The only way to truly meet students where they are is for competency-based models to adopt a personalized approach to learning: an approach that accounts for students’ differing zones of proximal development with regards to specific cognitive skills, as well as within the physical, emotional, metacognitive, and other domains. In this section, we offer a prototypical framework designed to help practitioners operationalize a personalized approach in the academic realm.
At first glance, the notion of “meeting students where they are” might seem daunting, as it demands we attend to the unique, ever-evolving needs of each learner, every day. What about the eight year old student who struggles to decode? The new immigrant who didn’t learn to read in her native language? The teenager without an understanding of proportional thinking? What about the student in the same cohort who is ready for more “advanced” tasks or materials? Beyond the complex challenges related to academic skills and knowledge, we cannot ignore the significant range of learner difference in executive function and self-regulation skills, such as the ability to sustain focus on a task, rein in impulsive behavior, prioritize activities, or recognize when it’s time to ask for help or course-correct.
For many reasons the field is in the nascent stages of defining, in a concrete and comprehensive way, the distinguishing pedagogical practices of a personalized, approach.
In mature competency-based learning spaces, learners are active co-constructors of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of content. Learning is visibly and authentically connected to meaningful and important outcomes. Inquiry drives the learning process, as it does in the world beyond school. And finally, learning environments and experiences are purposefully designed to nurture the meta-cognitive, behavioral, and motivational attributes of engaged, autonomous, and adaptive learners. In short, the architecture of competency-based structures places student agency as the capstone, and every element of the design exists to support it. In this way, a personalized approach is a differentiated or individualized approach, BUT, its deep commitment to student agency is the significant distinguisher: while differentiation and individualization are also approaches to meet student needs, these needs and the strategies to address them are identified by the teacher. A personalized approach places the students in the driver seat.
Feature 1. Learner-Centered Classrooms Support Multiple Modalities
Learner-centered classrooms start by re-designing learning configurations (spaces, learner modes) and implementing high-impact instructional practices that nurture student learning, engagement, and metacognition.
Learning spaces are restructured to support multiple modes of learning simultaneously, enabling flexible-pacing, fostering student autonomy, and creating opportunities for students to learn and create from “wherever” they are. One of the hallmarks of competency-based learning is the purposeful use of multiple teaching and learning “modes” or modalities that enable individualized instruction, self-pacing, and flexible grouping.
In mature competency-based classrooms, there is no “front of the room.” Furniture is arranged to support different modalities of learning simultaneously, such as small group mini-lessons, one-on-one conferencing, peer-to-peer discussions, and independent work. Because students have on-demand access to the full sequence of modules, units, and courses at all times, and strong classroom routines and norms are in place, everyone is engaged in learning. The powerful discovery here? As students develop the skills to take more ownership of their learning, adults have more time and space to meet kids where they are by individualizing instruction, opening up room for students to pursue their own passions and interests, and responding to specific needs in real time.
For teachers and students new to this approach, the beginning can be a bit rough, as the paradigm shift requires a mindset change, with new habits, norms, and practices that allow power to be shared between adults and young people who often have little experience in this realm. At the U School in Philadelphia, the model design explicitly names this process by offering students four possible pathways for each course: a teacher-directed course, a well-scaffolded teacher-supported option, a semi-autonomous class, or a fully autonomous course, where students are primarily working independently. Students work with advisors to identify the pathway that will be a “doable stretch,” and every ten weeks they reassess the situation, making adjustments on a course-by-course and student-by-student basis.
The design of the learning space and the role of technology in competency-based models is, importantly, not intended to maximize student time on computers, but to maximize student agency by providing access to the full sequence of modules, units, and courses, a steady stream of formative data, and summative information about student progress toward competency. In experienced programs, this is tightly coupled with human connection through powerful, purposeful interactions between adults and students, and amongst students, creating opportunities for rich discussion, feedback, collaborative problem-solving, and tailored learner supports.
At Bronx Arena, teachers use a weekly facilitation planning tool to determine which students should be grouped together for a mini-lesson or who should participate in a one-on-one conference; in both cases, specific learning targets are defined for the time. Flexible grouping can take place in an impromptu manner based on teacher observations in the middle of learning time; however, for planning purposes, a weekly interval for planning was what Bronx Arena determined as the appropriate stretch of time. At New Classrooms, technology is used to facilitate daily grouping of students based on their progress on clearly defined skill-based learning progressions for mathematics. At Chicago’s West Belden K-8, students are able to work with the teacher who is best suited to address their needs, as they are identified: “a third grade student needing help with phonics may go to the first grade teacher.”
