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Aurora Institute

Five Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: How Competency-Based Education Has Been a Game Changer

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Donna Harvey-Moseley

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Donna Harvey-Moseley (Photo by Mark Giullucci)

The traditional social studies classroom that I participated in as a student has experienced a steady evolution thanks to the introduction of competency-based education. Gone are the days of teachers dispensing knowledge from behind a podium at the front of the room while students memorize dates and names to pass the next test. Indeed it was a big change that was intimidating; it was a learning experience and I didn’t always get it right the first time. I had to be flexible and forgiving but the rewards are great and I have learned many lessons along the way.

Lesson #1: Competency work can not be done in isolation.

You must collaborate with other teachers to identify the knowledge and skills you want your graduates to have after they have completed the program. For us, this meant meeting K-12 and deciding what content students needed to have in order to successfully complete an International Relations course as seniors and which grade levels would be responsible for the individual pieces. Further, you need to evaluate and re-evaluate how your school and district are going to define competency in the social studies, and that means you need to research. I have spent years working with my colleagues and administrators to set competencies, continually looking at what other schools and districts were using and what national options were out there. We are now using the C3 Frameworks at all grade levels, K-12, which I love! Among the greatest benefits of the C3 Frameworks is that in addition to history, civics, geography, and economics, it also includes Dimensions 3 & 4, which are skills-based and linked to the Common Core. One adjustment that we did make was to create language that is student-friendly and to make sure that what we expect of our students and the material that is delivered is specific and developmentally appropriate.

Lesson #2: Focus on the big ideas and the big picture.

The beautiful thing about competencies is they offer targets to aim for but do not prescribe the path to take to get there. As a teacher, I have the freedom to be creative and selective when I am designing lessons, activities, and assessments. I am no longer bound by the textbook. Instead, I can let student choice drive the class or focus on problem-based tasks that allow students to demonstrate competency. I can also relinquish some control over what is happening in the classroom and allow students to take on more leadership roles. For instance, I have a project that I am planning to do with my psychology students called “The Psychology of…” that will allow each student to finish the thought with a topic of their choosing. We will work together on a rubric, and I will provide them with benchmark assignments along the way to make sure they are on the right track and moving forward, but what they do and how they do it will be up to them. It’s an exciting opportunity and a little bit intimidating. As I tell my students, it is either going to be awesome or awful, but either way, we will all learn from the experience.

Lesson #3: It’s not all academic but it’s all important.

Competency-based assessment forced me to take Work Study Practices (behavior) out of the academic grade and challenged me to assess them in new and objective ways by collecting data throughout the quarters, semesters, and year. I am no longer sitting when grades close guessing at scores for work study practices because I have been paying attention to them and recording data all along. Most importantly, I am working with my students to define what they mean, practice what they look like, and improve how they apply those skills. It can be as simple as talking to students about collaboration when it is time to start a group project or activity. Take five or ten minutes to make sure everyone has the same understanding of what it means to work collaboratively and identify the types of behaviors students should be demonstrating, clearly define what you are looking to see but give them input as well. Finally, give them the opportunity, again five to ten minutes, to reflect on their performance providing examples of how they demonstrated collaboration and how it helped the group to be successful. It will be time well spent as your students become more efficient and effective collaborators.

Lesson #4: Competency learning is about transferring skills to other disciplines.

Bring literacy skills to the forefront of your instruction, they will be even more important than they were before (and they were already pretty important). As you break away from traditional tests, textbooks, and prescribed curriculum, you will need to work with your students to make sure they can evaluate sources for relevance, accuracy, and point of view. I recommend using the CRAAP Test, a tool that helps students assess the Currency, Relevance, Authority,  Accuracy and Purpose of sources, with students when you get started. I have students watch excerpts from National Treasure, validate claims made in the film, and then evaluate the quality of their source with the test. It is engaging and effective. Remember, in a competency-based system, you still need to provide scaffolding for students in order to make sure they are applying reading strategies, can take appropriate notes, and know how to identify evidence to support their ideas. When you are assessing for competence in social studies, you want to be able to focus on the competency and eliminate other obstacles that may create challenges.

Lesson #5: Focus assessment on learning, not on the accumulation of points.

Learning is the focus, assessment is no longer a singular event, and reflection has become an essential part of the equation. This particular lesson is really the culmination of the previous ones as it shows the combined results of changes brought about by competencies. The priority has shifted from what is being taught to what students are learning; it isn’t enough to deliver the content anymore, students have to demonstrate that they have learned it and can apply it. A test or project used to be the assessment at the end of the learning. Now it happens throughout the learning process and is used to inform your teaching, not just evaluate students. If students aren’t demonstrating an understanding of the material on formatives, I have the freedom to wait, provide additional instruction, and help them get ready for the summative assessment. That being said, even the summative assessment isn’t final because the goal is for students to demonstrate competency, and if they don’t, I can go back with them, help them reflect on their learning, and reassess with them. As I mentioned before, it’s about making sure they are learning and improving. That is true reward to competency-based education.

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Donna Harvey-Moseley is a long-time social studies educator in the Sanborn Regional School District with experience at both the middle and high schools. She has a BA in History from Merrimack College, an M.Ed. in Curriculum from Lesley University and CAGS in Administration from New England College. She has presented her work related to work study practices, personalized learning, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary project and competency-based grading and assessment at local and national conferences.