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Aurora Institute

A Different Sort of Future for Education (Part 4)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

This is the fourth and final article on Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse. In the first three articles (read parts one, two, and three), I highlighted the chapters on what is mastery-based learning, how we learn, filling the gaps, and the limitations of the traditional model.

Khan raises six themes in the final section of his book The One World Schoolhouse, all of which are worthy of consideration as we continue to advance competency-based education.

1. Advancing upon mastery (what Khan refers to as testing out) asks the question, Why aren’t we allowing more students to advance beyond grade level? I’m constantly perplexed by how little districts and schools are lifting the ceiling on how much students can learn. Khan explains that when he was in high school, he asked why he couldn’t advance beyond grade level. The answer was “If we let you do it, we’d have to let everyone do it.” What that really means is that districts and schools would have to change – they’d have to reorganize structures, relationships, and capacity to allow students to fly above grade level. As an area of knowledge-building for the field, I’d put this right next to figuring out how to best meet students where they are instructionally in terms of importance.

2. The one room schoolhouse model asks the question, Why do we continue to organize students in terms of age? There are, in fact, reasons to organize students into tight communities of learners, regardless if this is one age or multi-age. Learning is a social process, and there can be benefits to building strong cohorts. See Casco Bay High School as an example. Khan asks us to also consider benefits from organizing schools along the lines of the one room schoolhouse, with students from a range of ages learning beside each other. I’m personally not convinced there is any one right way to do this. There are different benefits and different trade-offs. I have had several people mention that multi-age grouping is, in fact, very powerful as a transitional structure, as it helps teachers move from covering the curriculum to meeting students where they are.

3. Teaching as a team sport asks the question, Why do we assume one teacher has to work with one group of students? Based on my visits to schools, one of the first thing that goes by the wayside as schools convert to competency-based education is the idea of “my students.” Teachers almost always mention that they quickly begin to think of “our students,” seeking ways to collaborate, create more flexibility and respond to students. I think the next big step is that we have to organizationally begin to consider the expertise in a school or district as a collective capacity so that we make sure we have enough teachers with different areas of expertise who can be tapped into as needed.

4. Ordered chaos asks the question, What does a classroom or learning environment look like when students are actively engaged toward building mastery at higher levels of learning? Well, it’s definitely not desks in a row with students quietly waiting for the teacher’s instruction. It is busy with students all on task. It’s sometimes noisy because students are working together. Students are working on different tasks or on the same tasks in different ways. However, most schools are still working within facilities designed for the traditional model. We get a peek into the future by looking at how Kettle Moraine and other schools have been able to renovate with much wider open spaces surrounded by smaller meeting areas.

5. Redefining summer asks the question, What is preventing us from questioning the annual school calendar with summer vacations for students and teachers all at the same time? It’s true, if teachers were working collaboratively and students were all learning along their own personal pathway, there is nothing preventing schools to operate full-year, with students and teachers taking their vacation time when they wanted them. Furman Brown from Generation Schools was the first person I know of who realized that there was a way of organizing schools so that students had more instructional support while still allowing teachers to receive the same vacation time. The trick was to create different vacation schedules for teachers, with some taking time off while others were working. Students also had staggered vacations. Finally, some non-teaching staff, such as counselors, took on responsibility to help organize internships and enrichment activities during parts of the year. However, Khan is pushing us to think well beyond that to an entirely new way of organizing schools and the year schedule.

6. The future of transcripts asks the question, How do we communicate what a student knows and can do, and how do we compare one student to another? Khan tackles some of the very testy issue of competition that intrudes into secondary school. Who gets to go to the best colleges, and how do we know they really are the best match to go? He argues for eliminating the letter grade, instead using some type of testing mechanism that creates a sense of what students know and can do what across a spectrum of disciplines; a running, multi-year narrative highlighting what the student is learning; and a portfolio of work. Certainly, the future is already upon us, as the Mastery Transcript Consortium is going to tackle designing a new transcript this year.

He also raises questions about microcredentialing, how college might change, and how we might improve access to underserved communities around the world through online learning.

Although just the core changes in a school required to put it on a path toward competency-based education requires substantial leadership, learning, and effort, it is worth taking the time to ask what could the future look like. What might you be able to do in a competency-based system that you haven’t been able to do in a traditional system? How might children receive more high quality instruction, more intensive supports, and more opportunity to make connections to the real-world?

Read the Entire Series:

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