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Aurora Institute

Teaching: The Most Intellectual Job in the World

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning

IntellectualRecently I received the question below. It starts with a concern about choice and agency and then expands to a number of questions about teaching and learning. Although I certainly don’t know the answer to all these questions, I have had several conversations with educators in competency-based schools that might provide some insight. As always, we’d love to have others share their thoughts on these questions.

My concern is that the practical implementation of personalized learning in classrooms can and in many cases, will lead paradoxically and tragically to the diminution of choice and agency for students. An example of this might sound like: Sorry John, but you can’t go on to multiplication until you have demonstrated mastery of two digit addition.

This begs some other questions: Who decides what skills are essential to be granted access to the next series of content/instruction? On what basis (cognitive, research-based) is that determination of sequencing made? Under what circumstances is it helpful for students to have exposure to topics that are beyond their independent or even instructional level? What are the grouping (tracking) implications of the way competency-based learning is, or may be rolled out?

Agency and Choice: Let’s tackle the question about student agency and choice: If we are comparing a personalized classroom to a traditional chalk and talk/pacing guided classroom, I can’t imagine how student agency and choice can be much less. However, I do think as a field we need to be much more clear about what it means to be personalized, the techniques for helping students to build agency, and the different ways to structure learning experiences to enable the three concepts of agency, voice and choice.

Certainly, there are schools that have chosen to use adaptive software programs that provide little personalization other than pace, with students plodding through a pretty boring curriculum, answering questions at the level of recall and comprehension. I’ve seen this most often in credit recovery programs and mediocre alternative schools. However, I’ve also seen it in a school that is touted as an innovative school, described as personalized because of the flexibility in pacing.

However, the example above about John who hasn’t learned two-digit addition isn’t as much about choice (assuming that we don’t consider choosing not to learn something as an option) as it is about teaching and learning.

Linearity and Learning Progressions: I have been in classrooms where teachers were marching student through worksheets in the order of the standards. This sometimes happens in the first year of conversion to competency-based education when there hasn’t been enough attention to the level of knowledge. By the second year, as teachers worked together in their PLCs looking at student work using a taxonomy such as Webb’s or Bloom’s, they soon begin to talk about how to lift up their instruction and assessment to higher levels of learning.

It’s important to remember that academic standards have been written in a linear format, but that does not mean they should be taught in that exact way. In fact, standards should be taught in a way that is student-centered—in other words, based on research about how children actually learn (don’t presume they were constructed with that in mind). Thus, to answer the question about John, I would turn to the research on math learning progressions to answer that specific question. As I understand it, children may use a variety of techniques as they move from addition to multiplication, and it’s important for the teacher to be able to diagnose which strategies are being used so they can continue to help children “master” the concept of multiplication. [There is a lot written about learning progressions—you might want to start with this post and the briefing paper by Achieve. And here is information about math learning progressions.]

Who Decides?: The phrasing of the question Who decides what skills are essential to be granted access to the next series of content/instruction? is fascinating. Who decides that in the traditional system? Essentially we have distributed that across the entire system, much of it far away from educators.Think about the Common Core or any state standards. In the traditional system, a group of people develop the standards, then curriculum is developed, educators deliver it, but then we use state accountability assessments and NAEP to determine proficiency.  Thus, educators and students may not actually know what proficiency looks like.

In competency-based schools transparency rules! Teachers work together looking at student work to agree upon what proficiency looks like. We clearly need to make sure that states and districts have developed mechanisms to ensure consistency across districts and schools. That’s what New Hampshire is doing with PACE so that there is consistency across the use of performance-based assessments that are assessing higher order skills. Students know what proficiency looks like as well with rubrics shared upfront and often examples of student work at the level of proficiency easily accessible.

There is still a question about how districts might construct quality assurance mechanisms. Chugach School District thought this through and developed a policy by which teachers credential the learning within an academic level but the district has a set of assessments to ensure that students are really proficient when they move to the next academic level.

The question about How do educators decide…? is really fascinating and I think requires a number of really strong educators to help clarify it. As a start my conversations with educators have identified a number of issues that teachers need to think about as they think about students progressing to the next level. Of course, it makes a different about the level or importance of the next step — is it a standard, unit, class, academic level or to the next school?:

  • Where is the student is in the learning progression (are they at a critical point that is important to stay focused)?
  • How much extra support and time has already been offered to the student?
  • To what degree is the skill or standard the student has yet to master a pre-requisite for the next? Or is this an issue about completing projects that will demonstrate the student’s learning?
  • What is the risk to the student of moving ahead or not moving ahead? In considering this question I would think more about the implications for building the habits of learning. If the student sticks with it a bit more will they learn a lesson about perseverance? About self-regulation? About how they learn? Will this become a situation that we can reflect on about having a growth mindset and believing that you can learn?
  • What are the implications in terms of the learning community of students? Some parts of school are designed around students learning together, thus the discussion with the student is developing a plan to keep working on what they need to do while participating in the group activities?

There are also issues about teacher effectiveness and operational issues that need to be considered, as well. How well prepared is the teacher to help the student? If it’s a new teacher who has already tried everything they know to help the student understand, the answer may be to have another teacher work with the student. One elementary school I visited in Maine described to me a change in how they supported struggling students. They used to have the teacher the most skilled at teaching math work with the students the farthest behind. But then they realized that the strategy didn’t help to build the capacity of the other teachers. So now the best math teacher operates as a coach to the other teachers.

This is likely to become an operational issue. Competency-based schools have to become agile at deploying educator resources, working through decisions quickly based on how many students are struggling with a standard or unit, how much the teacher can directly support them given the needs of other students, the effectiveness of the teacher to help the struggling students, and how to use the most effective teachers.

The Difference Between Grouping and Tracking: The question What are the grouping (tracking) implications of the way competency-based learning is, or may be rolled out? once again got me thinking about the traditional system and the personalized, competency-based one. Tracking is part of the traditional system, whereas grouping/regrouping (I always say both to help differentiate from tracking, as it reminds me that the grouping always changes based on needs of students) is a practice to personalize learning. Tracking is as far from personalized as one can get based on a fixed mindset model. Grouping students allows the teacher to use their time well to work with students who have the same set of needs on a specific standard, skill, or unit. Students do learn differently, and some students may take some time to really understand a new concept, but once they do, they just fly through related units as they explore the concept in more depth.

It’s all so complicated! As Sarah Fiarman emphasized in her keynote at the New Hampshire Education Summit earlier this month, teaching is the most intellectual job there is. And I couldn’t agree more. The more I learn about all the things a teacher must think about in terms of help develop strong learners, the deeper my respect grows for them.

Thanks for the questions and to all the people who have coached me. I’m sure there is a lot more to think about in terms of answering these questions—we’d all appreciate it if you shared your insights.

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