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Aurora Institute

A Student Reflection on Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Elizabeth Sturms

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

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Elizabeth Sturms

The following was originally posted on The Iowa Forum on Competency-Based Education. Elizabeth Strum, a senior at Muscatine High School, reflects on competency based education in response to a question in the application for the Presidential Scholarship at University of Iowa: Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you found intellectually engaging. Describe specifically how the idea or experience engaged and affected you, as well as its significance.

Imagine you are given the opportunity to redesign education with no limitations. You can eliminate what no longer works to create a new education system from scratch. This may sound far-fetched, but I was blessed with this amazing opportunity toward the end of last school year when I was invited by district members as one of six students to be a part of the design team for a new methodology called competency-based education (CBE). CBE is an innovative way of educating where the primary focus is not seat time, but rather demonstration of understanding of the Iowa Core standards. My role on the design team included attending meetings during the school year and summer to voice my opinions on what was being discussed in the process of designing a plan for CBE. At the first meeting I felt reserved about CBE. I grew up in a traditional classroom so my mind was stuck there. I was stubborn about changing what I was comfortable with, but as I attended more meetings I realized the many benefits that CBE would provide, and that change in our education system was long overdue. Everything from trends to technology have evolved from my grandparents’ time to my time—even from my parents’ time to my time—but education has remained the same, which is a disservice to my generation. We are receiving an old-world education to prepare us for new-world times; however CBE is the solution to this gap in education. I am honored to be a part of this team that is enhancing and shaping my education as well as the future education of all students who attend Muscatine High School.

Along with being a part of the CBE design team, I am also enrolled in three CBE-style courses: Government, AP Lit, and AP Calculus. Government is a requirement for seniors to graduate and so the classes are populated with students of various academic abilities who work at different paces, which makes it a perfect environment for CBE. CBE helps to make sure each student fully comprehends a standard before moving on, so that each student receives a deeper education than the student would in a classroom based on seat time. I am a student who has always learned more quickly than others, so in Government class I mastered the competency standards and then had the freedom to synthesize my learning to create and organize an event called Rock the Vote, where I invited Iowa’s Secretary of State, Matt Schultz, to present to my senior class about the importance of voting.  In preparation for the event, I had the privilege to personally speak with Mr. Schultz, his secretary, and county auditors regarding information on registering students during this election year when many were eligible to vote. CBE gifted me with this amazing experience that intrigued me to discover more about my country’s government than a traditional classroom would have.

In my CBE classes I am encouraged to learn more on my own. This is one of the main foundations of CBE: students are taught how to learn rather than just taught content. Again, I was stuck in the mindset of a traditional classroom; I wanted what I was familiar with, which was essentially listening to a teacher and regurgitating it on a test. Being immersed in the process of CBE has helped me to apply what I am learning as a critical thinker. I am now aware of the importance of fully understanding what I am learning. The greatest thing about CBE classrooms is that the students become the teachers, and the teachers become facilitators of learning.

The impact CBE has had on me is life-changing. It has taught me to be open-minded and to realize that there is more than one way to approach things and sometimes the new way is the better way.  I am more engrossed in what I am learning and the positive feedback from students in CBE classrooms is astounding. Not only has CBE impacted my education, but it is also affecting current and future students of MHS, which gives me pride because I helped to bring this methodology to our school. As a member of the design team for CBE I am active in events throughout the school year to promote CBE. Last school year I was invited to travel to Des Moines to speak about CBE to Iowa’s Special Assistant for Education, Linda Fandel. Most recently, education students from the University of Iowa visited our school in the beginning of November to learn about CBE from a student panel, of which I was a part. It has been a privilege to promote CBE to such significant people, and I hope that they become as excited as I am about this innovative way of learning.

I care immensely about the education I receive, and CBE has been imperative in assisting me to learn the most I can in the finest way possible. I am so very eager to attend the University of Iowa next year to continue my education, and I will carry with me my expanded knowledge from CBE, along with CBE methods of learning. CBE encompasses all of the University of Iowa’s core values, especially excellence, learning, and responsibility. These three values will be exceptionally important in maintaining my desire to go above and beyond others, and thankfully I will have competency-based education as a background to achieve my goals. I am humbled to be recognized as one of this elite group of students who qualify for this Presidential Scholarship. As a Presidential Scholar I will represent the University of Iowa with my determination to learn rather than simply to be taught. Despite growing up with an old-world education, I’ve always had the desire, and I now have the means to learn more than what is presented to me in the classroom. Because, as Mark Twain says, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Elizabeth is a senior at Muscatine High School in Iowa.