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No, We Haven't Done This Before

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This post is by Sandra Dop, director of the Iowa Competency-Based Education Collaborative at the Iowa Department of Education

One of the most frequent comments I hear as Iowa educators or stakeholders begin to investigate competency-based education (CBE) is that perhaps we are really going back to what happened before the industrial revolution. At that time, an apprentice was connected with a master artisan who mentored him toward accomplishment and, therefore, lifelong employment. Or maybe we are modeling ourselves after the one-room school house where all students worked through the grades at their own pace according to their own abilities. 

Unfortunately, I have to admit that I have answered, "Yes, perhaps that is it." Certainly the artisan/apprentice work was specific and personal as that master guided the apprentice on his journey, and my grandmother likely knew more about her students and their individual lives in 1904 than most of us will ever know today.   

Even though CBE draws on the best of what we know about working with students, we no longer serve our students well if we prepare them for a lifetime in one career or move them through random bits of knowledge because we think it might be useful someday or because students have always memorized those facts.  

I remember well my grandmother's concern that my fourth grade Iowa history did not include memorizing the 99 counties and county seats--although it is helpful to know which ones are close and which ones are further away when severe weather is being forecast. And while I am at it, I sincerely apologize to all the former fifth graders whom I forced to memorize the 50 states and capitals. I wonder if during all that memorizing my students learned about the structure of state government. Did they learn what is different about a city where the capitol is located and what happens in that capitol building? And more importantly, do they know why they should care; did they learn their role in that process? 

Our goal is not to turn back the clock, tweak the current system, or take a swing on that proverbial pendulum from which we have all become quite dizzy. We are engaged in a transformation, a transformation that will redefine--and allow us to continue to redefine-- the learning environment (a.k.a. school) as we know it, what it means to teach, and what it means to be a student.

Competency-based education is based on three premises. First, all learning is deeply personal; therefore, students will struggle or excel with different things at different times, and they connect with content in different ways. Second, learning happens anytime and anywhere and should be validated even if it did not take place in "school." Third, when we are truly transparent about what is expected of students, they have what they need to take charge of their own learning pathways.

In the artisan, one-room school house, and even in the current system, content was/is important, and it is in a CBE system also. However, in a competency-based, personalized system, teachers design and/or find learning environments in which students wrestle with meaningful content in ways through which they become more competent and confident at skills that will be essential for success in the 21st century. Projects, community involvement, internships, and other deeply engaging learning pathways develop collaborative, creative, critical thinkers, who begin to understand not only their own learning styles and needs but also how to apply their knowledge and skills in new situations. 

CBE becomes personalized as students gradually take more ownership of their work and learning through co-designing their learning paths. Thus they not only learn the content and the skills, they truly become the lifelong learners we have often said is our goal. This is the difference between all that we have done before and what we are working toward for these 21st century learners. 

The personalized part of CBE, with all the connections to real problems, community, and business, and the students co-designing and eventually designing their learning pathways, means the most important thing that happens is that students become aware of how they learn.  They realize how their learning connects them to community and job/career opportunities--not one opportunity as the artisan/apprentice example, but a lifetime of learning, relearning, and adjusting to life and career changes that certainly characterize the 21st century.

The artisan model and the one-room school house had their place, and the current education system provided what we needed for the industrial age, but today's graduates do not have the luxury of learning how to navigate the nuance of an ever-changing work or community environment after they leave us. They must graduate with those skills. Personalized, competency-based educational pathways provide the most promise for the development of those skills. . . .  And, no, we have not done this before; we haven't even attempted it.

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