This is the fourth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #3 Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity on page 41. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted. For more on equity, see Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed.
We made a mistake in the first few years of CompetencyWorks. We simply underestimated the importance of culture – the underlying values, beliefs, rituals, and relationships that shape an organization or community – in making the transition to a competency-based system. Many schools and districts are making the same mistake when they focus on the structural or technical changes without first paying attention to culture. In fact, I’d throw out the hypothesis that the districts that couldn’t figure out how to implement proficiency-based learning well in Maine and advocated to terminate the policy of proficiency-based diplomas never took the time to adjust their school culture.
There has been a lot of discussion about what type of school culture is needed to breathe life into a competency-based system. There are some that have argued that a strong school culture is the same for either a traditional school or a personalized, competency-based one. Certainly there are similarities, such as a culture of high expectations. Through the collaborative discussions used to develop the equity framework and quality principles, there were long and healthy conversations about learning culture, respect, trust-building, belonging, and inclusivity. Different people had different understandings of words and concepts. There were conversations that were close to chicken and egg debates, especially about trust and respect. However, it became clear that there were different features of the school culture for personalized, competency-based education.
Kids don’t say, ‘I’m so stoked to make this standard today.’ They come to school because people care, there is meaningful and relevant curriculum and clear learning targets. We need to offer great teachers and engaging curriculum. For students below grade level, we have to get to know them really, really well. We want to know what motivates them because they are going to have put in extra work and time to catch up. We will customize a path for them. The bottom line is that they need to feel loved every day so that they are willing to put in some extra work every day. — Derek Pierce, Principal, Casco Bay High School, ME in 2015 
If we start with the key pedagogical principles based on the research on learning, it can guide us toward an effective school culture. (See Quality Principle #6 for a list of core cognitive and psychological findings on the science of learning, or you read the Cornerstones of Cognitive Learning Sciences from OECD.) I’ve picked three of the findings to get started:
Learning is a social process. Relationships matter. The relationships between adults and students, among adults, and between students all shape the learning experience. Students need to feel that they belong and that they are safe. This demands that schools get out of maintaining a mainstream of dominant culture and work their way toward cultural responsiveness and multiculturalism. When designing schools and experiences ,invest in relationship-building and trust-enhancing processes. One reason that distributed leadership is so important is that it demonstrates respect for the perspective others bring to decision-making. Simply by engaging others in decision-making, everyone in the school will develop respect for each other’s perspective.
Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner. Students do not simply absorb information and skills. Teachers have to develop learning experiences that actively engage and motivate students. The minute we move to active learners, we have to move away from a compliance-oriented culture. It’s nearly impossible to combine a culture where students are actively learning and taking responsibility for their learning with one that tells them they must wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. In addition, for students to learn how to become effective active learners, they need to develop all the skills packed as the Building Blocks of Learning (see page 34 in the Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education). This requires a school culture with a strong growth mindset and deeply set practices of reflection.
Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion, and motivation. The importance of social-emotional learning skill-building is taking hold in schools from coast to coast. However, there are other implications for schools based on this finding from the research on learning. First, we need to make room for emotions. We need to make room for the emotions that both adults and children have. It requires us to recognize our humanity, not just our roles. Valor Collegiate Academies understand this and run Circles that enhance relationships and trust-building for students and adults. Second, we have to understand that we are all motivated by different things. Some are indeed motivated by points and having more points than others. But most people are not. Intrinsic motivation will bring stronger outcomes in the long run. The school culture has to have room for different sources of motivation.
It’s worth trying to have your own conversations within your school, district, and community about what type of school culture is needed. However, it’s important to do so in a way that returns to what the research on learning tells us. Otherwise there is a risk you’ll slip into navigating preferences or moral stances rather than staying focused on what is important for students and teachers to be supported in learning.
 Sturgis, C. (2015). Casco Bay High School: We will shape our school by our learning. CompetencyWorks. Retrieved from https://www.competencyworks.org/case-study/casco-bay-high-school-we-will-shape-our-school-by-our-learning/.
Read the Entire Series:
- Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
- Commit to Equity
- Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
- Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
- Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
- Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
- Activate Student Agency and Ownership
- Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
- Ensure Responsiveness
- Seek Intentionality and Alignment
- Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
- Maximize Transparency
- Invest in Educators as Learners
- Increase Organizational Flexibility
- Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
- Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery