Show What You Know: A Parent’s Guide to the Global Shift to Competency

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We inherited a system of education that has six big problems: it doesn’t focus on important skills, it’s boring, it doesn’t work for most learners, it’s inequitable, it doesn’t measure well, and it doesn’t communicate well.

These problems are most prevalent and vexing in high school—which should be a launchpad for life but is tedious torture for most teens.

We’re excited about all the global initiatives making progress on these problems. A few in the United States include the Kauffman-sponsored Real World Learning initiative in Kansas City,  schools supported by XQ and NGLC, and the new Whittle School & Studios. The solutions emerging from these initiatives are summarized below.

Portrait of success. The old goal was to accumulate enough required credits to graduate. Students would work through disconnected classes, which concluded with tests that valued content memorization. Now, leading schools work with their community to develop a shared vision of what they want for graduates, sometimes called a portrait of a graduate, that describes the skills required for contribution and citizenship in the Innovation Economy. They often include communication, collaboration, and creativity, and the building blocks of success including being self-directed and resilient. These skills can be developed across a wide range of projects not learned in isolation.

Real work, real feedback. When school is a series of worksheets—disconnected small chunks of easily corrected tasks, it can be boring, irrelevant and unproductive. The solution is real work and accurate and timely feedback. Building priority skills requires extended challenges—big, integrated projects—at least periodically. Some challenges will aim at priority outcomes, while others are more directed by student interest.

In new guidelines for competency-based learning, the Aurora Institute adds that “Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.”

Progress when ready. Lockstep learning doesn’t work for most children. Grouping students by age and pushing them through the same content leaves some learners lost while others are bored. Allowing learners to progress as they demonstrate mastery of important skills and concepts means they are always challenged appropriately and it avoids big gaps in preparation. (Video tutor and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan argues that passing students on without mastery is like a house built on a bad foundation, as it prevents students from moving into and applying advanced concepts.)

Equitable outcomes. Traditional systems lead to inequitable results—they may even exacerbate rather than close opportunity gaps. Smart schools and systems have a culture of inclusion and add time and support for students to help them catch up and keep up.

Better measures. Letter grades are often a weak indicator of what students know and can do. They are idiosyncratic by classroom, generally inflated (especially at college preparatory schools), and include a mixture of effort, achievement and a lot of random extra credit for attending and complying. Because grades are usually averaged over a semester or year, they disadvantage learners that come in behind but work hard to catch up. (Listen to this great Harvard podcast on all the problems with traditional grading).

Teachers in leading schools provide feedback against objective standards that are recognized by the community as reflecting quality work. Like a thoughtful work environment, good schools are a ‘no surprise’ zone; students know what is expected, and they know their work will be assessed. In fact, they can assess their own progress accurately.

Better communication. A traditional transcript lists courses passed and grades earned—not a very good indication of what graduates know and can actually do. It’s a weak certification of the learning that really matters to colleges and employers. Leading schools are extending or even replacing traditional transcripts with more robust descriptions of learner capabilities. More than 300 of the country’s best schools are working together in the Mastery Transcript Consortium to build a system that better enables young people to share their story of growth, contribution and capability. Transcripts are increasingly augmented by portfolios—a digital archive of personal bests.

Leading schools worldwide are addressing the six big problems by creating more interesting and authentic extended learning experiences, providing better and broader feedback on the skills that matter, providing extra time and support to students who need it, and equipping learners to better describe their capabilities. These changes are sometimes referred to as competency-based, mastery-based, or performance-based learning—terms that are used synonymously.

The principles described above are incorporated in new guidelines for competency education published by Aurora Institute, the leading advocate for the shift to more student-centered and competency-based learning.

Even the most innovative schools in the world are still working on solutions to these six problems. Tools and policies to develop these new practices are still in development. So, be patient and look for ways to be part of the solution. Help your school develop and phase in practices that benefit students and help them better describe who they are, and where they are headed.

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This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

This blog was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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