Personalized, Blended and Competency-Based Learning


Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 1:00am

We recently hosted a podcast featuring Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart, on Learning Outside the Lines.  He shared his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of online learning and when it is done right, the benefits it offers to students and teachers alike. One of these benefits is offering a personalized learning experience. In his latest post, Tom discusses how districts should be leveraging blended online learning for a more robust education offering.

It is a mouthful—personalized, blended and competency-based. And I assume that someone out there is going to come up with an acronym or create a name for it. Before they do, I hope problem-based or project-based will be included in that list as well, since kids need the opportunity to use deeper levels of knowledge (as well as being downright fun most of the time).

I’ve made the case why we need to continue to understand each these characteristics separately, as we are in such rapid stages of learning. We need a way to break it down when we talk to each other. When I ask a school in New Hampshire, “How do you use blended learning?” I expect to hear about the adaptive software students are using, the online courses and competency recovery that is available through Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, how teachers are learning to organize their curriculum in units on the web so that students can advance more quickly, and how they are using tablets for those students that do not have Internet access at home so they can download what they need and take it home with them.

When I visit a school in Maine to learn about their competency-based model, they will tell me about their proficiency-based schools. I might hear about the transparency of the measurement targets and learning targets based upon standards, or how their learning management system Educate allows teachers to track progress and principals to monitor pacing across the school. I might hear about their school-wide system of supports, including daily Flex hour and reading specialists who work with individual students—as well as building capacity of their teachers, their grading scheme based on depth of knowledge that targets proficiency at Level 3 (i.e. application of knowledge and skills), and how they are developing assessments for Maine’s Guiding Principles—or what might others call lifelong learning competencies.

At Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority when I ask about personalization, I would expect to hear about assessing students when they enroll in a school to know where they are on their learning progression (by the way, also something you would expect to see in competency education), and how they use individual student profiles and plans. I would hear how their learning management system Buzz offers students choice in how to learn, practice and apply—as well as allowing teachers to individualize the content for students—and how they are experimenting at Southeastern Technical High School to create opportunities for students to work fully at their own pace during the school day without being inhibited by bell-blasting, 50-minute periods.

At Apex High School, one of the Diploma Plus schools serving lots of overage and undercredited students, when I ask about how students apply their learning, they will tell me that they use Bloom’s revised taxonomy in every course so students know what level they are targeting, and that in each course students do a project so they have the opportunity to apply their learning using analysis, evaluation and creativity. During the Plus Phase—the third and final phase before graduation (the other phases being Foundation and Presentation)—students will do an internship as well as a Community Action Project.

Eventually, we need all of these elements working together to optimize our schools and resources on behalf of our children. However, in our stage of development it is okay for a school to build expertise in one or two and then weave in another strand when they are ready. As Julia Freeland wrote, it’s probably a matter of bandwidth.

Though in writing this it does occur to me—What if schools created innovation teams that created expertise in each of these approaches?  Wouldn’t teachers start to have those “what if” moments at lunch or walking in from the parking lot about how they could combine different elements of the different strands of innovation? Wouldn’t students start to bring ideas between classrooms about how their project-based learning could really benefit from having access to some of the resources online—or how they might be able to create more deeper learning projects if once a week there was a three-hour open period to work on projects so they could get 4′s not just 3′s for “grades”?

What if?


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