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Aurora Institute

Threshold Concept: Developing a Long-Term Strategy to Support Systems Change for Meeting Students Where They Are

Education Domain Blog

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

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency


In our current, traditional educational system, there is a significant focus on old pedagogical models delivering a one-size-fits-all lesson of grade-level content each day. The retrograde effects of accountability systems are perhaps most apparent in the challenges educators face across the United States to truly try to meet students where they are.

David Hood’s “Paradigm of One” describes how the current model focuses on “one teacher, teaching one subject, to one class of one age, using one [textbook], at one pace, in one classroom, for one hour,” and describes this rut in which the traditional system is stuck. In a time-based factory-model education system, students move through grade levels with varying amounts of learning with recorded grades of A-F without ensuring mastery. This all but guarantees that students will have significant gaps in core knowledge when they move from one grade level to the next. These disparities grow over time. When different levels of expectations are held for different students, the disparities grow larger, wider and deeper.

The research on how students learn shows how important it is to meet a student within their zone of proximal development, allow for productive struggle and design progressions effectively – where learning hinges on successful prior learning. A student’s zone of proximal development is defined as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. We know that when students are able to address prior gaps in their learning, they can accelerate their learning dramatically. As such, educators need to be able to scaffold learning at the appropriate level and offer the supports and resources students need during instruction. If our old pedagogical approaches force content to be traditionally delivered through one-size-fits-all approaches within age-based grade levels, we are not truly meeting students where they are.

Meeting students where they are requires a fundamental shift for learner-centered education models. It 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 and providing extended learning opportunities and supports with flexibility. And, most importantly, 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.

Competency-based systems entail meeting students where they are every day and engaging in a cycle of supporting learning academically, socially, emotionally and holistically. It is problematic when students are moved through a time-based system with decent grades, only to find out when entering a competency-based educational model that they are several grade levels behind. How do we address the issues in the traditional system that leave students with major gaps in knowledge, skills and abilities, and a lack of preparedness based on the system’s focus on time-based (not learning-based) progressions?

The concept of “meeting kids where they are” is holistic and honestly addresses where they are in the learning progression providing supports and personalized approaches to instruction. In a competency-based education system, it is important to develop the competence and confidence of each learner through teaching and learning strategies that build on individual needs and offer extended learning opportunities. Learning environments are learner-centered to accommodate different paces and styles of learning. Students build their own capacity and have to “learn to learn,” thus becoming literate in the learning sciences and more knowledgeable about their own assessment literacy across the curriculum.

Competency-based education systems offer students voice and choice in their learning process, providing personal relevance with clear pathways throughout their education. The learning targets are consistent and set high goals for all students. The ethos is focused on student needs and provides student agency and voice in schools through a focus on data and continuous improvement, too. Knowing where every student is every day focuses on a whole new level of transparency for students, parents, educators, principals, schools and communities. It offers deep conversations about data-driven decisions every day.

Meeting kids where they are will catalyze new, sometimes radical approaches to organizing learning environments that challenge traditional schedules, course structures and grade-levels. Learning is organized around mastery-based progressions and rooted in research on how students learn. Accelerated options are available and students can move on when ready. There are opportunities for deeper learning for every student.

Competency-based approaches which meet kids where they are provide learning opportunities beyond the classroom to best fit their needs and future interests. Communities, local institutions, social services, health providers, museums and the arts are supporting schools to drive forward progress of students. It includes extended learning opportunities within community-based institutions. Voice and choice are about engaging students in their own learning and shaping the provision of loosely networked educational opportunities, where students can partner to do internships or projects that matter in their communities and then schools will credential learning that occurs outside of the classroom. This will allow students to work toward developing their talents and building competence aligned with their future goals.

New systems of education to support competency-based approaches will begin to expand into networks of learning spaces and hubs – across programs, schools and institutions, where there is collaboration and knowledge building. This will require clarity of concepts for meeting students where they are and common language including the understanding of new pedagogical models, tools, evidence-based practices, personalized learning and competency-based learning among professionals. Core to this work is the development of capacity for new models of assessments including authentic assessments, performance assessments, digital portfolios as well as the development of pedagogical innovations and better learning strategies.

Learn more about meeting students where they are in the papers Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education and Meeting Students Where They Are.

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