Skip to content
Aurora Institute

I’m So Dizzy….

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

csbouldersmallUpdate September 2015: I’ve noticed a lot of people have been reading this blog lately. I think we have moved beyond this stage of confusion. In the paper Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning we tried to explain the difference between a personalized system (as compared to factory model), competency-based structure, personalized learning as an approach, and online/blended learning. I think this might be a much more helpful reading at this point.

I’m so dizzy…my head is spinning. Does personalized learning equal competency education equal blended learning equal student-centered learning? I think not…but the recent Student First report “A Personalized Future for Education” really tipped me over the edge.  I can’t go on any longer without making sense of it all.

Now we know that we have a language challenge in competency education because each state has developed their specific terms. That makes sense to me – this is a local reform that is rapidly advancing across the country. New Hampshire and Iowa are “competency-based”; Maine, Oregon, and Colorado are “proficiency-based”; and Connecticut and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority are mastery-based. That’s why we created the working definition– to provide some cohesion to the field.  That’s how Diane Smith in Oregon and Sandra Dop in Iowa can have meaningful conversations without confusion, even though they may use different terms.  We call it a “working” definition, so if we need to update it to reflect best practices, we can do that.

However, the confusion between the terms competency education, personalized, student-centered, customization, and blended is awesome. The Student First report is a great example of this. In the report, they lead with personalization, and then write, “Personalized learning is a student-centered approach to education that allows each student to advance through academic content at his or her own pace. In a personalized model, also known as a competency-based education (CBE)…” and continue to introduce the competency education working definition.  They then go on to explain, “Thanks to an influx of choice and entrepreneurship in public education, personalized learning is popping up in all different shapes and sizes across the country. Since competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that students earn academic credit, states are exploring many different ways to personalize learning for their students. Some strategies to personalize learning include: blended learning, online schools, dual enrollment, project and community-based learning, and credit recovery. Blended learning and online schools are two of the fastest growing forms of personalized learning.” Once they started to describe blended learning in detail, I totally lost it – who wouldn’t think that personalization = competency education = blended?

We all get lost in the slipperiness of new concepts and new paradigms – we found that, in our network at CompetencyWorks,  student-centered was starting to be used synonymously with competency education. We caught ourselves and are all taking a step back so that we can be most skilled in our use of language and concepts.

Now I’m the first to be suspicious of groups claiming terminology territory or differentiating so finely that you have to be steeped in the literature (or politics) to understand it.  Territorial terminology is just irritating when no one else can use certain phrases. We encountered an organization that turned their lawyers on us when we tried to call our first paper “Failure is Not an Option” as they had trademarked that term even though it is highly identified with NASA. We laughed at the silliness of it all and went on our merry way. The other is extreme differentiation, which happens all the time for different reasons. What’s important here is that we don’t become our own worst enemies. My heart goes out to the staffers on the Hill when they try to sort through the differences between extended learning, after school, and community schools.

Competency education provides a foundation or structure and personalization is a strategy for supporting learners.

Personally I’ve felt that, at our stage of development, there is something meaningful in these different terms that are flowing in the world of next generation learning. But now I’m starting to wonder: Are they in fact melding into a larger and deeper understanding? Is it time we join together rather than differentiate? I honestly, honestly don’t know. We tried to break this down in From Cohorts to Competency once before. But I’m going to try again. Allow me to think aloud as I try to sort through what the terms really mean and if the differentiation is meaningful.

Personalized Learning

From what I can tell, personalized learning pops up everywhere with lots of different meanings. In fact it really may be the source of the confusion. Certainly the U.S. Department of Education caused some of this confusion by at one point suggesting that personalized and competency ed are interchangeable terms. (FYI – since then they have shifted to the term mastery-based instead of competency education.)

One definition was put forth in the  National Educational Technology Plan defining personalization as “instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content, as well as the method and pace, may all vary[…]” This is a fairly general definition but doesn’t explicitly intersect with competency education without a reference to making sure students reach proficiency or mastery. It’s the emphasis on mastery of common learning progressions that is at the heart of competency education. Too often we emphasize time and pace when it is really about making sure students get additional support and practice when they are struggling so they continue to make progress along their learning progression.

Personalization does seem to emphasize responding to student interests. I think this is important – we need a way to recognize skills that are developed by some students, but not all students. Maybe some students want to learn to code and others want to do an internship at a hospital as they pursue a pathway into health care.  We want to have that level of personalization for our students to balance out the common learning progressions we expect as our country tries to overcome its own history and today’s growing inequity. I think of competency education having an intense equity lens – it is designed to get all students to a certain level of proficiency all along the path to graduation, building upon the Common Core State Standards and other standards used by states and districts.

