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Aurora Institute

Four Threshold Concepts to Think Differently About the Future of K-12 Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success, Issues in Practice


What will it take to transform K-12 education to student-centered learning for the long term?

In June 2017, iNACOL published the draft paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education for participants of the National Summit on K12 CompetencyBased Education. The paper introduces four threshold concepts, which are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.”

The four threshold concepts are:

  • Certifying learning;
  • Assessment literacy;
  • Pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences; and
  • Meeting students where they are.

These concepts hold potential to change our perspectives forever and are important to embracing a vision of personalized, competency-based learning. They help us to think differently about what is possible in an equitable, future education system where all students succeed, and how to address deep-seated systems design flaws across K-12 education.

Certifying Learning

How is it possible that our education system still graduates many students who lack basic reading and math skills when they hold a high school diploma? Today, the only thing we can know for sure about a high school graduate in most U.S. school districts is that they have put in the required seat time and attained a passing grade in the requisite courses. By passing students along and graduating them with major gaps in skills and knowledge, we are doing them a disservice.

Not only do diplomas need to certify mastery of academic competencies but they also need to certify mastery of a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge and dispositions students need to succeed after high school. More meaningful qualifications can promote active, inquiry-based pedagogy with more holistic, learner-centered models to ensure students gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive after high school.

Assessment Literacy

Addressing the lack of assessment literacy across the system is critical to helping all students succeed. Assessment literacy is “the possession of knowledge about the basic principles of sound assessment practice, including its terminology, the development and use of assessment methodologies and techniques, and familiarity with standards of quality in assessment.”

Students want expanded learning opportunities and the ability to learn anytime and anywhere, not just within the walls of a school building. Educators need a solid foundation in assessment literacy in order to effectively and consistency certify student knowledge acquired from a widely varying set of experiences and learning opportunities. As education systems move away from seat-time as the basis for awarding credits and degrees, to systems based on mastery, assessment literacy becomes critical for educators to rigorously ensure comparability across learning environments and different types of evidence of student work.

In addition, it is important for educators, policymakers and stakeholders to understand the roles different types of assessments play in student learning, how assessment and moderation are used to comparatively and fairly judge student mastery and how the information generated by assessments can be used to power a cycle of continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

We need to build significant capacity for assessment literacy to advance new, competency-based approaches and address tough issues in our current system.

Pedagogical Innovations Based on Learning Sciences

We need to refocus on contemporary pedagogical theory and examine how learning models and new designs can be rooted in learning sciences research for how students learn best. With the opportunity to redesign approaches for teaching and learning to be competency-based, educators are designing new models based on learning sciences, motivation theory and are putting student success at the center with agency and lifelong learning skills. Aligning pedagogical approaches with research on student motivation and meeting kids where they are at the appropriate level of readiness will ensure that students find school much more engaging, more fair and meaningful. We must ensure we design for equity using research on how students learn best, youth development theory and evidence-based approaches.

In our current, traditional educational system, there is a significant focus on old pedagogical models for delivering a one-size-fits-all lesson of grade-level content each day. We know that when students are able to address prior gaps in their learning, they can accelerate their learning dramatically.

Meeting Students Where They Are

Meeting students where they are requires learning environments to become learner-centered. Competency-based systems require knowing where every student is academically and holistically and then making sure each student receives the instruction and support they need to build confidence, lifelong learning habits, knowledge, skills and competencies to be successful. This requires mastery-based learning progressions across a continuum over time with opportunities for in-depth teaching and learning based on each student’s goals and needs.

New Blog Series: Current to Future State

This is the first blog in the Current to Future State series that explores the ideas in the upcoming iNACOL report titled, Current to Future State: Issues and Action Steps for State Policy to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning. In the next blog post, we will introduce our vision for transformation to a future state of education, capable of preparing every student to succeed in higher education, the modern workforce and in life. We will also introduce key issues to tackle in policy to chart a long-term path to this future state of education.

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