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Aurora Institute

Two Teachers’ Perspectives on CBE

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Lauren Vann and John Paul Sellars

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

Competency-Based Learning

Lauren Vann and Students

I had found much success in the traditional learning model and had become weary of the stream of efforts to change my approach. When I came on board at Red Bank Elementary, I immediately recognized that students at RBE were different. They were learners who wanted to take the reins. They were excited and motivated. It was nothing I had ever seen before. Yes, I had been “successful” in producing average/above average test scores, but was that really my agenda? I began to think of all of the students I had previously taught who had gaps in their learning. I questioned whether or not I’d made a real attempt to close those gaps. I thought of the “high flyers” who always wanted more and wondered if I’d taken them as far as I could have in their learning. While I had always been intentional about teaching to all students and accommodating different learning styles, I couldn’t say that I taught specifically to each child’s needs and met them where they were in the learning progression. After researching competency-based education and hearing unbelievable stories about student success, I made the decision to be “all in.” I never knew how competency-based education would completely change the way I think about teaching and learning. –Lauren Vann

Competency-based education is best practice teaching. It is dependent on the teacher’s ability to intentionally meet the needs of the individual student. Recognizing competency-based learning as what is best for students is a paradigm shift for most educators. While it can be challenging and overwhelming to think logistically about how to be effective in meeting each child’s learning modalities, pace, and needs, it is truly the most efficient way to ensure that every child is getting the most out of their time in the classroom.

Similarities and Differences within a Competency-Based Learning Model vs. Traditional Learning Model

Like the traditional learning model, competency-based focuses on standards. The difference comes in that the traditional model teaches all standards at one pace regardless of student outcomes. Groups of standards are assessed on a single test. Students are given a blanket average for those standards that fall under the given topic heading (e.g., numbers and operations).

John Paul Sellars and Students

Competency-based, however, accounts for each individual child’s needs and meets them where they are in the learning progression. As we know, the standards are created to scaffold a child’s learning. Each standard is foundational to the one following it. In a competency-based system, assessments are not comprehensive of the entire set of standards that fall under that category (e.g., numbers and operations), but rather broken up into each individual strand or skill (e.g., place value, rounding, etc.). Assessing this way makes learning very transparent and enables the student and teacher to determine what the next steps need to be in the learning progression. When a student demonstrates mastery on a strand, it is certain that when the child moves onto the next strand they are prepared and understand the fundamentals that go into attacking this next portion of learning.

Teachers who have never worked in a model like this may ask, “What about pacing? Won’t a child get significantly behind working like this if they are a struggling learner?” The answer to this question is no, IF the teacher maintains high expectations and encourages students to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Based) goals for their learning. Ideally, all students should be progressing at the teacher’s pace or faster. Managing a classroom full of students who could all potentially be working at different paces may seem impossible, but it becomes reality when there are routines in place that enable students to take ownership in their learning.

First, the teacher must analyze student data collected from the previous school year. This data may include standardized test scores such as MAP or mandated state testing. Using the data, the teacher determines the appropriate entry point within the learning progression for each student and establishes stations that help them address the entry point concepts. It is important that the teacher helps students recognize the rate at which learning should take place in order to grow a level per year. This is often referred to as “teacher pace.” The goal is for students to maintain “teacher pace” or faster, working toward mastery of each strand, until they have completed all strands within the content category.

Technology must be intentionally implemented in order to help students maintain the “teacher pace” that has been projected for each student. Due to the range of differentiated instruction that will need to occur within the classroom, teachers must create systematic learning paths for students to follow in order to balance small group, direct instruction time effectively. Each learning path is planned in advance and based on a set of learning targets for the unit or topic. These learning paths may include flip lessons in coordination with outlines for note-taking, specific independent practices that require students to explain their thinking, and formative assessments. It is essential that students become proficient in navigating their own learning. Learning must be completely transparent. Students should be able to specifically identify and articulate what learning targets they are working on, how they will approach the learning, and what will come next in their learning.

Competency-based learning supports learners who typically excel, those who need more time to demonstrate mastery, as well as those students that make steady progress. It is important to understand, however, that not all students will progress at the same rate. Even having a system in place to flawlessly make this happen doesn’t mean that all struggling learners will catch up. The ultimate goal is closing gaps that may exist in the learning progression and being diligent in the approach. At the same time, teachers must be cognizant of when the learning is stalling and move the student forward in the learning progression.

For example, a student can’t continue working on place value for an entire year, and it is also true that almost every standard he/she will face in the future will require him/her to understand place value. Therefore, the teacher moves him/her onto the next standard while applying place value concepts. We have found that sometimes when students are able to apply the concept to another skill in practice, things begin to make sense.

Work That is Involved in a Competency-Based Model vs. Traditional

The phrase teachers hate to hear the most is “more work.” I’d argue that competency-based is not “more work.” It requires teachers that are well organized, who constantly have their eye on the pulse of each child’s learning, and who already implement best practices and adequate differentiation on a daily basis. Throughout the school, teachers collaborate and calibrate each child’s needs, not only within their classroom, but also across the grade level. Teachers meet regularly to discuss student progress and take responsibility for the learning of all students, not just the students who have been placed on their roster. At times, teachers from across grades meet to identify students who are working above or below grade level pace and determine the best approach to meet their needs. Ideally, the goal is to make a shift away from identifying students based on a “grade level” and focus on where each student is at within the learning progression of all content-leveled standards.

Creating a learning environment such as this did not happen overnight. It requires a lot of modeling at the beginning of the year that is centered around a classroom shared vision, school-wide shared vision, and code of cooperation. While competency-based education may look slightly different in different classrooms, the basic principles are the same. Competency-based education empowers students to own their learning.

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Lauren Vann and John Paul Sellars are fourth grade teachers at Red Bank Elementary School.