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Aurora Institute

Personalizing Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

csbouldersmallBased on school visits across the country, I have come to believe that competency education needs a large dose of personalization to bring it to life.  In Maine where personalization is the leading policy concept, proficiency-based education and student voice and choice are being integrated as standard operating practices.  However, in district-run high schools I visited in other states that don’t lead with personalization, competency education classrooms often lack that pride of learning that comes when students own their education.  We need to build on the combination of what personalization and competency education together can offer if we are going to truly transform our education system into a place where everyone can succeed.

However, it’s hard to untangle the relationship between competency education and personalization, as the “field” of personalization hasn’t created a common understanding of what personalization is, and the variety of ways we can personalize education. I’ve often resorted to a basic Venn diagram where I’ve come to the conclusion that competency-based education is inherently personalized in terms of differentiated responses to students when they get stuck or fall behind, as well as offering flexibility in time. And it enables personalization by offering explicit competencies and rubrics. Looking at it through the lens of personalization, one can have many forms of personalization without competency-based practices. Some argue that personalization requires competency education in order to ensure equity.

Even if a school doesn’t embrace personalization, some of the basics of competency education create value in and of itself. For example:

•    Making competencies and the rubrics explicit is valuable to students understanding what is expected of them.  It just makes the system work better and empowers students.

•    Providing just-in-time supports and interventions obviously makes sense rather than waiting for students to fail to provide greater interventions.  Focusing on helping students on specific competencies rather than repeating entire costs makes sense for students and budgets alike.

•    Unlocking learning from seat-time is invaluable for students that need more time or can advance more quickly. It is also critically important for creating more cost-effective use of resources.

However, I’ve seen too many classrooms where competency education defaults to a systematic standards-based, teacher-driven classroom without some element of student voice and choice.  That’s why I was delighted to see the Policy and Implementation Tool that was introduced at the Innovation Lab Network by the Hewlett Foundation emphasize personalized learning as a goal with competency-based policies as an intermediate outcome.  It makes sense to me to lead with a vision of personalization, where every student gets what they need to succeed, and competency education is a core element of the systemic changes we need to see. (See wiki on state policy resources).

We still need to create a working definition of personalization that builds on what we’ve created for competency education. The definition needs to create a common understanding as well as provide clarity around the design choices districts and schools can make regarding personalizing education.