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Aurora Institute

Social Learning & CBE – Competency Education is a Team Sport

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nora Priest

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

This blog was written with the help of Michelle Allman, Andrew Skarzynski, Kristine Kirkaldy, Matt DeBlois, Sung-Joon Pai, Kippy Smith, Allison Hramiec, and Leslie Appelbaum.

Looking back, my whole school experience feels like a big group adventure. I know I did things alone – strong memories of this at home for sure – but learning was mostly one big, interactive social scene. And I was on the shy end of the human personality spectrum.

I say this because I think competency-based education with its emphasis on personalization, viewed from the outside, is often seen as an individual pursuit that surely must compromise the social aspects of learning that we know are important for – and to – students (especially teens!). Off I go, following my own personalized path, which is different from your path; my solo quest to master what I must master… which must look like this in practice:

Loneliness of the long distance competency-based ed student?
Loneliness of the long distance competency-based ed student?

However, in my experience and in the hands of a crew of great CBErs, I’ve come to know that competency-based learning is very much a team sport.

Casco Bay high school students keeping the “group” in CBE!
Casco Bay high school students keeping the “group” in CBE!

Sure, CBE focuses on the individual student, transparent learning targets and customizing his or her educational experience to allow for individual pacing and progression. This is its genius and power. An antidote to the factory and widgets model of education! CBE pushes you see each individual student – really see him or her – and get the right support to the right student at the right time. It’s not always easy, but CBE forces you to work the challenge like no other model I’ve encountered.

But individualized doesn’t mean “alone”…solo. In fact, CBE can actually kick social elements of learning into high gear.


Here are seven ways experienced CBE schools in New England are doing it – big shout out to them for all they have done to advance the field! (You can learn much more about their CBE approaches in the report Making Mastery Work.)

1. Keep social learning the centerpiece of your philosophy and pedagogy – no compromise!

Social learning is so important to Casco Bay High School for Expeditionary Learning in Portland, Maine, they take an explicit stance on it; just put them in a room with other CBErs and start talking about the CBE mantra “learning is constant; time is variable” and how schools manage individualized pacing. Staff will flat out tell you they’re working from a different paradigm – an alternate universe and space-time continuum. Casco Bay is about creating a community of learners and it takes group interaction to make their brand of deep learning happen. Students aren’t individual speedboats. They’re part of a “crew” working together to cross the sea (Casco Bay advisory groups are even called Crews).

As a student, you still need to demonstrate proficiency on learning standards in order to advance and graduate (for the record, Casco Bay is a model of standards-based grading and collaborative, performance-based assessment and I’d happily go on tour with this video about their work). However, you travel to proficiency with your group because the school’s curriculum is built on a foundation of “expeditions” (learning projects) that integrate individual and group learning activity.

2. Bake social skill development requirements into the “competencies” system cake.

Being “competent” at Vergennes High School in Vermont and the other CBE schools in this group means you need to master more than subject-specific learning targets. To graduate, you must also demonstrate your ability to engage productively with others, give and get feedback, design and implement projects collaboratively, collect perspectives and information from different kinds of people, etc. These skills are explicitly included in each school’s system of competencies (e.g., Habits of Mind) or performance-based graduation requirements. No way can they be mastered in isolation. Students need to interact with others across the school and community to demonstrate them. Even the Common Core standards (finally!) put more emphasis on the social aspects of learning and reflect the idea that it’s not just what I know and what I can do, but…can I do it with you.

3. Create a “we’re in this together” support culture (and not just in a touchy-feely way).

CBE schools typically dig deep into areas of practice that other schools often skim over. Student support is a great example. At a CBE school, every student is working at the edge of his or her ability, stretching. Support is normal for everyone, not abnormal and not only for strugglers. And social interaction is a critical part of how we human beings get support and how we learn when we’re working our edge (flashback to grad school…hello, Vygotsky!). These six CBE schools fold supportive social interactions into the day like egg whites into chocolate mousse, student to teacher and student to student. Sometimes it’s about scaffolding – having a student interact with someone with equal or greater skill – but often it’s simply about providing group forums where students talk about their growth and get the social emotional support they need.

Back to Casco Bay High School for an example. Students are in a Crew group for four years. This group of 12-15 students meets daily for 30 minutes, with some longer blocks, so that students can build “academic courage” and provide a “public explanation of their growth as scholars and people.” They set goals, review their grades, do team-building activities, meet up with another advisory to do lunch, plan student-led conferences, and more. Think Advisory…but deeper, tighter. The Crew’s goal is to make sure everyone graduates because they’re in it together. All six of these New England schools have created a culture where it’s normal to ask for help – and help is all around.

