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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #6: Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the seventh article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #6 Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences on page 54. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.


If I had a magic wand and could go back eight years, I would make clarifying the pedagogical principles the first step in moving toward personalized, competency-based education. At the time, districts and schools were primarily using engaging the community around a shared vision and purpose as the first step. And it is indeed a powerful and important step. However, when teachers are trying to implement a personalized approach while still believing in fixed intelligence, considering students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, and depending solely on ‘carrots and sticks’ to motivate, it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that the approach isn’t effective.

We can’t underestimate the power of the beliefs we bring to our work. They are invisible but shape every thing we do. They are difficult to pin down because they don’t operate in isolation – they are dynamic within our full set of beliefs. And when it comes to bias, we may be ashamed that we carry stereotypes that shape our beliefs about other people and seek to hide them rather them bring them to the surface.

“One of the biggest changes is from assuming that the stand and deliver approach to learning in which teachers deliver curriculum and students are expected to just give it back on tests actually works. We are inching along in our understanding that scholars have to be active learners and that we need to build on what they already know. We can’t assume what they know – we need to discover it. Without the data, we are at risk of just making up stuff and spinning our wheels. If you are making me learn letters when I already know them, you are not helping me reach my potential.” – Cynthia Lamkin, Lead Learner, Otken Elementary School, McComb School District, MS, 2018

The beliefs that we hold as individuals and as a system about how to develop students – cognitively, psychologically, and biologically – shape every aspect of children’s educational lives. They impact culture, how learning experiences are designed, the instructional and assessment strategies teachers choose, and the instructional resources that are selected.

Take the time to engage with colleagues or organize schoolwide reflections on what the research tells us about how students learn with discussions about what this means for teaching. You’ll need to create safe space to allow for educators to share their beliefs that some students can’t learn to high levels, that extrinsic motivation is effective, and that if students aren’t engaged and are disrupting the class they should be removed. You’ll need to be prepared to engage to look at these beliefs carefully, challenge them with experiments to test out the different beliefs, and understand that underneath may be fears about teachers’ sense of efficacy.

Below are 10 cornerstones of learning based upon OECD’s Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice with additional insights for competency-based educators. (Summary can be found here.) You can turn this into a discussion tool, asking your team which ones they find most compelling and which ones are the most questionable. You can begin to build your pedagogical principles where there is consensus and develop opportunities to reflect on the others along the way. As soon as you even have agreement on one pedagogical principle, you can then begin to assess the degree that principle is driving the student experience or what changes are needed.

Cornerstones of the Learning Sciences


Learning is an activity that is carried out by the learner. Students do not simply absorb information and skills. Rather, learning requires active engagement and effort. Effort is influenced by motivation. Similar to intelligence, motivation is malleable. Beliefs about intelligence shape the amount of effort students are willing to invest. Those who hold a growth mindset will put more effort toward learning than those who hold the misconception that intelligence is a fixed trait. Providing incremental opportunities to experience growth reinforces that effort will result in success. Learners will be more motivated when they value the task and if they are confident they will be successful with supports available if needed.


Learning results from the interplay of cognition, emotion and motivation. The brain does not clearly separate cognitive from emotional functioning, so optimal learning environments will engage both. Motivation is important to learning but it is also dynamic and changes in response to a number of factors. In fact, as students learn more about their cognitive processes, they develop a greater sense of competence and thereby increase their motivation. The relationship between cognition, emotion and motivation is dynamic.


Learning does not occur through a fixed progression of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts. Learning is shaped by multiple factors, some of which are related to the neural, social and emotional development of children. Others are dependent on the types of experiences and contexts provided for the learner to build new understanding on prior knowledge. Practically speaking, this means that biological factors are only a part of the story. Frequent challenges matched by socio-emotional support can strengthen cognitive and psychological development. Rich learning experiences facilitated by helpful guides along with recurring opportunities to experiment, practice and improve will help students learn, develop and achieve.


Intrinsic motivation leads to better long-term outcomes than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic or controlled motivation (systems of reward or punishment such as the traditional grading system of 0-100 points for assignments and behaviors) may be useful in the short-run but often produces the unintended consequence of disengagement and resistance. Self-determination theory explains that motivation will increase when learners experience competence (I can be successful), relatedness (I have meaning and connection) and autonomy (I have control over the process). It’s important to remember that motivation is dynamic. It increases and decreases. It can be shaped by cognitive processes, and external expectations can become intrinsic motivation.


Effort is dependent on motivation and self-regulation. When learners are able to self-regulate — when they can successfully manage thoughts, behaviors and emotions — they are better able to initiate and sustain focus and effort on difficult tasks. Students may be highly motivated but not have the skills necessary to manage the emotions they experience in the process of learning. Thus, students need coaching to build the social and emotional skills to manage the stress they experience from situations in or out of school, the metacognitive skills to monitor their learning and the self-regulation skills to change strategies as needed.


Learning is shaped by the way information is processed and transferred into long-term memory. New information is processed in working memory before it can be transferred into long-term memory. Working memory has limitations to how much new information it can absorb, requiring students and teachers to consider the cognitive load. Strategies can be used to reduce demand on working memory and helping to transfer new information and concepts into long-term memory.



Learning builds on prior knowledge and context. People learn new knowledge optimally when their prior knowledge is activated. Learners need to have structures to organize and retrieve information. Thus, attaching new information to what they already know in a context where that knowledge is accessible, relevant and responsive to cultural understanding can be helpful in mastering new ideas and skills.



Acquiring new knowledge and skills requires effective feedback. Effective feedback focuses on the task (not the student) and on improving (rather than verifying performance). Assessing student learning, identifying misconceptions or gaps in understanding and providing feedback are critical steps in the learning process. Assessment information is as important to helping teachers to adjust their teaching strategies or improve their skills as it is for helping students adjust their learning strategies. Research on learning progressions helps teachers to understand how students are understanding concepts and processes not just whether they reached the correct answer.


Learning is a social process. Learning occurs in a socio-cultural context involving social interactions. Individuals need opportunities to observe and model behaviors — both from adults and peers — to develop new skills. Dialogue with others is needed to shape ways of thinking and construct knowledge. Discourse and collaborative work can strengthen learning when they allow students to assist each other and take on expert roles.



Learning occurs through interaction with one’s environment. The human brain, and therefore learning, develops over time through exposure to conditions, including people, experiences and environmental factors. A person’s culture may also serve as “context” that influences learning. Learning occurs best in conditions that support healthy social, emotional and neurological development. Students will be more motivated in schools when they believe that they are accepted, belong and respected. Optimal learning environments attend to and seek to ameliorate status differences and social hierarchies so that students do not feel marginalized, ostracized or threatened.

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