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Aurora Institute

Navigating the Nuances of Competency Education & Personalized Learning (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

For the last four months, I’ve been steeped in the work of shaping an updated understanding of what it means to have a competency-based education system. It ends up that there are in fact multiple demands for different types of communication tools from multiple stakeholders who bring multiple perspectives of what is important to emphasize. Thus, the process is much more complicated than I had originally understood. Not tearing-hair-out complicated, but definitely eye-spinning.

However, listening (does the word listen apply when sometimes the medium is a Google doc?) to people to understand not just their point but their reasoning and perspective has helped me to understand several important nuances that float through our conversations about competency-based education, personalized learning, and even blended learning.

Sometimes, someone tries to ramp these up into different “definitions.” This can be helpful to see the differences, but it totally fails us when we fail to see the commonalities. And it can sow discord, frighten funders, and worst of all make it much more difficult for educators to figure out a path for themselves. Worst of all, it creates a “judgy” environment where we say “oh that school, they say they are doing personalized learning but they aren’t.” I’m embarrassed to say those types of words have come from my mouth as well. I’ve listened hard when I get judgy and binary (you are competency-based or you aren’t) and have come to realize that it comes from being too tired to engage in a richer conversation, some type of ugly ego-eruption, or a desire to form an alliance with the person with whom I’m talking.

Although discernment in general is a very important skill (it’s one of the main skills that drive the learning at Young Women’s Leadership), judginess isn’t. When we quickly try to say something is or isn’t personalized, something is or isn’t competency-based, we fail to see where the school or individual started, what they had already accomplished, what they are trying to do, and where they are going. Are any of the leading schools that we go to visit completely done with their transition to personalized, competency-based education? Of course not. We are on a huge journey…together. Thus, let’s try to let go of the binariness of definitions and use a map metaphor. Where did you start? Where are you now? What path did you take and how did it work out? What might you suggest avoiding?

The most important question might be, where are you going next? That’s the question that allows us to do flexible grouping among ourselves so that our loosely formed network can reshape itself. Those working on integrating the growth mindset into their operations (and flushing out the fixed mindset that lurks in so many practices and the corners of our minds) can find each other and exchange notes, and those who are seeking to shift to a learner progression (or continuum) and move away from the Prussian age-based grade model can brainstorm together about the implications for district policies and operations on multi-age grouping.

In the next articles, I’ll sketch out the craters of competency-based learning and the palisades of personalized learning. (Just playing with the map metaphor a bit…and in my search for alliteration learned that palisades are “bold cliffs.”)

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