4. Individualized doesn’t mean “no classes.” It does mean masterful differentiation and using the structure of “class” in new and fluid ways.

Diploma Plus, one of the oldest competency-based models out there, still uses the structure of “class” – where class equals “a group of students focused on particular learning targets.” Generally. Which means there is still room to configure a learning path for a student that is not structured as classes. Within a class, there is – again, generally – a pack of students moving at a similar pace. At the same time, teachers are masters of differentiated instruction. And I’m not talking about red group, blue group, yellow group ability level kind of differentiation or a little extra help to struggling students on the side. As one science teacher who came to the Diploma Plus-inspired Champion High School in Brockton from a regular high school told me: You can get by in a regular high school without good differentiation and classroom management skills. You’d be eaten alive here.

The mixing and matching of students for different purposes at Diploma Plus and these other five CBE schools is artful. To crib terminology from the field, teachers go all heterogeneous and homogeneous on students all the time, in a highly fluid way. To do it, they apply a huge amount of intelligence to what groupings make sense based on a range of considerations (activity type, purpose, readiness, student interests or strengths, student needs, etc.) Learning is still personalized – the teacher understands each student’s individual needs – but he or she uses that deep knowledge of each individual student to configure and reconfigure group learning opportunities.

How CBE teachers handle differentiation is incredibly important because no one wants to create some kind of scary neo 21st century tracking situation where kids are classified and managed in a “low ability” track. In a healthy CBE setting, there is no such thing. Skill development and personalization are too nuanced; the support needs are too granular for macro tracking structures like rigidly defined or long term ability groups. DP students still know they can work at their own pace. At the same time, they like having some group (class, peer-to-peer) structure in place to keep them from slacking (their words, not mine!) and keep them connected.

At these CBE schools, excelling at differentiated support is not surprisingly a recurring topic of conversation: Do we have the right learning and support structures (group and individual) not only within the class but also beyond it? Is there enough flexibility in the schedule for more learning time or support for students who need it? Or, do we need to break the schedule open more? Vergennes High School has developed a strategy called “Call Back” to provide additional structured (not catch as catch can!) opportunities for students to access the support they need. The Medical Professions & Teacher Preparation Academy serving the Hartford region in Connecticut has a two-hour, school-wide block every Friday morning called “Targeted Learning Time,” which provides opportunities for re-teaching and supplemental support (small group and individual). It might seem like a simple thing but it’s proof that the school is about mastery; learning here isn’t “take a test, do an assignment, and I’m done” even if I bombed it. And teachers aren’t forced to cram time in to help students revise/redo/relearn into their lunch period.

On a side note, Diploma Plus also uses the idea of “phases” (Foundation Phase, Presentation Phase, Plus Phase) rather than traditional high school grade levels (freshman, sophomore, etc. classes) in order to help students feel part of a larger social cohort. Students there definitely want the feeling of being, for example, a senior, about to graduate with peers who are important in their lives. The difference is that your phase isn’t related to your age or time spent sitting in chairs. It speaks to your learning and the fact you have demonstrated your proficiency on Phase requirements and readiness to advance.

5. Maximize the power of the social learning in assessment.

Assessment is another deep area of practice for CBErs. Like, DEEP. These CBE schools have worked out strong diagnostic and course placement practices so that individual students start in the right place and get credit (partial or full) for what they already know (Champion High has a 20-day course placement check-in, as one small example). They then fold in strong individualized assessment goodness in order to monitor student progress in ways that are timely and fully transparent to the student. One school, MPTPA in Connecticut, is even hitching their competency-based advancement system to the internationally normed Cambridge IGSE assessment so that the bar for individual performance stays clear and high.

But these CBErs also take the idea of “performance” seriously. And performance requires an audience. Feedbackers. Constructive critics. At these schools, students need to demonstrate their competency to, and in the midst of, others. As students in Vergennes work on “evidence and artifacts” for their Performance-Based Graduation Requirement (PBRG) portfolios, they construct critical feedback loops with peers, advisors, teachers and community members. Specific classes even kick it up a notch – for example, Humanities students organize a more formal Round Table to present their research. In fact, this focus on socially-charged demonstrations of performance starts even earlier. To get to high school, Vergennes middle schoolers do a yearlong capstone project and present their work to teachers, peers and their families in order to show they are ready to move onward and upward.

At Casco Bay, students share their work and give each other rubric-based feedback as part of normal, everyday learning activity. It is routine. They also do more formal presentations to an assembled group of students, staff and others – called “Passage Presentations” – to defend their readiness to advance to the next grade. In fact, the social dynamic of assessment for students typically begins on Day 1 of a new course, unit or lesson when the teacher works with the group to “unpack” the learning standards and do a group mind-meld to break down what mastery looks like and what evidence they’ll need to produce.

