When learning is done on a deeper level, it takes longer to accomplish. Thus, learning experiences that allow students to delve into topics and apply their skills are often more complex to design. Schools must think about how they are structuring learning within the school day, semester, and year so they have more options for deeper learning with greater integration of standards and skills: formative assessment, complex tasks, project- or problem-based learning that is open-ended knowledge utilization (e.g., Webb’s Level 4), extended learning into the community, and capstone projects co-designed by students. Pittsfield Middle and High School has learning studios, Danville School District uses intersessions, Boston Day and Evening Academy offers month-long projects in December, and Casco Bay High School features intensives.
Although schools need to have a pool of performance tasks and performance-based assessments, deeper learning is most meaningful to students when it is authentically rooted in their own lives. Perhaps it is related to career interests, an illness of a family member, violence in their community, or a relevant international issue. Students at Chugach School District can co-design Independent Learning Plans to pursue building skills within the context of high-interest topics. ACE Leadership in New Mexico partners with employers to create projects based on authentic industry problems, allowing students to make the connections between their education and their future. Higher level learning is usually a combination of application of academic skills, application of communication skills, and demonstration of habits. Technical skills will also be included in projects that have a strong career and technical context.
Schools also need to consider the cognitive load (the level of intellectual challenge) of their curriculum. For schools that rely heavily on digital content, educators need to know the depth of learning and be prepared to supplement if it doesn’t meet the level of proficiency required by the standards. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that all projects are not necessarily project-based learning. Deeper learning requires teachers to have expertise in assessing the application of skills and student habits. Given that the ability of teachers to design and assess more complex learning is dependent on their expertise, principals will need to provide ongoing professional development to build capacity and shared understanding, and ensure that their team of teachers includes those who can guide the more complex, longer projects as well as mentor other teachers.
Some schools and teachers emphasize project-based learning as the process of learning itself. This can be particularly helpful for students who need meaning and connection in order to be highly engaged in learning. Project- and problem-based learning as the pedagogical strategy can also guard against higher achieving students having access to higher learning while struggling students are left in the lower levels of learning. The project can be both the learning and the assessment. The opportunity for students to boost their skills can be integrated into the project along with research, reflection, product, and presentation. Digital content, which is particularly helpful for lower levels of recall and comprehension, can be helpful for students to build the prerequisite skills.
In designing a competency-based model, districts and schools need to be vigilant in ensuring that they don’t get trapped in a bifurcated world of faster and slower. Many of the students who might take longer to demonstrate proficiency on a grade level standard may actually have taken on the herculean task of building the pre-requisite skills in two, three, or more performance levels. They may be taking longer, but in fact their rate of learning could be much faster than your valedictorian’s. Similarly, if engaged in robust project-based learning, some students may have to be doing additional work to build up background knowledge or skills. Schools need to strategize early on about how students with gaps will receive additional supports within the time allocated for projects and deeper learning.
How do you design learning experiences that promote deeper, more meaningful learning? Become a guest blogger and share your knowledge with other leaders and practitioners implementing competency education and blended learning.
Follow the whole series on equity in personalized, competency-based and blended learning:
- Blog 1 in series: Addressing Equity Issues in Personalized, Competency-Based and Blended Learning
- Blog 2: How Competency Education Drives Equity
- Blog 3: Addressing Misconceptions in Competency Education
- Blog 4: Tackling Issues of Equity in Personalized Learning
- Blog 5: 6 Ways to Eliminate Attribution Error on the Path to Equity in Competency-Based Systems
- Blog 6 in series: 8 Ways Blended Districts Can Implement a Competency-Based Structure
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