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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Learning Centers

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jill Lizier and Lisa Brown

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

Jill Lizier and Lisa Brown
Jill Lizier and Lisa Brown

The following article will explore the use of competency-based learning centers in the elementary classroom. The examples will be focused around math, but the basic structure can be used for ELA competencies along with integrating social studies and science content. As a reference, when speaking of competencies and learning progressions in this article, we will be referring to the NH College and Career Ready K-8 Math Model Competencies.

Traditional Centers vs. Competency Based Learning Centers in the Elementary Classroom

Elementary classrooms have been utilizing centers for years. Terms like workshop, station rotation, and centers have been used. Centers allow for educators to teach to different academic levels as well as keep students moving and on task. While school districts work to implement competency-based education, this article will help educators take a framework like centers and enhance them into competency-based learning centers.

One aspect that makes the center model so suitable for competency-based learning is the flexibility of student learning groups. Utilizing data, teachers can group and regroup students based on their progression toward competency. Then, as students work through centers, modifications can be made to support, remediate, or challenge different groups. As students begin to grasp new concepts, other students may still need more time to practice. This is where the flexibility of grouping comes into play; students can be reassigned to new groups based on needs.

Flexible grouping in a CBE model acknowledges that students have strengths in different areas through different modalities. The use of CBE centers allows for the classroom teacher to make this change based on formative assessments and can happen fluently. This way of working becomes authentic rather than keeping students in a leveled group for longer periods of time.

Components of Competency-Based Learning Centers in the Elementary Classroom

1) Teacher Station: Creating opportunities for teachers to observe and engage in assessing students.

2) Work Station: Creating opportunities for application of skills to assess deeper levels of knowledge at levels 3 and 4.

3) Integrated Technology Station: creating opportunities for meaningful use of technology in helping students to build skills.

Teacher Station

Teachers work with students at this time in a small group setting focused on where the student is in their learning progression toward competency. It is at this time that the teacher can provide differentiated opportunities for students who need readiness activities with manipulatives, repeated practice, or a chance to apply new learning. With a small group, the teacher is also able to assess student understanding and plan for future activities as well as regroup. With that said, a teacher station may have one group building and working with manipulatives to better understand the concept, while other groups may be ready to further their practice of the skill or application activities. Again, keeping competencies in mind, not every student or group will progress at the same pace.

Students can also work on performance tasks in this center, which assesses skills at a Depth of Knowledge (DOK) level 3 or 4. I find it realistic to administer a performance task in a teacher center with younger students because these tasks can be longer. For example, if students are working on a task focused on the competency Reasoning and Computational Strategies, it may be a real-world problem addressing a recess problem: creating equal soccer teams on the playground! This is a large task but very meaningful to students. As the classroom teacher, I know the specific skills that students need to demonstrate to show mastery. Working in a small group, I can assist students in other skills that would typically hold them back, such as reading the directions, helping them gather materials to solve the problem, or scribing. While students are working in this group, I am able to observe their ability to solve problems and plan for next steps in their learning.

It is important to be realistic in your entry point into CBE learning centers. If administering performance tasks is not something you are familiar with, use the teacher station as a time to work with students on applying their knowledge and skills into real world situations. Modeling how to apply skills and practicing together is essential. The teacher station allows for this close observation and timely restructuring of lessons based off need.

Work Station

This station allows students to work independently or collaboratively. This center can be an extension of work started at the teacher center or a different project. It is important to remember that if we are assessing competency at a DOK level 3 or 4, students need practice at a DOK level 3 and 4.

Examples include:

  • After working with the teacher on measuring items to the nearest inch with a ruler, I may pose a problem like this for students to work on: “Mrs. Lizier has papers all over her desk! Draw a design that would hold her papers. You may also use materials to build your design.”
  • If your school uses a math program, this station could be skill work from that program and then extended upon in the teacher station.

Integrated Technology Station

Integrating technology is a great way to engage and focus students. However, competency-based learning requires that technology take students beyond practice and skill acquisition. There are many new sites and apps that allow students to apply their knowledge and document their learning. They also allow students the ability to create, analyze, and make connections. These tools are “game changers” in the center model.

One such tool is Seesaw, a student-driven digital portfolio. Seesaw is a “game changing tool” for both student documentation and assessment and provides the teacher with the ability to monitor growth and progress. Teachers can also provide timely feedback and use student work to flexibly group students and provide appropriate, leveled instruction. Teachers can also use these artifacts to prove mastery and readiness of a student to move on.

Seesaw allows students to take pictures and videos of their own work. They can record their explanations of how they completed a task or share their critical thinking. They can use the new “labels” tool to demonstrate understanding while again adding an audio recording.

One example of how Seesaw has been used during math centers is to have students build small towers using base-ten blocks. Students are then asked to calculate the value of their tower and explain how they know. Students were able to take a picture of their tower, utilize the drawing tool to write their tower’s value and then apply the recording tool to share their thinking. Finally, this artifact can be uploaded and saved into their portfolio, where the teacher could view and comment. This all can happen within a 15 minute, independent station.

Another great tool to use in tech stations are intuitive programs that practice fact fluency. Tools such as Reflex Math are adaptive and provide individualization. What makes it really work for competency-based centers is that teachers can monitor their students’ progress and provide support for those who need it.

See also:

Jill Lizier is the Curriculum Coordinator at Swasey Central School in Brentwood, NH. Jill was previously a first grade teacher in Newton, NH and has developed and utilized quality performance assessments to assess competency. Jill has presented at local conferences on academic competencies and essential skills and dispositions. Jill may be followed on Twitter: @JillLizier

Lisa Brown is currently a second grade teacher at Swasey Central School in Brentwood, NH. Having also taught in grades 3-5, she has hands-on experience with much of the elementary competencies. Lisa has helped to design and create a Makerspace at Swasey as well as organized “Hour of Code” computer science week for the past four years. In addition, she has also presented at NHSTE technology conference. Lisa can be followed on Twitter: @Brown515.