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Teaching in a Competency-Based Education Environment

Topics: Readiness

KnowledgeWorks coaches and teachers respond to common misconceptions about teaching in a competency-based education environment.Guest post by Katie Varatta

When I describe competency-based education to friends and family — students moving through education based on mastery of skill rather than seat time, lessons personalized to the individual and students taking ownership of their learning — the reaction is generally “that sounds better.” Unless that friend or family member is a teacher, in which case a host of very good questions arise about the practicalities of teaching in a competency-based environment.

“I have 30 kids? Do I have to plan a different lesson plan for each of them?”

The answer to this is no. A learner-centered classroom doesn’t mean the teacher plans lessons for each student. Robin Kanaan, KnowledgeWorks Director of Teaching and Learning, explained that you don’t have individual lesson plans for every student: “Students co-determine with the teacher what learning targets they need to accomplish and how they could show evidence of their learning. This is possible through agency and equipping students to understand themselves as learners.”

“How do we get the kids to own it?”

Student agency begins with the culture, shared vision and standard operating procedures. “The standard operating procedures that you design with the students should address problem-solving, beginning the process to get to student agency,” said Laura Hilger, KnowledgeWorks Teaching and Learning Senior Coach.  For example, create a procedure for collaborative work groups, so when a student gets stuck they know what to do. Hilger goes on” Once students begin to demonstrate mastery with the cultural pieces, you then move those exact same expectations over to content through processes that require them to monitor their own learning.”

“How do I manage all the levels?”

Ideally, logistics will support learners, things like developing a schedule that supports your vision and utilizing learning spaces. “Regardless of how many levels you have, when you are planning a new learning unit, you could look at what most of the class needs when it comes to writing,” said Laura Hilger. “Let’s say a lot of students need persuasive writing. You would analyze what mastery looks like, and design focused lessons and activities that would support those levels. This lesson addresses the entire group, and then you would move into workshop model where everyone works towards the daily learning target such as rough drafting. While they are working, you might be pulling small groups to go deeper on the focused mini lesson or individuals that need further interventions or support.”

Hilger said that in the beginning of the process, teachers have more control of the flow and format. As teachers develop their classroom and culture, this format becomes more student-driven. As student demonstrate readiness, more voice and choice is given to them.

“How does working with students at different places impact the larger group?”

Heather MacLaughlin, an instructional coach with Marysville Exempted Village School District, said that when teachers were first introduced to personalized learning, many wondered with students working at different levels, how their whole group instruction would be impacted? As they collaborated to implement learner-centered practices this year, they began to see that while whole group instruction is still a strategy, much of the instruction occurs within the flexible groupings of the kids, and within math and reading / writing workshops.

Transitioning to a competency-based education system is a process and developing the right classroom culture and transparency to support student agency takes time. KnowledgeWorks helps school districts navigate these challenges and partners with teachers to effectively support individual student needs.

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