Feature 2. Responsive Facilitation Of Learning In Action
The five learner-centered instructional practices that we’ve highlighted in the graphic above are high-leverage practices for competency-based, learner-centered instruction. Three of the practices are described above (explicit teaching of skills and strategies, expanded student talk, on-your-feet formative assessments); two practices need additional detailing: regular student conferencing, and discovery-based mini-lessons. Student conferencing is dedicated time for dialogue and the provision of specific, actionable feedback, including feedback on work products and work processes, as well as metacognitive feedback and feedback about the individual’s overall development.
The power of feedback is beautifully exemplified in one of EL Education’s well-known videos, Austin’s Butterfly. Here, EL’s Chief Academic Officer, Ron Berger, describes how a first grade student, Austin, was able to produce an amazing butterfly drawing with the support of concrete, actionable feedback. The video also touches on a number of additional principles that lie at the heart of competency-based education: teaching explicit disciplinary skills and strategies (e.g., “Think like a scientist”), emphasizing strengths and growth (e.g., “Not yet”), creating opportunities for specific feedback and multiple revisions, positioning learners as developing experts, and facilitating robust discussions and “expanded talk” that allow students to think, process, share, and co-construct learning.
Discovery-based mini-lessons are, in effect, what direct instruction looks like in an inquiry-based or problem-based learning model. The first shift is in length: instead of 45-60 minute teacher-driven lectures, we shift toward shorter, tighter, interactive “mini-lessons” that have a specific learning target and that are followed by learning activities, discussion, or other modes of learning. The second shift is in purpose: rather than aimed at delivering content, the lesson is intended to activate prior knowledge, create space for students to generate their own questions, and facilitate a learning experience that unfolds in such a way that learning happens through discovery. The final shift is in design: a carefully crafted set of information, student prompts, and responsive facilitation techniques are used to help students arrive at conceptual understanding.
Two strong video examples in the math context:
This inquiry-based approach is also exemplified by the Japanese model of math instruction, which inverts the traditional “I do, We do, You do” model to a “You do, Ya’ll do, We do” approach. Rather than the teacher explaining a concept or skill and then walking students through guided and independent practice, a problem is posed that challenges students to take the lead in their learning.14 Students engage in productive struggle on their own, then engage in vibrant academic discourse with their fellow classmates (“expand student talk”) while the teacher circulates, listens, poses additional questions, and again listens carefully to diagnose both conceptual and procedural confusions and understandings. Finally, the teacher steps in to work through a few key problems with students, using their specific insights and challenges to bring sharper clarity to the mathematical concept or concepts being explored in the lesson.
Feature 3. Learning Experiences That Foster Engagement, Access, And Rigor
In learner-centered models that meet students where they are, the touchstones that guide the design of learning experiences foster curiosity, agency, and competence for all learners. We offer four design features:
#1. Learning experiences reflect a commitment to addressing the needs, passions, and experiences of all learners. In second generation CBE, schools will be informed by the principles of Universal Design, cultural responsiveness, and student agency.
- Universal Design refers to the concept that educators and schools should be actively engaged in designing tools, learning experiences, and approaches to lower or eliminate the barriers students face. With a deep grounding in brain research, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides guidance on the design of learning opportunities that will allow learners with a broad range of strengths and gaps to engage with learning in deep and meaningful ways.
- Culturally responsive teaching is the practice of “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It is a means for improving achievement by teaching diverse students through their own cultural filters. “Curriculum that does not explicitly acknowledge the cultural [frames it draws upon] perpetuates the marginalization of students due to implicit and explicit bias – both individual and institutional.”
- “Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative – the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and other’s lives.” There are a set of teacher behaviors that measurably boost student agency, and others that “dampen” it – even when the teacher intends to be helpful and supportive. The trick is to achieve a balance between the supports provided to students and the expectations asked of them: too many supports without high enough expectations for effort and production tend to diminish students’ agency and their personal orientation toward mastery.
#2. Learning experiences are under-girded by an inquiry-driven learning cycle grounded in the learning sciences and in child and youth development research. A learning cycle is a powerful anchor and can be developed at any level of the system: an isolated teacher organizing around competencies may have to create her own; more commonly, a school or district would take the lead so there is careful alignment between the competencies and the learning cycle.
The learning cycle example that follows is an appropriate guide for the design of learning experiences at any age, even young elementary students learning the skills of reading, writing, and early numeracy. While the work of learning the alphabet or counting is often framed as purely procedural (practice and apply this learning in order to achieve fluency), this work has the potential to live right at the intersection of skill-mastery and inquiry. In many classrooms, four, five, and six year olds use invented spelling as they write their first “books.” They engage in letter- and word-study as part of learning to read, and they work with both manipulatives and numbers to explore math as a symbolic and conceptual language. Some students learn to “read” both numbers and letters through processes that look mysterious to us: rapidly recognizing what these symbols represent and using them to communicate. Other students engage in a (more laborious) process of phonic study and number recognition.
In the model above, learning experiences are designed to support students in moving through a four-stage process (outer circle) while students are synthesizing new information and expanding their existing schema on a continuous basis (inner circle). In each stage, we expand student choice and nurture a metacognitive approach to learning that is fundamentally important to nurturing student agency.
In the Make Meaning stage, students activate prior knowledge, build new background knowledge, and make meaning of foundational concepts and ideas as they begin to explore the overarching question or problem frame (e.g., How safe is my tap water?). Without this critical step, struggling students with gaps in background knowledge, concepts, or academic vocabulary will likely be left behind. Importantly, as students develop greater autonomy in their learning, they themselves can be defining the topic of exploration and their pathway through it, making choices about which competencies they will demonstrate through their culminating work product or performance based on, for example, the portfolio requirements they are working to fulfill. Making Meaning is the work of remembering and understanding – the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy – new concepts and skills from a range of material, models, and resources.
In the Investigate stage, students explore relevant questions and generate questions of their own based on their interests and curiosities about the issue. This stage is essential to ensuring all students have access to learning experiences that involve deep, analytical thinking, such as through exploring multiple perspectives on an issue or multiple approaches to a solution, evaluating claims and evidence, and developing conceptual frameworks to ground one’s thinking and understanding. This stage represents a powerful opportunity to challenge hegemonic learning assets and to problematize learning resources – whether a news article, textbook chapter, blog post, or some other asset – that are grounded in a singular perspective. On Bloom’s Taxonomy, application, analysis, and evaluation occurs during the Investigate stage.
An integral (but often overlooked) element of the Make Meaning and Investigate stages is the process of Synthesis: One of the highest levels of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy, synthesis is the work of creating new schema that aid in understanding and making connections between disparate pieces of information and skills. In the Create stage, students apply new knowledge and skills as they construct and organize a new, personally meaningful, and coherent “product” or performance. Here, students demonstrate their learning through rigorous, engaging performance tasks. In the Communicate stage, students share, publish, or perform their work for authentic audiences.
At both ends of this continuum – and in all of the spaces in between – teachers are working with students to meet them where they are as they learn to make meaning, investigate, and synthesize. Ultimately, the act of writing and problem-solving is an act of creation, and eventually, there should be a forum for communicating this learning to a broader audience: In the EL Learning example of Austin’s Butterfly discussed above, first grader Austin is drawing a butterfly for a card he is designing that will be shared in the broader community. In the process of drafting it, he is working on developing his fine-motor skills as well as his capacity to represent objects with precision (and many other skills and concepts): it is a both-and learning experience: neither just procedural/skill learning, nor purely conceptual exploration.
Often, students who end up “far behind” or “off-track” are students whose learning effectively halted in elementary school. They may struggle to make meaning of texts or to understand proportional thinking (represented by fractions, decimals, and percents) despite practicing these concepts for years. Clearly, practicing, while necessary, is not sufficient for many – if not most – students, even at the youngest ages. This becomes more clear if a learning cycle is guiding the work that teachers undertake with students: practice with an eye toward gaining fluency is an essential part of the work of meaning-making, which includes building background knowledge and skills. But ultimately, this must be followed by a version of investigation and synthesis, which provide an opportunity for skills to be applied to similar and new contexts, while questions are raised to address both curiosity and confusion, establishing new schema to help with efficient consolidation of new learning. The assumption is that all students – even young ones, as well as those who cannot not easily access content – can and should have frequent opportunities to undertake significant work that mirrors that which college students, artisans, and professionals engage in. The Reggio Emilia approach to early education provides wonderful insight into the powerful use of a learning cycle with young children.
#3. Assessment is in service of learning, not the other way around. Performance Tasks are the driver. A commitment to meeting students where they are means a significant reconstruction of our assessment strategies and models. This involves moving away from traditional examinations that are often strictly for the purpose of evaluation to work products that are performance-based and that have meaning and importance beyond school. A cornerstone of competency-based models, performance tasks ensure that students are engaging in tasks that will help prepare them for postsecondary life, inclusive of but not limited to, college and career. In addition to embedding performance-based assessment in our learning models, there are several other key considerations to ensuring our assessment is in service of learning:
- We need to adopt a tiered assessment strategy that involves a coordinated effort across a school or district, ideally, or departments and student cohort teams, minimally. A “tiered” strategy distinguishes between age-bound assessments (e.g., annual state assessments, SAT exams), and a set of assessments that are flexible and responsive, available to students “just-in-time” or at their request when they are ready to demonstrate proficiency.
- Assessments should be “meaningful and positive” experiences for students, involving tasks that have relevance and importance beyond school, and involving a supportive process of multiple opportunities to practice and apply new skills and knowledge, receive rich feedback, and undergo revision cycles. At Parker-Varney elementary school, third grade students tackled school lunch with the aim to make it more appetizing. Students used math and research skills to compare the relative cost of outsourcing lunch preparation (the current model), and school preparation (their hoped-for result). They then developed their presentation skills to persuade the school board to change policy, which it did. As a result, school lunch consumption has increased 20 percent. A similar process was used to persuade the school board to move away from styrofoam use in the cafeteria.
#4. Units are modular. Modular content is self-contained, manageable in scope, and follows a learning arc that culminates in some demonstration of readiness to advance to the next module. Modular content makes for easy management and measurement of progress, while also allowing flexibility for the timeline in which certain content is explored. The teenager who struggles with proportional thinking can quickly gain access to modules that explore these concepts while delaying deeper study into algebraic concepts, or learning the two side-by-side as she strengthens her overall math competency. Modular design is powerful because it enables students to come back to the specific modules they need when they need them, rather than be responsible for “re-doing” an entire course because they needed more time or didn’t demonstrate proficiency of content and skills within a set period of time. Students can move through modules in ways that make sense for their learning profile: a student who failed Algebra last year at a different school might have mastered linear equations previously, but will need to work on quadratics, another student might be competent in both, others in neither.
Modularity allows for content, concepts, and skills to be studied in their “appropriate” moment and context based on “where students are.” Modularity also creates flexibility for practitioners, allowing for revisions and adaptations without contending with the locked-down effect that is present with interdependent course progressions. Breaking from the tradition of lengthy courses and prescribed scope with a tight age-based sequence is one of the highest-impact levers for supporting competency-based learning, but it requires that students have access to the full scope of K-12 modules so they can work on the specific competencies that meet their needs and interests.
#5. Modules are well-scaffolded. The notion of “scaffolding” has been mainstreamed in the education space for years, but its meaning varies greatly depending on the user. In many instances, we see the idea of “scaffolding” understood to mean the breaking down of content into small, bite-sized, and easily digestible parts – the simplification of complex content. However, simplifying content in one context does not enable students to work without the simplification in a later or different context. True to the origin of the architectural term, we refer to scaffolding as temporary but critical structures put in place to support a developmental process, which are ultimately removed when no longer needed.
Put another way, scaffolding helps students develop a toolkit of key learning strategies and skills that build their competence and nurture their autonomy as learners and thinkers. Once they have capacity as independent learners, they can begin to move quickly to address both gaps in their core understandings, while also having the capacity to pursue personal passions and interests.
Over the last two decades, disciplinary experts have generated expansive bodies of work that demonstrate the importance of explicit teaching of skills and strategies. Literacy experts advocate for teaching comprehension strategies explicitly: posing questions, making inferences, determining importance, synthesizing new information, and so on. These strategies were identified in the ‘80s, not by studying struggling students, but rather by researching the skills that sophisticated or “expert” readers use when tackling challenging texts. Math experts emphasize the importance of developing mathematical mindsets and mathematical habits of mind alongside building knowledge of mathematical concepts. A teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy in New York City exemplifies this deliberate teaching of skills and comprehension strategies in order to help struggling readers engage with key academic texts.
In practice, this fine distinction is an important one. It’s the difference between using a tool as an isolated “activity,” as illustrated in the graphic below (left), and making explicit the tool’s purpose, value, and relevance to the task at hand (right), so that it actually becomes a tool that can be used to support learning in many contexts. The key underpinning of effective scaffolding? Metacognition.
In the example above, the teacher’s ultimate goal is not the activity itself, but rather to help students understand that that there are multiple ways to organize information and to visualize relationships, and this is one tool from a metaphorical toolkit that can be used to do so. This approach lays the groundwork for student autonomy in learning. If students both grasp that learning requires organizing ideas in increasingly complex ways AND they are equipped with the strategies and tools to do this, they are on the way to being able to learn anything, from woodworking and web design to Physics and Latin.
Content remains central: students will use new tools to dig deeply into important content, developing schema that will help them both remember and understand new content, and allow them to analyze and synthesize it in significant ways. At the same time, the focus does shift away from content coverage (a typically superficial exploration of the “what”) toward process and skill development (the “how” of exploring complex concepts and ideas), while simultaneously making the thinking process and rationale behind it explicit (the “why”).
This critical practice is fundamental to a positive child and youth development frame because it nurtures students’ sense of competence and power in their learning, rather than just moving them along through a stream of unconnected learning activities. For young students and struggling learners, explicit teaching of skills and strategies is a lifeline to independent learning, and directly counters the false and harmful notion that teachers must “cover the basics” before students may access opportunities to think deeply and engage in analytical work.
This is the thirteenth blog in a series for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System.