What Does Competency-Based Learning Really Mean?

Gone are the days when learners sit down the entire academic year, learn only from their teacher, and take standardized tests to know how well they have mastered the subject. Today’s learners are active, independent, and creative. They seek purpose in what they do and strive to attain their potential in different fields. Now, how do we address their changing needs?

Competency-based learning ensures students not only learn inside the classroom but also in diverse environments. The interests and learning styles of individuals are taken into consideration which allows them to learn the way they learn best – something that traditional system misses. In this type of learning, students are not expected to sit down and listen to lectures the entire time. They get to explore and gather information and ideas from a wide range of resources.

Assessments also come in different forms. In the traditional system, learners are required to take a pen-and-paper test which ultimately measures how much they have learned. With competency-based learning, application of learning is given more emphasis. This gives educators a more concrete proof that learners are equipped with the right skills they need for advancement.

Furthermore, the traditional education system gives the teacher the sole control of what proficient looks like. Students are expected to meet the standards based on the activities given by their teacher. In competency-based learning, they get to be creative in showcasing their mastery of competencies.

With these key points in mind, imagine what we can do to empower our educators and learners.

Badges and the Habits of Mind

The Habits of Mind developed by Art Costa and Bena Kallick have been around for over 25 years, and have received a bit of a boost lately due to a series of animations produced by WonderGrove. (This example on persisting will give you an idea.)

The 16 Habits of Mind are “attributes of what humans do when they behave intelligently” and include behaviors such as Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations and Thinking Flexibly. The Habits are appealing, and most educators who read through the list would certainly not in agreement that these are habits that our students should demonstrate.

The issue that often arises is that these habits – or any specific behaviors – is not specifically a part of the curriculum. Beyond the early elementary years, most teachers feel they need to focus primarily on content in the classroom; specific instruction time focused on these habits is unfortunately rare. The Habits of Mind are supposed to be a part of everyone’s teaching, which can mean that it ends up being no one’s responsibility.

To address this issue, some schools using Richer Picture are incorporating Habits of Mind as digital badges. Students need to demonstrate some number of the 16 Habits over time. By making the habits an explicit requirement, both students and teachers can become conscious of their usage. When creating assignments, teachers can check off which Habits will be useful in completing the project. When submitting work, students can note which Habits they felt they demonstrated. When setting goals, students can look over the list and consider which Habits they feel they already do well, and which will need some attention.

One side effect is that the school community starts to engage in a conversation about what it means to demonstrate the Habits. When a student submits an entry, and says, this is a demonstration of “Thinking Interdependently,” what is the evidence? What does this habit mean to us? What does it look like? Can we recognize this habit when we see it? If it’s supposed to be a “habit,” how often do we need to see this demonstrated?

Whether we are talking about the Habits of Mind, or workplace expectations, or any other type of non-academic goal, schools can benefit from internal conversations about what these goals mean. The process of defining a badge, and looking at student work as evidence, can help your school bring these hidden understandings to the surface, and help students make a conscious effort to demonstrate the Habits.

Badges, Pathways and Success Plans

Most schools ask students to think about their goals beyond high school. Whether it’s called a “Personal Learning Plan,” a “Student Success Plan” or an “Individual Learning Plan,” schools want students to consider what they might want to do after graduation – and thus be able to take steps to achieve those goals.

Digital Badges can help students track their progress towards those goals. As part of the success plan, students might be encouraged to select specific badges to complete in order to pursue those goals. For example, a student interested in video game development could look to earn badges in computer programming, art (for the graphics) and writing (for the storytelling).

In Richer Picture, schools can set up Pathways. These can be combinations of badges that students will find useful to pursue different fields. By defining the badges, the school can also set up the specific steps that students can pursue within the school. For example, the student could use a course mapper to determine which classes will be most useful for completing the pathway. The school could also set up requirements for the badges that include both in- and out-of-school experiences.

We’ll be talking about this topic in more detail in our  webinar next Thursday, December 14, 2017, at 3:00 pm Eastern . We hope you can join us!

Digital Badges and Goal-Setting

Many schools ask students to set goals for themselves. These could be academic, career, or social goals; these could be goals for the quarter, the year, or something to be achieved before they graduate. This is a good exercise  – but to be useful, there has to be some follow-up. That is, once a student has set a goal, someone needs to check in to see if the student is following through, and taking steps towards achieving those goals.

