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Aurora Institute

6 Strategies to Navigate System Constraints in Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nina Lopez, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis

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

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

Personalized, competency-based systems strive to meet students where they are in their learning and development, holding all students to the same high standards and helping each student reach high levels of success. This does NOT mean a return to tracking. Meeting students where they are requires strategies to reimagine and redesign our school models around the needs of the individual, rather than the efficiency of the system. Currently, there is something of an accountability paradox at play in our educational system. Namely, the very accountability system that led to much greater transparency about the performance of the education system and its inequity is also holding the traditional system that produces inequity in place.

Despite this paradox, there are six critical, interlocking structures that will enable school models to become more effectively oriented around learner needs and outcomes rather than only focusing on operational efficiencies:

  • Modularizing learning experiences and making them available to all students creates the opportunity for students to both “reach back” to address gaps in skills and knowledge, and to reach “over” or “forward” to pursue passions or deepen learning.
  • Designing assessment strategies that are backwards-mapped from college- and career-readiness will make it possible for schools and systems to ensure that students have ample opportunities to practice and master core competencies.
  • Personalizing students’ learning paths allows both students and teachers to explore learning experiences in ways that meet students within their zone of proximal development, providing timely and differentiated supports as a matter of daily practice.
  • Creating strategies for learning that foster student agency, motivation and engagement ensure that supports avoid becoming enablers that result in limiting student growth and progress.
  • Developing flexible schedules and environments support student choices about how to use their learning time, while also creating critical opportunities for teachers to provide interventions, feedback and personalized learning experiences.
  • Investing in robust learning management and tracking systems provide young people, teachers and families with real-time access to both learning experiences and rich data regarding progress.

Each of these strategies is explained in detail in the report Meeting Students Where They Are on pages 19-25.

Competency-based learning is not about learning skills instead of content; it’s about learning critical skills that empower learners to seek out and engage with content more deeply, meaningfully and productively. This requires broader engagement with content. Students must be able to access content in multiple formats and modes. This both reinforces the relevance of the content but also provides opportunities for students to deepen their knowledge by applying it in multiple contexts. At the same time, it hones students’ understanding of themselves as learners as they “try on” different learning styles and formats. Done well, the result is not a fixed learner profile, but the self-awareness that there are multiple ways to learn and multiple uses for what is learned.

Integrating these six strategies is the systemic work needed to truly meet students where they are.

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

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