6. Break the group-by-subject mold. Build in new group structures.

Go to Boston Day & Evening Academy and you’ll see students in classrooms working together in smaller groups or as individuals. Down the hall, you’ll see more students in the lab working independently on online courses. And there are students you won’t see, those working offsite as part of the school’s distance learning option. Students have a mix of options they can use to create the learning pathway that will work for them, some more socially interactive than others. But, spend a little more time at the school and you’ll notice that BDEA has also layered other interesting group and social learning structures into the student experience.

To start, the school enrolls news students three times a year and hosts four graduations each year. All new students take a 12-week course taught by a team of teachers called “Seminar” where they build relationships, learn how the school works, plan their Roadmap to graduation, and begin working on competencies in core subject areas. As they approach graduation, BDEA students are grouped into a trimester “Capstone” workshop where they work on their individual graduation projects (except that they aren’t working alone!) and do other grand finale activities together to prepare for and celebrate their exit from the school. Because “learning group” doesn’t have to be about “subject” at all, does it? (radical, right?!).

Another cool thing: BDEA actually stops all courses in the month of December for an experiential project extravaganza called Symposium. Students work in groups to do high-interest projects that support academic competencies they want to work on or need, and then present their learning adventures on Symposium night to a swarm of students, staff, family and community members.

The Charlestown High Diploma Plus program likes to think this way too. They don’t see any false dichotomy between individualized and self-paced learning and group learning. You just have to bust open the box about what you mean by “group”. Here are two examples of what DP Charlestown has in its bag of pedagogical tricks. Staff regularly create special projects for groups of students; for example, students who need additional opportunities to practice and demonstrate a particular competency or competencies (“recover” in traditional high school ed-speak). This might be a one-day deal or something longer afterschool, over a weekend or during the periodic “make up” weeks the school has built into its schedule.

At the Medical Preparations and Teacher Professionals Academy, students themselves take the lead role on some of this social infrastructure-building. Three years ago, the school started a House program…think Harry Potter and Hogwarts minus the wands and owls and you’d be pretty close. Students choose or are assigned to their House. House leaders, typically two older students nominated by their peers, with support from a teacher advisor, organize activities and friendly competitions that range from pure fun to community service to academics. Food drives and Accelerated Reader gains earn your House points toward the coveted House Cup. To Principal Andrew Skarzynski and his staff, “ramping up connectedness opportunities” is essential – for this generation of students in particular and because his school is poised to double in size over the next two years and connectedness is key to the close, personalized culture they’ve created.

7. Have an explicit strategy for keeping the social in online learning.

High quality online courses and adaptive programs can be incredibly powerful tools for personalizing learning and liberating students to work at their own pace. However, from a social learning standpoint, they can create some serious asynchronicity and wall students off from each other. Just giving students a way to click through online content as fast as they can is…let me just say it… horrifying to strong CBErs who pride themselves on their ability to create meaningful opportunities where students can demonstrate their learning in deep, authentic ways. Quality competency education is about real-world performance and higher order thinking, and there’s a mutually beneficial iron-rubbing-iron dynamic between CBE and online learning when it comes down to it (I actually get a little giddy when people I know from these two worlds meet…).

Michelle Allman, a math teacher from Champion High School, has this challenge in her sights. The answer is “blending” – but not just face-to-face and online instruction. Michelle also keeps a very close eye on how she blends individual and social learning activity. For example, she recently asked students to work together to create videos that explain strategies for solving different kinds of math problems (Headline: Students Help Flip the Classroom!). Similarly, Casco Bay is introducing computer-based adaptive programs in a very thoughtful way so that they don’t undermine the collaborative and communal culture the school has worked so hard to achieve.

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Keeping the social in learning is tremendously important. Even on my least social days…me, yoga pants, kitchen table as my desk, laptop…I am at my personal and professional best when I can interact with others. And I don’t want only “just like me” or “working at the same place as me” connections. This crew of CBErs totally gets that and students at their schools will confirm it: they feel seen individually and more connected to others around them.

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Thanks also to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for supporting the work of these six schools, including their periodic gatherings to share the kinds of strong CBE practices described in this blog post.

Nora Priest is a Jill-of-many trades whose professional adventures have taken her up, down and all around the field of education. She has started literacy programs, written gobs of curriculum for non-profit and commercial organizations, co-developed a high school environmental program, launched a school in Haiti and worked as a school and district coach and trainer on a wide range of educational strategies including competency-based school design, school-community partnerships, wraparound zone models, dropout prevention and college and career readiness strategies. Nora also helped start an educational technology company back in the early days of the web (think blended learning waaaaay before it was a thing) and has served as a designer and evaluator/researcher of online learning programs.