Digital badges can be helpful here. If a student has a vague goal of wanting to get better at math, the teacher or advisor could suggest that the student work on some math-oriented badges — such as completing a project, or working on certain “math practices” like problem solving or modeling.


Similary, a student who think she wants to pursue a career in “business,” could be directed to specific badges, such as participating in a business club / organization (like DECA, FBLA, Junior Achievement or SkillsUSA) or earning a badge through certain courses offered in the school.

The idea here presumes that the school has a set of badges in place. But even if your school is just beginning with badges, a way to follow up with student goals is to generate specific next steps that the student can take, and a timeline for those steps. As the student accomplishes them, these milestones can be displayed as completed badges.


Portfolios and report cards

For most schools, we’ve recently passed the first quarter, and the first set of report cards have gone home (or, more likely, been posted on the school’s SIS site).

Many schools have tried to figure out how to combine portfolios with traditional report cards. A portfolio has a great a deal of information about a student’s progress – which is why we’ve always called it a “richer picture” of student achievement. Report cards, though, have two things going for them — they are familiar, and they are easy to look at.

RIcher PIcture can generate reports to accompany the traditional report card, and many schools have created customized reports that fit best for their environments. Some schools list all of the graduation requirements on a report, and then summarizes the student’s progress. (For example, a student might need to submit 6 entries into a writing portfolio; the report can indicate that the student has successfully completed 4 of them) Others use a type of standards-based report card, listing all of the school’s standards, and indicating the student’s progress (using a scale such as Beginning, Developing, Secure). As schools begin to do more with digital badges, a report summarizing the progress on each badge can accompany the report card.

The key here is that the portfolio report provides an easy-to-read summary of the student’s work thus far. If it’s online, the report can include links to the student’s actual entries and the teacher assessments; but at the top level, there should be a way of getting an overview of the student’s current status.

Reflecting on reflections

Digital portfolios are often described as a collection of student work. Of course, that’s true; but it’s not quite enough of a definition. If a portfolio is just a place to store work, then the portfolio is little more than an online file cabinet.

What makes a portfolio useful as an educational tool is the fact that students can look at a body of work – and then think about what they see. Hopefully, the student starts to see growth over time; the work from the end of the year is an improvement from the work at the beginning of the year, which itself is an improvement on the year before.

Students may also start to see patterns emerge — what work was most engaging? Maybe they were the ones most related to a particular topic — any chance the student had to work his or her favorite interest into the project was the one that they spent the most time on. Maybe it’s a more subtle pattern – projects where the student got to make more choices or were asked to work with another person (be it a fellow student or a mentor) might be the ones that are most interesting.

All of which is to say that a critical component of the portfolio is the ability to reflect on the work. Taking the time to look at the portfolio components and figure out those patterns or to take note of the growth is often what makes the portfolio worthwhile.

Now, students don’t always know how to reflect on their work; I’ve seen classes where the students were whispering to each other, “what does she [the teacher] want us to say here?” In the forward march of the school year, the idea of looking back at all – let alone with a reflective viewpoint – is something that requires some practice. To that end, the question to think about for now is this: how do we help students reflect? 

Depending on the age of the student, there are prompts that can be useful to guide a reflection. .Some basic prompts might be, “what work are you particularly proud of?” or “where do you think you could have done better?” (And, of course, asking the students to articulate why they thought those things will help.)  Students can look at a set of expectations and determine which ones are represented in the portfolio, and which might be missing.

There are different techniques for deciding how often a student should reflect, and what body of work might be most useful to examine (everything from this year? everything from a certain subject?). It’s worth it, though, for schools to give students the time to complete these reflections well.

How do we introduce portfolios in our school?

Digital portfolios allow a student to keep track of their best work over time; the idea that a student could have a (curated) collection of their progress through all the years of elementary, middle and high school is very attractive to many schools.

While the long-term goal may be to get everyone connected to a portfolio, schools still need to start somewhere.

Some steps that might help:

  1. Start with a small group. You can begin with a small group of teachers (about 4 to 6) who can conduct a pilot project. This group commits to starting with a portfolio for at least a semester, and having students from their classes add one or two entries into their portfolios. Critically, this group isn’t just there to rubber-stamp the process; they are looking to see how portfolios can be integrated into the life of the school. As this gruop works through the pilot, their feedback about what works well and what needs adjustment (not just with the software, but with the process) is important.
  2. Share a vision with the whole school.  Two of the essential questions that emerged out of the original digital portfolio research were, “What is the purpose of the portfolio?” and “Who is our primary audience?” The leadership of the school needs to identify a purpose for collecting and reviewing the student work. There are many legitimate purposes, from wanting to show progress over time to a deeper focus on skills that aren’t measured as well by traditional testing methods, to wanting to reach parents on a different level. Pick a purpose, and have the conversations to help everyone reach a shared understanding of what that purpose means to them. Professional development activities (like these workshops) can be helpful here.
  3. Plan a roll-out. Assuming that the pilot goes well, some attention needs to be paid to rolling out the portfolio to the rest of the school. You could start one grade level at a time, or move from department ot department. You may not bring everyone in all at once, but everyone should know that they are going to be involved at some point.

