Archive for category Competency Based Education

Love Your Learner

Do you love the children and young adults in your school buildings?  The past few days I have been honored with the opportunity to work closely with other passionate educators at the ASCDL2L conference.  During this conference I was given time to collaborate with others and reflect on the Whole Child approach to educating our youth.  It was an experience I will never forget.

The Whole Child approach to educating our youth asks us to serve all of our learners’ needs.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to learn in an environment in which they do not feel safe.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn when a person’s health needs are not met.  It is our duty as educators to make sure that ALL of our learners’ needs are met.  This may require us to bring in outside agencies to assist with mental health and addictions.  This may also require a school with a high poverty rate to provide free and reduced lunch and breakfast to all learners.  Whatever the learners’ needs are, we as educators need to work to find the resources they need to help them.

I also believe the Whole Child approach requires us to think about our “students” differently.  You have probably already noticed that I have refrained from using the term “students” to describe the youth that we educate.  If we are truly serving the whole child when educating, it is my opinion that we need to stop thinking of them as “students”.  The term student describes a person who is a RECEIVER of knowledge.  I believe what we truly want our youth to grow up and become are SEEKERS of knowledge.  This kind of person can be best described as a “learner”.  And, if we are truly educating “learners,” we will need to begin developing closer relationships with them in order to understand them.  By better understanding them we can begin to use their passions and interests to support the learning process.

Think about the one teacher in your life that was your all-time favorite, that one teacher that inspired you to be better.  Have you got that teacher?  Do you feel as though this teacher understood you?  Do you feel as though this teacher loved you?  I believe that before you can help a child you must first understand them.  Before you can truly understand them you have to love them.  It has been proven to me on many occasions that if a learner believes without any doubt that they are loved by you, they will do anything for you and are somehow able to blast through almost any obstacle to find success.  It has also been proven to me, on many occasions, that if an educator truly loves their learners they are willing to do whatever it takes to help them achieve success.  All humans have a need to feel loved.  Why are so many educators afraid to show their learners this compassion and care?

Let’s begin helping our youth by addressing the Whole Child so that we can address their needs, tap into their passions and interests, and guide them to becoming SEEKERS of knowledge.  It’s time you Love Your Learner!


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Let It Happen Organically

A couple of years ago I was hired to be the principal of the 6-12 Collins-Maxwell school in Iowa.  The Superintendent, Jason Ellingson and I both had a passion for Personalized Learning and began to create plans on how to develop this system within the Collins-Maxwell school district.  It was exciting and a lot of fun.  We had a plan that allowed for the system to change over time organically.

After two years at Collins-Maxwell I decided to take a position closer to home that would allow me to spend more time with my wife and kids.  I am now the Vice-Principal of Callanan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Since making that move, I have been thinking a lot about how a school district the size of Des Moines could make this same change to Personalized Learning.  Some believe that change can’t happen in a district this size without a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Start with A, then go to B, and so on.  I would like to challenge that and say it will never happen with a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a plan that lays out all the components necessary with the steps needed to make this happen.  I’m saying that if we think we are going to create a 3-5 year plan to make this happen and then think that by flipping a switch it’s just going to magically appear before our eyes we are sadly mistaken.  And, if this is what people are expecting, the whole plan will fail.

I believe that the only way to change any system over to a Personalized Learning environment is in a more organic manner.  I believe that there are things that must be put in place to support the change, and then from there it is about changing the philosophical views of all those in the organization one person at a time and giving them the supports necessary to change their practices.  I believe this will also build like a snowball rolling down a hill.   Below I will outline some of the things that I believe need to be put in place to make this kind of change happen over time.  Keep in mind that these are not necessarily in chronical order.  I’m not sure that they necessarily need to happen in any specific order.

  1. There must be leaders and pockets of teachers (I like to call them Facilitators of Learning or FOL’s), with strong influence who believe that Personalized Learning is the vehicle needed to help every child reach their full potential. These people must share the same vision, mission, and values.  They must be creative, risk takers to try new things in their classrooms and share out their successes as well as where they came up a little short so that we may learn from them.
  2. Trust must be built within the organization to allow for open and honest conversations to occur around changes in philosophical beliefs.
  3. Conversations must occur about the Vision, Mission, and Values to ensure that everyone is moving towards tighter alignment over time. Conversations must occur about the best vehicle(s) that should be used to support the Vision, Mission, and Values.
  4. Technology must be purchased at a one-to-one ratio to support both FOL’s and learners.
  5. FOL’s must receive personalized professional development on how to use technology to support the learners in their classroom.
  6. FOL’s must be trained in Standards Based/Referenced Learning (SBG/SRG) and how to align and increase the rigor of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. By using SBG/SRG all learners and FOL’s have a clear focus of what they know and are able to do.  They also have a clear focus of what they need to know and be able to do.  The majority of the standards in the Core are skills.  By focusing on these skills, FOL’s can better personalize for each learner by giving them a voice and choice in how they learn and demonstrate these skills.  SBG/SRG helps FOL’s move away from the one size fits all project/assignment mentality and helps to support a more personalized approach with each learner.
  7. FOL’s must be given and trained how to use a framework within their Collaborative Groups to help focus constructive conversations around the improvement of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. Once FOL’s begin discussing and supporting each other in the improvement of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments they will begin to learn from each other’s successes and begin to organically change over time.

