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Aurora Institute

Think Swiss Cheese

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 4.07.06 PMI think about design a lot.  Indeed, Fast Company is a monthly read. Design is an empowering, creative process. It can also help us rethink the assumptions holding us back.

The way design and the design process is taking hold in education is exciting and sometimes disturbing.

It’s exciting that competency education and time (as in, flexible use of time so students keep working until proficient and extending time to learn anytime) are being included in many of the new sets of design frameworks. For example:

  • The Carnegie Corporation’s 10 Principles for Secondary School Design “prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college & career readiness:
    • Curriculum that enables all students to meet rigorous standards
    • Multiple opportunities for students to show mastery through performance-based assessments
    • Student advancement based on demonstration of mastery of knowledge and skills.”
  • Wave IV of Next Generation Learning Challenges “emphasizes redesigned, scalable, whole-school models that combine the best aspects of place-based and online learning with more personalized, mastery-based approaches to result in substantially improved outcomes for students.”

Have you seen other examples of competency-, proficiency-, mastery- or performance-based approaches being built into school or systemic design? Please let us know in the comments section!

  • Race to the Top-District competition emphasized personalized and mastery-based. However, the only winner that had a well-developed idea of what a mastery-based system means is Lindsay Unified. Middletown (NY) will be piloting an elementary school model, and Carson City  (NV) is making college level courses available whenever students are ready. Fingers crossed that we’ll see the other grantees dig into what is possible once they start to focus on student learning.

It’s disturbing that we aren’t fully designing around our most underserved students. A mainstream, linear, factory-based assumption is gripping us so tightly (I can’t help but think about the saber-toothed tiger in the tar pits) that we keep designing around the antiquated idea of students as widgets.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 3.35.20 PMWe know that low-income students have incredibly high mobility and that most low-income students enter schools with gaps. Some of these gaps are small, and they just need a refresher. Some are big and create impossible situations for teachers to differentiate without the ability to group/regroup as needed. Sal Khan points out that in the traditional systems all students have “swiss cheese learning”  — even A+ students.

However, competitions and design approaches fail to clarify that new school models need to be able to serve students with a variety of skills and gaps. We need to expect that all new high school models are “inclusive schools” designed to serve entering 8th graders, over-age and undercredited students, and those re-enrolling after “time off” (we can’t let ourselves think of these students as “drop-outs” any more…only students that took or were nudged to take some time off and still need to complete their diploma).

Furthermore, by now we know that we need to be designing for students who are building both language and literacy skills. We are an immigrant country, and we want to compete in a global economy. Both require designing for bilingualism.

If we want to make sure that competency education is here for the long haul, then we are going to have to pull ourselves out of the tar pits. We need to make sure that we are designing for our most underserved students. If it works for them, it will work for everyone. We aren’t going to be a competitive reform unless we can demonstrate reaching both equity and excellence (as in rich, robust learning opportunities which demonstrate higher-order skills and deeper learning) every step of the way.

So when you start thinking about your new school design, start with the saying, “form follows function.” If the core function of schools is learning so that students are prepared for college and careers,  and we assume all students have gaps, then in transforming schools we need to ask ourselves:

  • How will we know the skills and gaps of our new students?
  • What is impact of these gaps on their learning and how might we design to support their social-emotional experiences about learning?
  • How can we best design the educational experience to address the gaps and continue to advance so that students are at a pace that keeps them on track?
  • How can we design the schedule and calendar to ensure students are able to get adequate support to reach proficiency?
  • What do educators need to be able to know about gaps, how to address them, and how to accelerate pace of learning when necessary?

No more widgets. Think Swiss cheese.