Of course, this all needs to fit with your situation. When assembling a pilot group, one principal deliberately chose one of the less tech-savvy teachers – but who was clearly a teacher that others looked up to, and who could keep the focus on the educational aspects of the pilot. Your may have many reasons for wanting to work with portfolios, and your school community can help you focus on what problem they most want the portfolios to address.


How do we share rubrics?

Rubrics are now a common sight in classrooms; most teachers at this point use rubrics for at least some of their assessments. When they are used well, they can help students focus on the key parts of any assignment, and help them understand what it means to “meet” expectations.

Often, teachers create their rubrics in isolation, or do their own search for rubrics on the Internet. As a result, the language in a rubric can mean something different from one teacher to another within the same school — or even from one assignment to the next within the same class. This means that the feedback from one class might not mean the same thing as feedback in the next room over.

One way to handle this is for teachers to work together. But, it’s worth asking, “How do teachers share rubrics?” We’re not talking about just emailing a rubric from one person to another; we’re talking about sharing rubrics so that multiple teachers can use them.

The answer is to create schoolwide rubrics. There are a couple ways to do this:

  1. You can look for common tasks and create rubrics that can be used any time that task comes up. For example, a school can create a “response to literature” rubric for a certain grade level. In one district, the 4th and 5th grade teachers agreed to a common rubric for these writing assignments; the rubric could be applied whether the student was reading The Phantom Toolbooth or Little House on the Prairie  or A Wrinkle in Time.
  2. You can create common rows that can be used by teachers in different rubrics. For example, you can create a common rubric  row for “conventions,” dealing with spelling and grammar errors; teachers might agree to use this row for their writing assignments, even if the other rows in the rubric vary from teacher to teacher.

Richer Picture can help you with common rubrics; once a rubric (or a row) is entered into the system (and marked as “shared”), it can be used by any other teacher. Ultimately, this can help to provide some consistent feedback from teacher to teacher and from assignment to assignment.

What does “personalization” mean?

“Personalization” is a hot topic; every school, state and district seems to be promoting its efforts to personalize education. Still, it’s not clear that everyone is approaching this in the same way. It’s worth asking: what does ‘personalization’ mean in our school or district?

The State of Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation has looked at how 10 different organizations, from the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation, has defined personalization, and found that certain “key phrases” appear throughout the defintiions, including:

  • competency-based progression
  • meets individual student needs
  • standards-aligned
  • student interests
  • student ownership
  • socially embedded
  • formative assessments
  • flexible learning environments

Each school needs to come to a decision about what aspects of personalization they have in mind.

Just as importantly, schools need to think about whether their initiatives are really meeting their definitions of personalization. Many Learning Management Systems claim that they can help you personalize — but often the only part of the definition they mean is that students can go at their own pace. In these environments, students use the same curriculum in the same order in the same way . Students don’t have much choice in how they interact with the material – the only thing they can control is how fast or how slow they move through the lessons.  The concepts of “student ownership” or “student interests” are low on the priority list.

Teachers are the critical factor in creating a personalized environment in schools – because they are the ones who get to know the students well. The concept of “meeting individual needs” is very different from a human perspective than from a computer’s.  (Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick talk about the importance of other components in personalization, including student voice, co-creation, social sconstruction and self-discovery in their recent book Students at the Center.) The teachers who know their students well are the ones who can help a student see a problem from a different angle, or make a different analogy, or can connect today’s issue with something that student has accomplished before. And that’s just how teachers help students interact with the material — teachers are even more critical in understanding student motivations, things going on outside of the classroom, and in being a part of the school community. (Consider the heroic efforts teachers in the Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico are making right now as their communities are rebuilding from the recent hurricanes.)

Technology has a place to help with personalization – but ultimately, personalization starts with teachers who are committed to understanding their students, and schools committed (as Debbie Meier put it), to ensuring that no child is anonymous.