Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Meeting Students Where They Are So That Everyone Masters Learning

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

This is the twelfth post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

As we move toward the design of second generation competency-based models, there is an opportunity to anchor student learning and achievement in expansive, adaptable and developmentally appropriate learning and development trajectories informed by the learning sciences. If we are to meet all students where they are, then our commitment must be not only to an uncompromising vision for high achievement — and in practical terms, this means college and career readiness — but also to the daily work of responding to students’ individual needs in a way that fosters optimal growth.

If a competency-based system is designed to ensure that every student is learning and making progress toward the skills and knowledge for lifelong learning and preparation for college and careers, what do schools need to do in order for this to happen? They are going to have to learn how to meet students where they are — not just academically but in terms of their full development. This means knowing where students are in terms of academic performance levels, cultivating a growth mindset and social-emotional skills that shape how well students can stay engaged when learning is challenging, and cultivating the interests and topics that will ignite their motivation. Using a holistic lens to understand where students are and how to help them grow is clearly a complex process. The ideas offered in this blog are insights into this important activity and will require continued exploration and research.

The approach typically used in traditional systems is focused on exposing students to academic content with the content and duration of exposure determined by a student’s grade-level subject and at a pace designed to cover everything by end of year. As described earlier, students are then passed on to the next grade level regardless if they learned the content or not. As a result, students in a traditional system have vastly differing skills, knowledge of the content and varied abilities to apply that knowledge in different contexts.

There is ample evidence that under these circumstances, the odds are stacked against significant numbers of students being able to access and master what they need when they need it because the learning experiences available to students may — but often do not — fall inside their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Students with skills above grade level may also disengage from boredom when they aren’t able to work in their ZPD. For example, the “reading” ZPD for an eleven-year-old who struggles with decoding is radically different from one who is flying through a Shakespearean play. Yet, they might both be in a sixth grade English Language Arts class which is focused on summarizing a sixth grade text. In this way, their efforts to develop as readers become artificially constrained by the classroom learning experiences available to them: neither the student who needs to “reach back” to learn missed skills or content, nor the student who can “reach forward” due to already-mastered skills and knowledge, have access to the support they need within their ZPD.

The notion of being on, above or below “grade level” is an old paradigm that serves, not the learner, but a system designed to efficiently sort and “batch process” students. All students are somewhere on their learning and development trajectory — or multiple trajectories — toward developing the skills, knowledge and dispositions that are essential for the transition to adulthood. Where each student is, at any moment, on their learning trajectory is just as much a function of their complex needs today as it is about the degree to which those needs have been met in previous years of life and schooling, and in other contexts of learning. The challenge for all of us is to identify where individual students are on the trajectory, and address their needs, passions and interests in “real time.”

In order to meet students where they are, districts and schools need to create the culture, the structure, and build a shared pedagogical philosophy that will enable much stronger relationships and much greater responsiveness than the traditional system was designed. The bureaucratic culture that emphasizes efficiency must be transformed into one that emphasizes learning and inclusivity. The structure must shift from focusing on time-based credits to valuable measures of student learning that take into consideration depth of knowledge, skills and learning how to learn. This requires transparent learning continuums that allow educators to understand where students are rather than deliver a curriculum based on their age. Finally, classroom management, instruction, assessment and the design of experiences that will help students learn and demonstrate their learning will need to take into consideration student agency, knowledge of the academic domains and the research on learning progressions, and strong assessment literacy.

In the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, we build understanding on how to meet students and respond to where they are. We organize this exploration around three questions:

  • How do we know where students are academically, emotionally, developmentally and experientially?
  • What do we do, once we know?
  • Which strategies help us navigate systemic constraints to do the things we need to do?

Follow this blog series for more articles charting the course for the next phase of competency-based education, or download the full report:

Learn more: