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Aurora Institute

The Questions I Ask

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Chris Sturgis
Chris Sturgis

What is competency education and what isn’t it? It’s a question that is being asked a lot these days, especially as people try to sort through what it means to design for a school to emphasize personal mastery or student ownership of their learning, competency-based progression, issues of pacing, and how to respond to students that enter a classroom more than two grade levels behind.

Some folks have gotten caught up in the concept of “time is a variable” and talk about competency education as self-paced, forgetting that another variable is how we use instruction and supports to help students stay on pace. First and foremost, competency education is about designing schools and learning environments so that every student reaches proficiency, step by step, standard by standard. (Wait that sounds too linear — learning progressions don’t always have to be perfectly linear. We just don’t want to leave kids with gaps that are going to cause them to stumble on more advanced work!)

Today I was asked what types of questions I ask and what I look for when I do site visits, as a way of trying to better understand competency education.  So I jotted down the primary questions that help me filter quickly what is happening in a school. The questions aren’t usually asked in this sequence, as I think one way of learning about a school is listening to what they think is important.

1.     What is your overarching philosophy of education or theory of action?  

 I listen for:

  • Examples of a growth mindset;
  • A culture of learning that sees mistakes as part of learning and that adults are learning, too;
  • Starting where kids are, i.e. teaching kids, not curriculum;
  • Inclusiveness of students rather than segmenting. An example is honors level coursework rather than a class or track;
  • Asset-based;
  • Student agency and the importance of transparency;
  • Motivation and engagement strategies;
  • Focus on getting kids to proficiency and higher levels of depth of knowledge;
  • Flexibility in responding to kids – calendars, schedules, instruction, support;
  • Holistic approach to learning, such as emphasis on social-emotional learning , habits or lifelong learning competencies, or trauma-informed care.

2. What are major design elements?  This is an important question to understand the language/terminology that the school uses and how the competency education infrastructure interacts with practices.

I listen for:

  • How the school’s organization builds relationships between students and teachers;
  • How the school is personalized, such as through themes, choices, individual learning plans, tempo and pacing, responsive supports, or blended learning;
  • How students can engage in deeper learning, application or knowledge utilization. Are there on-going opportunities once students have reached proficiency at a lower level, such as Level 3 or analysis, project-based learning, capstone projects, or intersessions?
  • How the design supports the kids who are more than two grade levels behind, sped, ELL and those who are not yet proficient. Basically, how is it designed for the 25% of students who are lowest achieving.

3.     What is your competency-based structure?  I tend to think about this in terms of four components: A) the framework; B) pacing and progress C) designing for not yet proficient; and D) tracking and monitoring progress.

A. What defines the competency framework and how is it organized?

I listen for:

  • Relationship to Common Core and other state standards, including how the school is dealing with the possibility of too many standards;
  • Which disciplines are competency-based;
  • How the school uses the process of developing competency frameworks to help teachers unpack standards and calibrate their understanding of competency;
  • The categories or terminology the school uses, such as measurable topics and learning objectives;
  • How a knowledge taxonomy such as Webb’s or Bloom’s is used;
  • How the school is organizing itself around common and performance-based assessments;
  • How the school has designed and is using habits or lifelong learning competencies.

 B. How do you think about proficiency and pacing?

I listen for:

  • Knowing where kids are; explicit learning pre-assessments when they enter;
  • Transparency of expectations;
  • In what ways do grouping and regrouping happen, specifically to respond to students and avoid tracking;
  • How they think about pace, especially for kids below grade level and how they help students stay on pace;
  • What types of supports they have for kids with gaps in knowledge or are struggling – including time in day, flexible schedules, and use of technology to support them;
  • What happens when students are not yet proficient on an assessment;
  • What happens when kids are proficient: Do they advance to the next unit? Work on areas where they are weak? Develop deeper knowledge? Explore more of the same?
  • How they enable/manage students who are accelerating their learning beyond teacher-pace;
  • How they ensure every kid has a chance for applying learning with deeper knowledge.

 C.     How do you manage students who are not yet proficient?

I listen for:

  • Do students have daily or frequent opportunities to get support during the day (not lunch or after school);
  • How the calendar or scheduling is designed to give students additional time if they need it;
  • How they offer students who are not yet proficient multiple opportunities to keep learning and be assessed; is it part of a learning cycle or is structured as recovery or re-assessment?
  • Are personal learning plans/trajectories based on where students are on their own learning progression?  How do they shape trajectories and interventions if students are more than two years behind?
  • How are they using blended learning, especially for lower levels of learning, to strengthen skills and fluency?

 D.     How do you track and monitor student progress?

I listen for:

  • New ways of structuring progression and organizing the school, such as by separating academic levels from grade levels or creating bands;
  • Transparency of expectations and progress so students can own their own education;
  • How they manage information on student progress and achievement;
  • Scoring and grading.  Many schools use the term standards-based grading to describe standards-referenced grading. So I ask follow-up questions to understand how they respond to progression for students who are not yet proficient in a course. In other words, are students with Cs and Ds moving on to the next course without becoming proficient in the previous course?

4.     What is in place for your teachers to build skills and have a shared understanding of proficiency?

 I listen for:

  • Teachers
    • having purpose and meaning in their job;
    • collaborating and recognizing that each of them has different strengths;
    • having learned in the process, such as the need to understand discipline really well, assessment literacy, and instructional tips from colleagues;
    • Knowing their students well.
  • Structures that allow teachers to talk about student work and what makes something proficient on any given standard – sometimes called calibration or tuning.

5.     How do you manage continuous improvement and innovation?

 I listen for:

  • A culture of learning. Stories about mistakes and not getting things right the first time are a comfort, a sign of the adaptive leadership that is necessary for converting to competency education;
  • Doing what is good for kids and finding new ways to address adult/staffing issues;
  • Using student learning data to help teachers and schools think about how they can strengthen their work. Whenever possible, I like to see their management reports;
  • Competency-based approaches for professional development;
  • Cost-effective use of resources (FYI – almost no one is there yet, but I’m always listening for it).

Of course, these are not the only questions and observations I focus on in school visits. There are also classroom practices for managing personalized learning that vary a bit, based on how much the school has integrated online learning. There are changes in district policies and operations that we are only just starting to see develop.  However, these core questions help me understand a school’s vision, strategy and the stage of implementation.