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Aurora Institute

Competency Education Quality Principle #1: Purpose-Driven

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the second article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #1 Purpose-Driven on page 31. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.

What does it mean to be purpose-driven?

For those who use design thinking, it means clarifying the point from which you backward plan. We have to know where we want to get in order to design the school and learning experiences that will get you there.

Others use the phrase “shared purpose” instead of purpose-driven. (See page 8-18 in Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems.) This suggests engaging the community, parents, and students in shaping a common understanding of what we want for students upon leaving the school. It helps us define what we want schools to be and do. Then, drawing upon what we know about learning – referred to as the science of learning (SoL) or mind, brain education (MBE) – we can organize schools, learning experiences, instruction, and assessment that will help students, all students, get there.

When thinking about how you move forward on creating a purpose-driven district and school, it is equally important to think about how (or the process) you want to use to engage your stakeholders and community as well as the what (the actual way you want to describe goals for students upon leaving your school or district).

A Three-Part Goal

Our community told us they wanted their children to be lifelong learners. We had to ask ourselves, what are we doing in our classrooms to help them be lifelong learners? What structures and supports do our teachers need to help develop lifelong learners? It came down to needing to have an active learning environment. Students need to be able to seek out things they are personally interested in, create a plan and find the resources. We are always looking for ways for students to learn beyond the classroom. – Doug Penn, District Principal, Chugach School District, AK, 2015[1]

What do we want for students upon their transition from high school to college, careers, and life? Or, backing it up, what do we want for students upon their transition from elementary to middle or middle to high school?

Based on the participatory processes we have used at CompetencyWorks, we developed a three-part purpose: academic knowledge, transferrable skills, and lifelong learning skills. (See page 34 in Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education.) However, after my trip to New Zealand, I’ve been wondering if we should have discussed well-being in more depth as a foundational expectation for schools. If we don’t start with well-being and helping students to take care of their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, will they really be prepared for making the transition to young adulthood? Of course, we could say, “Oh that’s the family responsibility.” Or should we think of that more of a shared responsibility?

Implications of Purpose for Design of Schools and Learning Experiences

What are the implications for schools once we develop a shared purpose? Certainly, promoting lifelong learning requires us to help students develop the building blocks of learning. It isn’t something we only do in elementary schools. Adults in schools need to understand and be able to coach students in developing a growth mindset, self-regulation, agency, and perseverance. Many schools are building their capacity in this realm as they incorporate social-emotional learning skills.

Implications for transferable skills means students need to have the opportunity to apply their learning. It’s not just listening, taking notes, studying, and taking a test. They need to have projects – in school and in the real-world – to apply their skills. This means that our districts need the capacity and systems for performance-based assessment to be able to assess transferable skills in consistent ways within and across schools. The PACE initiative in New Hampshire continues to be a model for districts and states to learn from.

Finally, if we are going to get all students to develop the academic knowledge and skills they need, we are going to have to figure out how to better meet students where they are academically and developmentally. It’s going to take courage to move beyond the accountability exams that are blocking out innovation. Schools are finding that multi-age bands help teachers shift from covering the grade level curriculum to thinking in a student-centered way about what students need. Collaborative relationships also allow teachers to tap into the pool of knowledge that they all bring to the task. We can support collaborative teaching by redesigning school facilities to support more flexible learning environments while creating shared work or office spaces to support teachers.

Risks and Considerations

There are several risks to think about in creating a shared purpose. I’ll highlight two.

Who is Driving Our Understanding of Purpose and Why?

First, don’t let the next-step institutions define the educational experience too strongly. For high schools, this means don’t let more competitive colleges drive your decision-making. Higher education, which, for the most part, tends to be entrapped by the traditional practices of lectures, assignments, and tests that do not take into consideration what we know about learning and tend to be somewhat ambivalent about their commitment to equity (don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of exceptions), is a questionable partner. We definitely need a way to let students excel and be competitive for college, but that is only one of many other objectives that should be taken into consideration.

Consider: Are we preparing students to be great lifelong learners, or are we preparing them to be effective college students? Is there a way we can do both? This is a both-and situation (rather than either-or). We need to think of these three purposes in the long-term, preparing students for life, as well as in the shorter-term of readiness for the next step.

Just as we should be thinking the overall purpose of education as well as the next steps for students in high schools, middle schools should be thinking about what students really need, not just preparing them to be successful in high school.

From Rhetoric to Reality

The other risk is to end your process after clarifying the purpose. You need to operationalize it – make it real. The shared purpose is more than rhetoric or vision. It’s a tool you can use to sketch out the vision for the design of your school and what needs to change.

Whether you are at the state, district, or school level, you are going to want to engage with others to explore the implications of the shared purpose. Many states have created graduate profiles. However, they haven’t taken the next step to clarify the implications and what that means for the pedagogical principles, policies, systems of support, daily operations, and culture.

This requires leadership. For the past ten years or more “college and career ready” has been the rhetoric at national, state, and some districts. It’s everywhere you look. However, if you ask what that means, you start to wander through some pretty cloudy ideas pretty quickly. Many of them because of the class bias that permeates our policy discussions. What is college? Do career-track courses at community colleges count as college? What about apprenticeships in the trades?

You will have to navigate and create clarity about what it means. How will we know if students have reached the levels of necessary knowledge and skills? What happens if they don’t? How do high schools (and middle schools and elementary schools) need to change in order to make sure they develop those sets of knowledge and skills set forward in the graduate profile? What do they look like developmentally so that we can better monitor student progress? How do schools have to be designed and learning experiences structured to help students learn the graduate profile knowledge and skills? What do teachers need to support them?

You get the idea. Pull together a mix of people and big pads of paper and start sketching the learning experiences, schools, districts, and statewide systems you need. (See Levers and Logic Models to help you get started.)

[1] Sturgis, C. (2015). Chugach school district’s performance-based infrastructure. CompetencyWorks. Retrieved from

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