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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Personalized, Competency-Based

“Personalized, Competency-Based.” These three words (maybe two words, depending on how you count) most succinctly define an approach to education that puts each learner at the center of the learning ecosystem.  An alternative term often used for this movement, “blended learning,”  while it has advantages, evoking nuance and hybrid approach, instead of false dichotomies (such as digital and physical, testing and anti-testing, whole language and phonics, new math and old), loses the imperative to move past antiquated approaches to teaching and learning, built from 18th century Prussian model, and brought to scale under Horace Mann in America as universal public education.

Although this assembly line model for education made universal public education possible, it no longer serves our diverse population to prepare them for the careers of the future.  Since the 90s, all 50 states have worked towards clarifying academic standards in core academic areas that are aligned with preparation for college and careers.  Whether based on Common Core, or not, each state has published a taxonomy of 50-100 competency statements for each grade and subject.   In an effort to ensure all young people stay on track to these standards, ability-grouped tracking has lost favor and been replaced by a commitment to all kids.  While an understandable reaction to the demonstrated stigma of hard tracking, this approach has resulted in classrooms that by middle grades where a math teacher may be challenged by students whose math abilities may range from one or more grade behind to one or more grade ahead, therefore, spanning perhaps 600 skill differential between highest and lowest performing students.  From this perspective, “teaching to the middle,” makes little sense.

Instead, as Sal Kahn says, we can “flip the classroom,” and provide anytime, any place, any pace access to learning experiences that target the “zone of proximal learning” for each student.  Instead of moving with the herd of learners by age and grade, each learner can “move on when ready” to the content and depth optimized to their needs. In these new learning environments, teachers become elevated from that of lab technician, working nights and weekends in a near futile attempt to provide timely feedback, to learning doctors, synthesizing self-grading learning materials into personalized, constructive feedback.

We stand at the brink of a new era in education; one in which learners demonstrate skills in diverse settings both within and outside traditional schools.  For less than 1% of the average US K12 budget, every student in America can have access to a learning device like a Chromebook.  New skills, like computational thinking, add to the foundational skills of numeracy and literacy that are rapidly becoming indispensable for participating in the new economy.  Open source, not-for-profit, and philanthropic learning tool providers like EnageNY, Open Up, Kahn Academy, Code.org, EdX are providing a rapidly growing set of high-quality free resources.  While many public schools remain on the treadmill of letter grades on transcripts targeting college admissions, elite independent schools across the nation are shifting the conversation by coming together through the Mastery Transcript Consortium to replace letter grades on transcripts within five years.  Although the federal government is no longer providing meaningful leadership, US global tech titans Apple through XQ Super Schools and FaceBook through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have joined foundations funded by Gates, Dell, and Hewlett to help spur the innovation needed for these changes to occur.

What does it look like?  A classroom that has been “flipped” provides learners with online videos and reading material they can watch and read at their own pace, and often in their own language, in their home or any other informal learning environment.  When in school, in the presence of a trained educator, learners typically benefit most from learning while doing, practicing skills like writing and problem solving under the supervision and support of their teacher.  The classroom is flipped because the type of active learning traditionally assigned to homework is done in the classroom and the more passive reading and viewing are done outside of class.  In this environment, learners are freer to move at their own pace, practicing each skill until mastery is evidenced and then moving on instead of waiting for classmates.  Taken to its logical extreme, the concepts of “class” and “course” break down to learning modules that group students more dynamically and avoid the negative consequences of rigid tracking.

What should states do to support personalized, competency-based learning?  The evolution of the learning ecosystem occurs at all levels, individual, class, school, district, and state.  States have a critical role, establishing the conditions to support local innovation.  Most importantly, as I described in my prior post, state-supported summative assessments must evolve to take less instructional time and separate faster accountability instruments from embedded diagnostic tools.  In addition to that, states need to support technology and policies that enable learners to pursue pathways to future careers through an open system of micro-credential badges.  

States like Georgia are leading the charge.  Since 2015, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Schools, Richard Woods, the Georgia Department of Education has been committed to leading the Nation in use of open standards, open source technology, open education resources, and free educational resources to create personalized learning pathways for the next generation of Georgia learners.  GA DOE will begin this work with a focus on computer science and computational thinking and will expand to all other subjects.  They are developing partnerships from the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and leading education foundations to establish a micro-credential pathway from K-12 to military enlistment/training, employment/occupational licenses, and postsecondary learning.  When complete, Georgia will become the first state in the nation to implement scalable policies to support personalized, competency-based learning.