So it looks to me like we need both terms, personalized and competency-based. One way of testing this is asking: Can you have personalized experiences that are not competency-based? Absolutely. Can you have competency-based learning that isn’t personalized? This gets a little trickier as there are some ways that competency education is inherently personalized in providing adequate instruction, support, and time to reach proficiency.

Personalization requires broader access to resources and flexibility in how resources are deployed. Schools aren’t going to personalize every feature, all the time.  Offering students three choices in how they demonstrate their learning or how they access new instruction is an important step along the continuum of personalization, but it doesn’t actually design around the individual students. Depending on school design, sometimes they may offer pre-determined choices and other times personalization.

Is this making sense…? It still feels fuzzy to me. So let’s go on to the next one.

Student-Centered Learning

Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Jobs for the Future have worked to define student-centered learning. Students at the Center identifies four elements:

  • Embracing the adolescent’s experience and learning theory as the starting point of education;
  • Harnessing the full range of learning experiences at all times of the day, week, and year;
  • Expanding and reshaping the role of the educator; and
  • Determining progression based upon mastery.

It does sound a lot like the definition of personalized, since those first two bullets essentially capture all the ways education might be personalized (by interest, by learning style, by maturity as well as where/when/how they learn, practice, and apply). Although it isn’t explicit, you can certainly see student voice and choice being included in that first bullet as well. It’s a clever definition because that first bullet will mean different things as we learn more about adolescent development, brain science, and learning theory. The fourth bullet explicitly makes the link to competency education as an element of student-centered learning.

Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority uses the term student-centered learning to describe their overall approach for K-12. They too see mastery-based as one important element of an approach that is deeply rooted in what we know about learning and children.

Customized Learning or Customization

The first time I saw the language of customization in education is in Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning by Bea McGarvey and Charles Schwahn. Customization is described as an information age, learning-based system that:

  • Meets every learner at his/her learning level,
  • Provides learning opportunities that sync with the learner’s most effective learning styles, and
  • Allows the learner to study and learn skills and concepts using content that is relevant and interesting.

I think I’ve asked Tom Vander Ark three times the difference in how he uses personalized and customized because I couldn’t quite get it.  His definition of customization also refers to technology with a specific reference to sophisticated use of data and technology that can instantly respond to students as they move along their learning progressions.  In From Cohorts to Competency, we explained that customized learning “refers to a sequence of multi-modal learning experiences queued by a smart recommendation engine that is driven by a comprehensive learner profile.”

Based on those two definitions I’d say it’s smart for us to continue to use the term customization as different than personalized because of the emphasis on a new technological capacity that will allow us to respond all the better to children as they learn and struggle with new material.

Competency Education

When Susan Patrick and I drafted the working definition, we constantly tested ourselves against what we knew about competency education in classrooms as well as in online courses. We also constantly tested ourselves about what is essential and what is optional. Concepts that are included in personalized learning tended to be options for instructional design, i.e. where students learn, designing around their interests, and how they learned. These options are ways to help students reach proficiency.  Thus, we ended up with the following five elements that we thought were core to competency education at the classroom and systemic level:

  • Students advance upon mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Is competency education the same as personalized? It really isn’t, and it doesn’t make sense to conflate the two terms at this point. Competency education provides a foundation or structure and personalization is a strategy for supporting learners.

It’s possible that the concepts of personalized and competency education are becoming integrated into a broader vision. I’m okay with that – but if we are going to do that let’s be strategic about it.

Blended Learning

This is the easiest for us to define. The Clayton Christensen Institute defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns, at least in part, through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace; at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.” That’s what it is…but the power behind blended learning is what it enables us to do.

Blended learning is an incredibly powerful enabler for personalized learning but it is definitely not the same. It is a tool, or perhaps we might call it an engine for personalization that can be implemented in a time-based or competency-based system. We definitely want to build our capacity to use blended learning as education technology provides incredible opportunities for students to access the instruction and support they need when they need it. Similarly it can help schools integrate choice into the learning experience for students, further personalizing their education.

As I combed through all these meanings I was humbled by how none of them explicitly emphasize student voice and choice. Paul Leather certainly told me repeatedly that student voice and choice is important, and I can see now that we should have figured out how to weave it more clearly into the competency education working definition as co-design is such a strong dynamic in competency-based classrooms. I think I have to admit that I’m an “ageist” – sometimes I underestimate the role younger generations can play in their own lives as well as the broader community.

I know I failed to tie everything up in a pretty ribbon. This confusion and reflection are important as it helps us more deeply understand the implications of these reforms. However, we do need to make it easier for people to understand the language, definitions, and implications or we will become our own worst enemies. Susan Patrick and her colleagues at iNACOL are working on a paper exploring personalization in more depth including how it relates to some of these concepts. I know they are going to offer great insight into personalization as well as how we advance our work together.