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Advancing Student-Centered Learning

At KnowledgeWorks, we believe that all children can learn and should be challenged to take ownership of their learning to effectively build the knowledge and skills they need for the future.

What is student-centered learning?

A student-centered environment facilitates a more collaborative way for students to learn. And although a foundational shift from a traditional classroom, a student-centered approach does not eliminate the teacher. The teacher models instructions and acts as a facilitator, providing feedback and answering questions when needed. It’s the student that chooses how, why and with whom they want to learn. Students collaborate with each other and give each other feedback, using the instructor as a resource when needed. Through relevant, meaningful opportunities to acquire knowledge, skills and dispositions, each student realizes their fullest potential.

How do student-centered learning and personalized, competency-based learning work together?

We believe that personalized, competency-based learning is the way to drive student-centered learning forward.

Through personalized, competency-based learning, learners have voice and ownership over how, what, when and where they learn – and connections to community and real-world experiences are a priority. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing that does not result in tracking or other forms of ability grouping. The core elements of personalized, competency-based education – engaging educational experiences, focus on learners’ needs, assets and voice, connections to real-world experiences, emphasis on readiness and de-tracking – have a substantial body of research and evidence supporting their efficacy in closing opportunity gaps and producing more equitable outcomes.

What is personalized, competency-based learning?

In a personalized, competency-based learning environment:

  1. Students daily make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge and how they will demonstrate their learning
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant and actionable evidence
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery or competency, not seat time
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing
  6. Strategies to ensure equity are embedded in the culture, structure and pedagogy of schools and education systems
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning are explicit, transparent, measurable and transferable

Source: Aurora Institute

Why implement personalized, competency-based learning?

A personalized, competency-based approach can work for students of all ages and supports educators in connecting with what they love about teaching and learning. Communities benefit from strong partnerships and support making real-world connections for learning. When implemented well, children as young as kindergarten know what they need to learn and how to work independently.

Preparing students in a changing world

In the Lexington 3 School District in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, a KnowledgeWorks partner, they built out a K-12 learning continuum to support the district’s shift toward personalized, competency-based learning. Teachers developed “I can” statements based on state standards and created student goals and tracking sheets so that students could continue to develop their ownership and agency, to be able to plan for and articulate their learning. For the younger grades, the “I can” statements used language students would understand: instead of emerging, developing, proficient and extending, they used getting started, I almost got it, I got it and I’m learning more.

Michelle Maroney, who is a parent in the district as well as an administrator, has seen the impact the work has had on her first-grade daughter.

“The day the progress reports with the ‘I can’ statements came home, it was the first thing she pulled out of her backpack,” said Maroney. “She was so proud. She said, ‘I know this stuff, what do I have to do next?’ I don’t think we’ve had conversations like that before.”

Personalized, competency-based learning encourages students to take ownership of their learning journey. By setting clear learning goals in partnership with their teachers and receiving continuous feedback, they’re cultivating intrinsic motivation, curiosity and a lifelong love of learning.

Tom Klapp, director of personalized learning with Northern Cass School District, a North Dakota district that has been working with KnowledgeWorks since 2018 to scale personalized, competency-based learning, articulates why now is the time to implement student-centered practices.

“People, by and large, agree that the world is a different place; it’s changing exponentially,” Klapp said. “We don’t know what graduates are going to be asked to do four years from now or eight years from now. But what we do know is that there’s a set of skills that it takes to succeed. Those skills have been true for the last 100, 200 years: to be a self-autonomous learner, to be able to communicate, collaborate, to be self-driven. When school hasn’t changed at all to adapt to a changing world, it’s time for us to make that change.”