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Aurora Institute

Seizing the Moment

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

seizeToday, a new report, Seizing the Moment: Realizing the Promise of Student-Centered Learning, is being released at a Washington D.C. forum. It is a beautifully written report by Don Spangler; Steve Brown, College for America; Tony Simmons, High School for Recording Arts; Bea McGarvey, MCL Alliance; Dena Cushenberry, Ed.D., Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, Indiana; Jim Griffin, Momentum Strategy & Research; Nicholas B. Donohue, Nellie Mae Education Foundation; Bob Rath, Our Piece of the Pie®; Rodney Powell, Our Piece of the Pie®; and Linda C. Dawson, Ed.D., SIA Tech.

These authors represent a wide range of educational institutions, including those that specialize in helping students to re-engage and complete their diplomas. They are deeply committed to equity, stating, “our primary objective is to elevate the learning and readiness of students regardless of color or zip code, and to combat the growing economic inequalities that are so pervasive across our country.” They argue that “student-centered learning represents an opportunity to address both of these needs simultaneously. It is truly a “both/and” proposition, which can help to close achievement gaps while also raising the bar for all students.”

This report spurred my thinking in two different directions. First, I was taken by the concept of Design to the Edges. Second is how we navigate the environment of different but highly related terminology.

Design to the Edges

There are many helpful ideas in the report. I want to bring your attention to the design principle of “Design to the Edges,” as I think it can be a helpful concept for all of us to think about as we try to move away from the idea of delivering grade level curriculum or standards to all students regardless of their performance levels. This is proving to be one of the hardest practices for us to let go of.

The report recounts a TEDTalk by Todd Rose:

Rose tells the story of the Air Force’s experience with military fighter cockpit design. Originally, the Air Force tried to build cockpits that would accommodate the “average” pilot. However, experience showed that an average cockpit actually limited the number of successful candidates. Simply speaking, too many would-be pilots couldn’t operate the plane because their frames were either too large or too small to fit the “average” cockpit. Finally realizing this, the Air Force changed the design specifications to produce cockpits that would accommodate the greatest possible variety in body types, which increased the number of would-be pilots who could safely operate the planes.

Similarly, Rose argues, there is no such thing as an “average” student, and it is counterproductive to continue to organize instruction as if there were, with common text books, assignments, and instructional strategies. Given today’s theories of learning and emerging technologies, we can design educational systems that accommodate, adjust to, and take maximum advantage of students’ differing interests, talents and needs, rather than utilizing the standard-issue, one-size-fits-all approach employed in most classrooms over the last century. We can design a system that incorporates all the essential elements for student learning—one that expands to and is inclusive of the edges.

Although we all agree that greater personalization is important, we also know that given the state of the art practices and funding structures, we aren’t going to provide personalization in all ways at all times. Furthermore, talk to any kid and you know there is a lot of value of students working in strong communities of learners. This concept of design around the edges opens up a conversation about how we might do that within schools to maximize the number of students we are reaching with much more intensive, individualized support. It’s important to think about this at the district and school level—not just classrooms. For example, schools can rethink how classes are organized, scheduling, and flexible grouping. Districts can organize alternative schools for students who need very small learning environments with more support and structure while also providing more flexibility. If we left designing to the edges only to teachers, they would be terribly constrained by the resources they control.

Making Sense of Concepts of Student-Centered Learning, Personalized Learning, and Competency Education

In reading this report with its set of recommendations, I began to think about the issue of having the competing but highly overlapping concepts of student-centered learning, personalized learning, and competency education. There is value in having a different set of terms for the same ideas in that they may resonate differently for different sets of people. However, the risk is that we end up producing confusion.

The important thing when we have this situation is to never let this divide the field—we must find ways to tap into the benefits and variations of insights. We must all become adept at understanding the terminology so that we can understand and support each other. (FYI–That’s why, at CompetencyWorks, we work flexibly with the terms of competency-based, proficiency-based, mastery-based, performance-based, and whatever terminology is still to be created, using the working definition as a way of providing some common language and concepts.)

For those of you residing outside of New England, “student-centered learning” has been defined by Nellie Mae Education Foundation with four attributes (see Students at the Center for more information):

Learning is personalized: it recognizes that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced learning that starts from where they are, and formatively assesses their skills and addresses their needs.

Learning is competency-based: students move ahead as they demonstrate mastery, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or completed required times in classrooms.

Learning happens anytime, anywhere: learning takes place beyond the school day and year. Schools’ walls are permeable; learning is not restricted to classrooms.

Students take ownership: student-centered learning engages students in their own successes—incorporating their interests and skills into the learning process, and providing for self-reflection on their progress.

This definition is what I call an umbrella definition, combining many other big concepts under one name. At CompetencyWorks, also supported by Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we fully support this concept of student-centered learning. However, we have found it is valuable to focus on competency education separately, as it as creates the values and infrastructure needed to replace the time-based, extrinsically motivated traditional system designed to sort students as a set of practices in the classroom. It is a change that requires a new paradigm as well as major and minor adjustments in policies and practices at multiple levels of the education system. Furthermore, it requires substantial community engagement to help all parents understand the new system and how their children are doing within it. Thus, we find it helpful to continue to focus in on this one attribute of the SCL definition.

However, in order to “elevate the learning and readiness of students regardless of color or zip code,” we believe that districts need a combination of personalized learning so that students’ needs are being met and a competency-based structure to ensure students are reaching consistently set levels of proficiency.

CompetencyWorks turn to the definition of personalized learning developed by iNACOL, which combines the first, third, and fourth attributes of the SCL definition, “Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests—including enabling stu­dent voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn—to pro­vide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.” The common themes across competency education and personalized learning is the commitment to empowering students through transparency and practices that give students the key to their learning.

(For those of you who are interested, Gates Foundation has a slightly different definition of personalized learning, emphasizing 1) student-teacher bond is the heart of learning 2) learning happens anywhere, anytime, and 3) all students are ready for college and career.)

How will this situation resolve itself? Having worked in philanthropy for over a decade, I believe that as long as we don’t get into turf wars about the concepts, there will be some terminology and concepts that districts and schools will find much more useful in engaging their communities and educators. At CompetencyWorks, we advise that districts lead with personalized learning or student-centered learning, not competency-based education. The important part for all of us across these sub-sectors of the changing field of education is to get to the point where we can begin to talk about what makes quality implementation and what combination of practices are needed to make a real difference for students. We are in the process of creating common language—but at this stage, it’s most important for us build deeper understanding of how to implement these concepts.

Please note: None of these terms imply the use of technology. These are large concepts that can be applied without the use of computers in the classroom. Technology is a tool that can be incredibly helpful in providing sophisticated information management systems, more flexibility for students, and differentiated learning that can help students practice and build fluency. I add this for the benefit of those who have taken what we write at CompetencyWorks and then add whatever they want to advance their own agenda.

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