Shining the Competency Education Light on Education in the Time of COVID-19

Has Covid19 lifted the window of opportunity for a massive transformation of the education system? During several presentations on rethinking schools and the future of education, many of the speakers and chatting participants have claimed that the closure of schools in response to the pandemic has created the conditions for radical transformation.

But transform to what?

Certainly, Covid19 has made it crystal clear that our schools need to be remote-ready—through this pandemic as well as for future unanticipated economic, technological, and climate-related disruptions to come.  But it is a mistake to only focus on the technology and online instruction alone. Remote learning is primarily about where students are learning. Technology is simply the delivery system whether it is used in the classroom or at home. It’s the process of motivating, instructing, and assessing students that shapes learning.

In pre-pandemic days there was a growing consensus for personalized, deeper, mastery-based approaches. However, we must be careful about jumping to the assumption that personalized, mastery learning will be meaningful for students, teachers, and school leaders as they struggle with how to move forward in the time of Covid19. It depends on what challenges are most pressing and how they are defined. If a window of opportunity is truly opening, it will be because the modern education model helps schools respond to the conditions created by Covid19 and our nation’s responses to it.

How can personalized, mastery-based (or competency and proficiency-based) approaches help teachers and schools? Using a few of the concerns mentioned by educators as they confront the future, I’ve highlighted a few ways the modern approaches, drawing on the research on learning, might provide guidance as educators wrap up the school year and prepare for an uncertain fall semester.

I can’t control how students use their time with remote learning.

Teachers have a huge task trying to get thirty students to stay focused on learning. Control and compliance have been the go-to strategy for a century. However, it is actually a total fallacy that anyone can make someone else learn. You can get students to go through the motions of learning but what is happening in their brains (both cognitively and emotionally) is where the action is. And we can’t control that. Never could, never will.

The modern educational approaches, rooted in what we know about learning based on research, seeks to motivate students to put forth their best effort. Thinking and learning is hard. It requires us to manage our thoughts and feelings. It requires us to keep going, to persevere, even when success seems impossible. It requires us to deeply believe that we can learn and that we can be successful.

That’s where personalizing learning and using a mastery-based approach comes in. (There are lots of different definitions of personalizing. I’m referring to the ones that are student-centered and emphasize empowering students to own their education.) It starts with two assumptions. First, we need to empower learners to own and manage their learning. Second, we need to create the conditions and culture that will motivate students to put their full effort towards learning.

Empowering students to be the best learners they can be required intentionally and explicitly teaching them how to learn. They need to understand what the research says about learning. They need to develop a growth mindset and learn strategies for self-regulation of their emotions and their thoughts. They need to learn how to reflect on their learning processes so that they can adjust them if they aren’t working. Our best elementary school teachers do this. We need every teacher to be able to know how to do this as students change as they grow up. Their strategies to be great learners are going to change as well. (See Building Blocks for Learning for an overview of many of the skills and mindsets that are needed for learning.)

Motivating students requires cultivating a sense of purpose, providing autonomy, and organizing around mastery. The sense of purpose can vary across students and change over time. Sometimes just trying something for a beloved or passionate teacher can be enough. Connections to the real world, interest-driven, fun, and a drive towards a future goal can nurture a sense of purpose. Taking pride in learning, taking on a challenge, and getting the rush of endorphins when success is reached, might be enough to get a student to focus on a task. Success begets success.

Autonomy, some control of how and when learning takes place, is created through choice. What book do you want to read? Where do you want to read? How will you demonstrate that you met the learning target? The degree and type of autonomy need to be managed through gradual release. Too much autonomy and a student will flounder. With remote learning, the home life and availability of adults to guide students will make a difference for how much autonomy they want and can manage effectively. Our perceptions shape our experience of control as well. Am I staying at home because I have to because of government orders or because I want to do my best to help my community deal with the pandemic? The mindset of students will influence their sense of control.

The opportunity for mastery, the opportunity to successfully gain new knowledge and skills, is in itself motivating. That’s why so many schools are organizing around mastery learning (or competency or proficiency-based). Transparent learning targets and what it means to be proficient, grading systems that support students understanding where they are in the learning process, the opportunity for more instruction, and revision until students are successful are just a few of the key structures that create a culture of mastery.

Everyone is going to be at a totally different place when we re-open.

That is true, every student will start the next school year in a different place. As they have every year. What’s different is that they may have received different exposure to the curriculum and spent different amounts of time on task. The pandemic is forcing us to look at a truth that has always existed. Our traditional system mistakenly equates the delivery of curriculum with learning.

Students are always at different places in their learning. Teachers know this to be true even though the system of education ignores it. Some teachers face the challenge of 4, 5, or more levels of skills in their classrooms. Our system of education actually produces this situation by passing students on with gaps in their learning. Why do we pass students on with gaps? The system does this because it is built on an assumption that not everyone can learn. Part of the design of our schools is to rank and sort students using grades. Let’s be clear, it’s not just low achieving students with gaps. Straight A students may also have gaps that cause them to stumble later on.

Whereas the traditional education system ignores the variability in student skills and delivers the same curriculum to students based on their age, a mastery system takes into account where we want students to be and where they are in their learning. Instruction and assessment seek to fill gaps and reach grade-level goals. This means some students will need more instruction, more time. Decisions about how to support students are individualized and take into account the discipline, the skill of the teachers involved, where other students are in their learning, and where students are in building the skills and mindsets as a learner.

What are we going to do with so many students that are behind?

This concept of students of being behind is going to get us in trouble. Yes, there is a long-term goal to get every student college and career ready. But learning has never taken place in a straight line. Students are just where they are. The question is how do we help them move forward towards the long-term goal in ways that build their capacity as learners and motivate them to put in their best effort. Giving more curricula on faster timelines is likely to backfire. Again, coverage of the curriculum doesn’t equal learning.

Then, what can schools do?

Introduce performance levels and grade levels in instruction and assessment. One of the first things to do is understand where students are in their performance and start thinking about instruction that takes that into consideration. This doesn’t mean tracking. Heterogeneous and collaborative learning strategies are important instructional strategies and are vital in creating supportive communities of learners. Transparency of learning targets and performance levels contribute to the culture of mastery. Students know where they are, what they need to focus on, and what proficiency looks like. It’s important to celebrate each little step forward. Grade level is still important. The age of students can help us think about students developmentally. It also helps us keep the eye on helping them to reach the goals of college and career-ready.

Relationships matter. Knowing students and where they are in their development and learning is a critical aspect of personalized, mastery systems. Students need to feel safe and part of that is feeling that teachers care about them. Our education system is organized around curriculum, not relationships. Students move on to the next grade, the next curriculum and the next teacher.

Looping can help. Teachers stay with students for two years (although exceptions should be made when there are bad matches). They know the students better. They know the families better. Multi-age classrooms can also help teachers focus on where students are in their learning rather than delivering one curriculum. Why not have students keep working with their same teachers in the fall semester?

The most developed personalized and mastery-based schools I’ve visited have organized co-teaching models with 60-90 students with two or three teachers. Why? Because relationships and collaborations matter for teachers as well as students. Flexible space, flexible seating, and resources to respond to several different performance levels all close at hand are all part of creating learning environments that respond to where students are. Covid19 is also going to demand flexibility in seating as well.

Time is a resource. Be creative. Austria is looking at an on-and-off schedule. Students coming to school for four days on and then 10 days off, trying to time itself with the life of the virus. Maybe some students need to spend more time with teachers in the classroom while others thrive in the online environment. Summer, using outside spaces for learning, might be a strategy for helping students that started last semester out on lower performance levels and didn’t receive any instruction during the months of sheltering in place.

The most important thing is to shift our mindsets. Students are not behind. They are just where they are. Meet them there.

I don’t know how to grade my students.

Covid19 has destroyed the illusion that traditional A-F grading systems had value, just as it is blowing up the illusions that teachers can force students to learn, that learning should be based on age and that students learn in a straight line at the same speed. A-F grading systems—with points for behavior, emphasizing summative assessment, with little opportunity for revision, and rolling up into the GPA ranking system—tell us more about student performance levels and demonstrating the desired behaviors (attendance, participation, and homework) than they do about learning. For those at the top of the bell curve, grades can be motivating. But for all the rest, they are nearly useless to help them in their learning and for some downright harmful.

It’s time for all schools to become standards-referenced. Grading should be aligned with specific targets. The learning target and what proficiency looks like are transparent to students. Students receive the opportunity for more instruction and revision. For those that are ready to commit to a mastery system, take the next step towards standards-based grading. This requires helping students to repair gaps and if by the end of the semester they haven’t reached proficiency on the targets, then plans are made to help them continue their learning through summer breaks and into the next year.

The most important thing in creating a meaningful grading system is to make sure it is aligned with helping students to learn based on the research on learning. In fact, every decision we make about our schools and the policies that shape them need to be checked to make sure we are maximizing learning, including empowering and motivating students, not inhibiting it.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis was the co-founder of CompetencyWorks, the go-to source about competency education. Her knowledge of modern education models have developed by visiting over 100 schools that are leading the way in the U.S. and New Zealand. In 2018, she was awarded Outstanding Individual Contribution to Personalized Learning Award by iNACOL (now Aurora Institute). You can find more articles about personalized, mastery learning approaches at LearningEdge.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment

Joe Nathan

Wise ideas. Some public schools, such as NY Performance Assessment Standards Coalition, have been doing this a long time.
High School graduation based on demonstration of various skills/knowledge, rather than accumulation of credits.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.