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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #10: Seek Intentionality and Alignment

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the eleventh article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #10 Seek Intentionality and Alignment on page 71. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the order of the structural quality principles in the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. Of course the quality principles are not applied in sequential order. It is the accumulation of all of them that will lead to the final capacity of advancing students upon demonstrated mastery.

However, we have realized over the past seven years of learning from districts moving forward toward competency-based education that structural changes without the pedagogical and cultural changes are unlikely to create sustainable models. I think it is safe to say that many of the districts in Maine that were unsuccessful in creating an effective model, and created enough of a backlash that led to Maine taking a step back from making the diploma meaningful, tried to make a few technical changes such as creating standards-driven classrooms or introducing new grading policies without putting any of the core cultural and pedagogical changes into place. The problem is that when schools say they are competency-based but they really aren’t because they aren’t aligning with the science on learning, it doesn’t help students learn and it weakens the overall movement.

We wanted to guard against schools jumping too quickly to technical or operational changes without putting key features in place first. Thus, we led with culture and pedagogy in constructing the 16 Quality Principles. And we put intentionality and alignment as the first structural principle because it positions us to be design-oriented, systemic, and reflective.

Design-Oriented: Intentionality is a mindset needed for being design-oriented. It creates a consciousness that every routine, ritual, process, and practice has implications that either contribute to learning – of individuals and as an organization – or some other values, perhaps that are not explicit.

Intentional and aligned means that educators are thinking through how to organize districts, schools, and classrooms around the shared purpose of what you want your students to know and be able to do when they make the transition from your school to their next set of challenges. Thus, if districts have engaged communities in what they want for their children, it is likely to be some mix of being lifelong learners, strong character and well-being, transferrable skills, and academic knowledge and skills.

What do a school and the learning experiences need to look like to fulfill that vision? A few of the core elements are:

  • There needs to be opportunity to become lifelong learners by developing the building blocks of learning such as metacognition, self-regulation, growth mindset, perseverance, and agency. This means students need opportunity to practice and teachers who know how to assess and coach students in these skills and mindsets.
  • There will need to be opportunity to apply knowledge and skills such as high quality project-based learning or real-world experiences. Calendars and schedules will need to be able to accommodate this. Schools will need partners. Teachers will need to bring strong assessment literacy including performance-based assessments.
  • Students will need to have help in repairing gaps and building fluency for prerequisite knowledge. This includes ensuring all students build up their knowledge in the foundational skills of numeracy and literacy. No matter when the gaps are identified, schools will have to be organized to respond with strong scaffolding that repairs the gap (not just allows access to grade level curriculum), opportunity for increased instruction, resources (including time) if students are learning multiple standards on the way to achieving grade level learning targets, and support for teacher planning and collaboration.

The report Levers and Logic Models can help you think through the implications of your shared purpose and designing around the research on how we learn.

Systemic: Intentional and aligned also signals that as districts and school move toward personalized, competency-based schools, they will need to create opportunity for dialogue to explore what needs to be stopped and what practices need to be introduced. It’s never one practice that is going to make the difference. It’s the set of practices that are aligned around learning and how they work together that creates the competency-based approach or system. It’s understanding the implications of the choices we make about how schools and classrooms are organized and operated. A good example is the use of the quiz. A quiz is not inherently good or bad. If quizzes are used as formative assessment and to reinforce recall, they can be productive, but when A-F summative grading is included, they are likely to undermine learning and reduce motivation for lower achieving students.

Reflective: Finally, intentional and aligned also reminds you to ‘go slow to go fast.’ Take the time to reflect with colleagues about whether the new practice you want to introduce is going to make a difference. Even check in with your students. It might be that the core idea is strong but there are other traditional mindsets or practices that are going to corrupt the idea and create a backlash. Reflection is the key to learning and the key to effective implementation.

As you consider the structural quality principles, be empowered by the design orientation. Figure out what you consider a highly effective school that is designed for every student to be successful in fully developing the full range of knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Once you are clear on that, you can then start to figure out how to manage the multi-tiered regulations that have been designed with the traditional school in mind. It’s likely you’ll find that you implement all the core features of personalized, competency-based education. And when you can’t, be sure to let those in higher levels of governance know where the regulations are getting in the way. They might not be able to change them as fast as you want, but as knowledge and public will builds, there will be a time that our regulatory system will need to be reviewed to ensure it is fully aligned with the research on learning.

Read the Entire Series:

  1. Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
  2. Purpose-Driven
  3. Commit to Equity
  4. Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
  5. Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
  6. Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
  7. Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
  8. Activate Student Agency and Ownership
  9. Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
  10. Ensure Responsiveness
  11. Seek Intentionality and Alignment
  12. Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
  13. Maximize Transparency
  14. Invest in Educators as Learners
  15. Increase Organizational Flexibility
  16. Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
  17. Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery