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“…we didn’t set out to become a competency based learning environment. We had actually simply asked the question — building a vision mission etc. — “What is it that we want for our learners?” and we started to build from there. And we felt like the PLC model really fit with that.” – Jonathon Vander Els, Director at New Hampshire Learning Initiative, and former Principal of a Competency Ed Elementary School

Sanborn School District in NH has built a well-earned reputation as a Competency-Based Education environment. But in reality, that wasn’t their initial goal. All they wanted was to provide the best learning experience they could for their students. This was something they took up as discussion in their Professional Learning Community (or PLC, read more about it here) raising fundamental questions as to student learning. They identified the ‘Four Critical Questions of a PLC’. We break them down below, and discuss how they lead into competency education.

1.) What is it we want students to learn?

2.) How will we know if each student has learned it?

3.) How will we respond when some students do not learn it?

4.) How can we extend and enrich the learning for who have demonstrated proficiency/competency?

# 1. What Is It We Want Students to Learn?

How do each of these objectives tie into competency education? All of the questions center around the learner. The first point is curriculum based, the what students should be learning. A PLC should identify this clearly. When talking about unified standards for students to meet, this naturally translates to competencies. According to iNacol’s definition of competency-based education, competencies include ‘explicit,  measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.’ Students should know what is expected of them, and what it is they are going to learn.

Often, you may hear of students who are frustrated that what they’re learning isn’t preparing them for the ‘real world.’ On the other hand, learning objectives for students that are transferrable across different content areas, and on into real life situations, will help students succeed beyond a classroom test. This kind of learning will teach students skills that will help them get hired, and help them see the bigger picture.

#2. How Will We Know if Each Student Has Learned it?

The second aspect is how is this learning going to be measured? In the traditional school system, teachers teach their individual curriculums and give students a letter or number grade based on their own standard of the student’s work. This works as a way to identify if a student has completed the assigned material. But does it really show that they have learned it? What is the best way to measure learning? That could be a topic all on its own (we talk about it here), but again, it leads us to competency-based learning.

Measuring learning by what a student actually knows, gaining mastery, instead of measuring by seat time ‘points’ is key to competency ed. Ultimately, when students are assessed based on demonstrated knowledge this will result in deeper, higher-lever learning. It’s important for a PLC to come to an agreement when it comes to measuring student assessment.

# 3. How Will We Respond When a Student Has Not Learned It?

Ok, what now? Once it’s been identified what a student is going to learn, and how that learning will be measured, how is this knowledge applied? Question #3 focuses on response. What happens when students fall short? How do you respond and provide needed intervention? Competency-based learning, as mentioned before, requires students to demonstrate mastery. This is a high expectation. So supports need to be in place to assist students, and it’s best to figure out how you’re going to provide those supports before an issue arises.

At Sanborn, ‘flex time‘ has proved to be one way that staff could give specific, targeted support to the students that needed it. This is a set amount of time that occurs during the school day that allows teachers to meet with the students that need their help. During this time, teachers may provide extra help, academic or social/emotional intervention, or remediation. The point is, a PLC should identify how they will respond to students who are struggling to meet competencies. But what about students who are meeting standards? That takes us to question 4.

# 4. How can we extend and enrich the learning for who have demonstrated proficiency/competency?

For the students who have met learning standards, how can a school further enrich their learning? If the student gets it, how can educators make their learning experience even better? By giving students the ability to pursue extended learning or creative interests, that might include art projects, speeches, work study — there are lots os possibilities.

Again, Sanborn used flex time to enrich their students learning. During flex time, many teachers would offer courses that otherwise couldn’t be a part of the curriculum. In some cases, this would be an extension of class time, an opportunity for students to continue an engaging conversation about something in class that really interested them. Or, it could be an art program, like film for example, where students could discover or pursue a passion. These are the kind of learning opportunities that enhance the school day, that make students excited and give them drive. It’s how a school can go above and beyond. Within the PLC, staff members can identify what kinds of enrichment they want to offer, and how they will deliver it to students.

With each step of the PLC critical thinking process, it becomes evident how a competency based model could be a natural fit. When truly thinking about a student’s learning needs, and how they can be met, the question no longer revolves around how long a student has spent in their seat, but rather, if they’ve demonstrated that they really get it. To see a full breakdown of PLCs and competency-based education with Brian Stack and Jonathan Vander Els, watch our free recorded webinar ‘How Flex Time Supports the Competency Model.’ Competency-based learning is possible, and if all hands are on deck, it can be successful!

Check out more resources for competency-based education.