role in teaching students (as compared to curriculum). District and school leadership will need to reinforce mutual accountability, the shared purpose, and collaboration at a time when state policies are emphasizing “blame and shame” accountability policies, narrow understanding of the purpose of schools, and individual teacher productivity. 

#3 As districts establish information management systems to support student learning in competency-based environments, they will find they do not need elaborate tracking systems to monitor when students start to fall off-track. Management reports can be developed to provide nearly real-time data on how students are progressing and which students are not progressing as expected. Schools can respond in a matter of weeks to find more effective instructional strategies, offer coaching to build stronger habits of learning, and, if needed, engage parents and community resources.

For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency