Mastering the Art of Competency-Based Learning: Q&A with KnowledgeWorks
Virgel Hammonds and Abbie Forbus are two leaders behind KnowledgeWorks, a group that partners with national policymakers and local learning communities to redesign classrooms to become more learner-centered. The basic idea is progress and grading that’s based on proficiency or mastery, rather than seat time and averaged grades.
We spoke to Virgel and Abbie as the Rodel Teacher Council working group wraps up its yearlong research and advocacy around competency-based learning. Teacher Council members engaged every college and university in Delaware and got them to agree in writing that competency-based transcripts are accepted by their admissions offices—and not a hindrance to prospective applicants.
Let’s say you’re out at a cocktail party or talking to a family member—how would you describe competency-based learning to someone who is not an education insider?
Abbie: Basically I think of competency-based education (CBE) as bringing equity into the learning experience. It gives all kids a shot, because we know that all students can learn, but at different paces and in different ways. What CBE does is bring a common vision for all kids to learn, as well as a transparent curriculum, so that kids can own their learning and develop their agency, instead of just teachers holding the vision.
Virgel: If it were explaining it to my grandmother—well, first, it would be in Spanish. After that I would say that it’s about moving kids through school based on their actual readiness, not just an averaged collection of grades. And I’d say that it’s about making sure students are working at a challenging level and truly getting ready for the next step in their educations.
Like Abbie said, kids are completely different learners with different types of needs. Grandma would understand that one of her grandkids could walk before the age of one and tie her shoes before four; that all kids have their unique strengths and opportunities for learning that are presented to them in different ways. So what if we could adjust our schools and learning environments so that it works for the superstar grandkid as well as for all their peers?
Abbie: We went to school when things were averaged. The idea of averaged grades means you could have a high school student graduating with straight D’s who has lots of holes in their knowledge. Or you could have a students who got an A, but who now feels like they are done with their learning—they’re not digging deeper, or challenging themselves further. I got the A and I’m done.
If we’re averaging learning opportunities for kids, even the ones who’ve been successful—let’s say 80 percent—there’s still 20 that’s missing. Those gaps get bigger and bigger as they continue through school until the student eventually experiences struggles.
What are some of the myths or anxieties you find yourself having to help people through?
Virgel: That teachers are paramount in supporting kids in reaching competency in truly personalized ways. The myth is that this whole concept of personalized learning and competency-based education is about tech. But teachers are critically important in developing relationships and trust among their students that will allow these models to flourish.
Abbie: Personalized learning existed before students had computers. They’re just a great tool that we have today. People also seem to think that CBE means that class is chaotic or changing all the time. It’s not. All it means is that we want kids to be met where they need to be met. It’s about taking the best teaching practices that have been around forever and making sure that all kids have access to it.
Virgel: Abbie and I have a working relationship as teachers and school leaders that goes way back to early 2000s, so we share a lot of stories. One common one that I love sharing is from when we were first implementing CBE, and we were getting lots of feedback constantly from kids and community members to make sure we were living up their vision of learning. And one kid said to us: “You’re not going to let us fail, because everyone is held to the same standard and you’re making sure all kids are getting to where they need to be.” How perfect is that?
Tell us about how can SBL help students who may otherwise be left behind in the default system? How is this going to help students who are struggling academically?
Abbie: In our experience, because all learners have to prove proficiency and mastery, the holes in their learning or understanding of a subject become much more obvious much more quickly. We’re not waiting years to find these holes.
Virgel: One critical element where oftentimes people can go astray is when you hold kids to competency standards without a strong competency continuum. Yes it’s important to set expectations for learning, but what carries it through is when you have that well-defined continuum that’s uber transparent.
When teachers work together with an aligned learning continuum, together they can hold students accountable to proficiency before handing them off to the next grade level or learning experience. That allows us to be transparent about what a child knows and what gaps exist…and then provide direct support to close the gap.
We can correlate that data with other kids to let us address those holes in a quicker manner than we have in the past. The starting point is holding our kids accountable to the same standards—the how and when are variables. What exactly does competency and mastery look like? Teachers, kids and the community at large have to understand what competency looks like for every level of learning.
When we’re talking about CBL, what can we do to help spread this concept even wider? What have you seen work well in other parts of the country?
Abbie: Putting a network together. When Virgel and I started, there weren’t many schools doing it. There wasn’t much to learn from. There’s no phonebook for CBE. Trying to connect people and schools together—that’s a huge part of the work. When teachers thrive, they’re often learning form their peers.
Virgel: One critical element that we facilitate in communities and cohorts, is what a portrait of a graduate looks like. What do they want them to know, behave, look like—if all things are ideal? The knowledge, the strengths, the system for how we build, support, and nurture our kids from birth thru graduation. It’s not about what happens at high school, it’s about how do we as a community bring the supports, services, and interventions to all our kids so that they are meeting that portrait of a graduate. Stakeholder groups all have a role in that, and I think that’s a critical first step in terms of connecting educators in understanding how their role shifts. You have great trust and a great network of teachers that you’re nurtured in Rodel. Try some new things that they can reflect on collectively. Those are great strategies.
Another interesting part is how you include kids in this redesign. If kids feel a sense of ownership and like they’re part of the redesign, it’s going to make that design process that much more effective and innovative. They’ll be going back to their friends, their neighbors, their blogs, saying—‘Guess what I get to do with my school?’
Are there different approaches to “selling” this concept to different audiences? I imagine there are different selling points for policymakers, for instance, than there with parents, or superintendents, etc.
Virgel: A big part of the process is to engage and create models along with community groups to figure out common beliefs, the culture of their community, and so forth, so that we as a supporter of their vision can help move them forward.
Abbie: It all stems from the needs of the community and their vision for learning. This is not a transformational school/turnaround system. We’re working on what’s best for kids and helping communities build around that. What we find is they’re not okay with eight out of 10 kids graduating, or test scores not being where they should be, or kids dropping out of college. It’s really important that they see the need and want their kids to be more successful.
Virgel: What if you, as an educator or a community member, can say ‘We have a learning community collectively supporting the success of every child.’ That we are all going to support all our kids and the education that we provide them through our K-12 system that will prepare them for the rigors of whatever they pursue afterward. Taking what every parent wants for their child—that’s really what helps a community make this commitment. The best part about this vision is it’s an investment in their community. And the kids come back because they felt such support from their community that they want to come back as adults to bring that support back. It happens magically almost every time. They might go pursue other opportunities but many take what they learned in their K-12 and say this is my opportunity to give back.
You’ve been engaged on a small level with the Rodel Teacher Council. They’ve actually gotten every single college and university in our state to agree in concept that CB transcripts are accepted and not a hindrance to the application process–and they even put it in writing—what are your thoughts on that approach?
Virgel: I like it. What it could lead to is a conversation about–what are your expectations of prerequisite skills, the competencies you want as a college, and then how to we reverse-engineer that for students? And then vice versa: How can you learn from our approach to ensure you continue those differentiated learning opportunities at the higher learning level?
It’s smart to start with higher ed because one question we hear a lot from parents is: What does CBE mean in relation to in higher ed? Having that green light or thumbs up will help alleviate concerns from parents, knowing that they’re kids won’t be at a disadvantage.
I’ve seen in states like Rhode Island, where they’ve been engaged on this work on a statewide basis, that they invite their higher ed partners to their community conversations. The higher ed folks often say, ‘This is not a big deal to us, we see transcripts from around the world.’ And really what a competency-based transcript does is provide a clearer picture of what your graduates actually know.