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Mastering Process in Competency-Based Learning

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By Matthew Riggan, a co-founder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia

One of the tenets of mastery/competency-based learning is the idea that students' progress is based on what they show that they know and can do. In the case of high schools, for example, you graduate when your work shows that you have mastered a set of content or skills that would constitute being college or career ready. Your high school trajectory is based on your progress from wherever you start to this fixed point.

This makes a whole lot more sense to me than basing progress on age or "time served," which is what most schools do. And yet the notion of a single, absolute standard never felt quite right, either. For one thing, I'm not sure that college or career ready means the exact same thing for all students. But more than that, growth and improvement mean as much to me as the actual standard attained. Do I really want to tell a student who has come into high school well behind his or her peers that they need an extra year or two to finish, even as they are growing and improving daily? Do I really believe that student will be less prepared for college or work?

I also worry about placing so much emphasis on the end product. I think about this a lot in context of project work. At the Workshop School, a district school in Philadelphia, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about craftsmanship, trying to get our students to understand "real-world good" as a standard for their work. (How good would your work need to be for someone to not know a high school student did it?) And I'm always excited when I visit other schools where students are producing work to that standard. But as impressive as that is, if a student was a lousy teammate, or if they didn't manage work or time well, or if they settled for a first draft (even a very good one), the awesomeness of their final product wouldn't mean as much to me.

When we say we want mastery in competency-based learning, what is it we really want students to master?

To get away from the growth vs. mastery tension and the ends-justify-the-means mindset, I think we should emphasize mastery of process. Operationally, this comes down to a single question: Do students do the things that are most likely to make them successful consistently and well over time?

Let's consider two hypothetical "good" students. Student A turns in high-quality work that scores well on our rubrics, but their process is a black box. They tend to go it alone, don't ask for or use feedback, and avoid working with classmates. Student B turns in work that's more uneven in terms of final product, but they work hard to track work and deadlines, seek and incorporate feedback, revise and improve their work, and communicate well with classmates and teachers alike.

If we're focused on mastery of content and quality of final product, we probably think Student A is the stronger one. But if I had to place a bet on which of these two young people had better college or work prospects (or if you asked me to hire one of them), give me Student B any time.

To be clear, I'm not saying we shouldn't care about the quality of work students produce. But if that's all we focus on (or even if it's the main thing), we're missing something important. I wonder what our school would look like if student grades were based 75 percent on process and 25 percent on product?

We're not there yet, but here's my hunch. Not only would we get better at teaching habits and skills that matter most, but eventually, if we succeeded in getting students to demonstrate those habits consistently and well, we'd see better work, too.

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