It is my belief that if all of these things are put in place a more Personalized Learning environment will begin to take shape organically and gain momentum over time, one classroom at a time.  This is a big shift for all learners in the organization and must be given the time and support needed to be successful.   At some point, administration will need to consider the thought of releasing some barriers the traditional school places on its learners such as: semester time limits, bell schedules, grade levels, and others.  When that will need to happen, I’m not sure.  The leaders will know when it is right because the FOL’s and learners will become frustrated by the limitations of the current system.

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Passion = Fuel

All of us have had things we needed to do that we struggled to get done.  Not because they were difficult or that we couldn’t find the time, but because we didn’t have the passion to do them.  Passion is the fuel that drives us.  If we are passionate about something, excuses seem to magically disappear and we immediately begin finding solutions to getting the project done.  When I think about this, I immediately begin trying to find ways in which I can use this knowledge to better support all learners and educators.

Think about the traditional classroom…  Each educator has their lectures, assignments, labs, projects, and assessments.  We all know that the vast majority of them are not things the learners want to do.  What is it that motivates them to get them done?  This motivation is different for each learner.  For some it is the drive to make their parents happy, others have an internal drive to do well on whatever they work on, and then there are grades, college, future careers, relationships with friends and educators, and many more.

There is one motivation that they all have in common.  That is passion.  The problem is… We as educators rarely tap into this motivation.  I believe one of the main reasons we don’t tap into it is because of a fear of loss of control.  In order to truly tap into each learner’s passion we would need to listen to the learners and allow them to have some say into what they are learning about.  I know, I know, there is that Common Core thing that we must all follow.

Really take a look at the Social Studies standards and you will see that they are comprised of a lot of skills.  These are not countries and time periods.  The Language Arts standards are also a list of skills that are needed.  Why can’t we use this to our advantage to allow our students to tell us what they are passionate about and let them come up with a project they would like to do?  Or, present the students with a project then be open minded enough to listen to the students if they ask to do something similar aligned to what they are passionate about.  We can then tell them what they will have to do through this project to meet the standards.   Who knows… you might even be able to fit some of the math and science standards into that as well.

So, if passion = fuel I say we start filling our learners up with some highly combustible passion that will take them wherever they choose to go.  I can just about guarantee you they will get much further and faster with this than anything else you fill them up with.


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Differentiation vs Personalization

Differentiation has been the buzzword for many years.  Everyone has been saying that we must differentiate our instruction for our students to support their individual needs.  Recently personalization has become the new buzzword.  I have had many conversations with people about personalization and it seems to me that the majority of people are using these two terms interchangeably.  Are they the same thing?  If not, what’s the difference?

I believe that the two are very different.  Teachers differentiate for their students by giving alternative assignments or modifications to assignments for students to better support a student’s needs.  It is the teacher that makes the majority of the decisions for differentiation.

Facilitators of learning, (i.e. teachers) personalize learning by giving learners, (i.e. students) both a voice and choice in their learning.  Learners are pushed to take more ownership of their learning and are not just given choices, but allowed to have a voice in what the process looks like.  No, they are not permitted to skip over Common Core learnings.  Instead they are given the standards, benchmarks, and proficiencies they must learn and given the freedom and ownership to have a voice and choice in how they learn them and how they demonstrate mastery of the learning.  The facilitator of learning will make the final decision on whether to approve the learner’s process and demonstration of learning both before proceeding and after completion.  The facilitator will also be able to give suggestions on how to move forward, but the ownership is shared by both the learner and facilitator.

This has a very different feel than differentiation.  When you talk about personalization, what are you really saying, meaning, and hearing?

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Systems of Learning!

What is the purpose of a grade?  What is the purpose of semesters, class periods, or even timed tests?  What is the purpose of our current system of education?  It is my opinion we need to think about these questions so please stop reading for a few minutes and take the time before you read any further.

If you have taken the time to think about each of these questions, you may have come to the same conclusion I have — that each of them has been set in place to rank and order our students.  They have not been put in place to support learning for ALL students, only to discover who can learn the fastest, or who can learn the best under the rules and parameters we place on them.  How fair is that?  Who gets to decide how you learn and how long it should take for you to learn?  And to make things worse, in most places it is completely up to the individual teacher what this looks like in their classroom, where each teacher has a different style, and it is up to the students to conform to each style as they enter the classroom.

I want a system to support the learning of every student.  One in which all students are given the support, time, and personalization to succeed.  One in which students have the freedom and ownership to seek and find what interests them and then use those interests to support their learning of the Common Core Standards.  Why did you become an educator?  Can we call ourselves educators if we are not truly educating ALL of our students, and instead leaving many behind to fail only because our system does not allow us to give them the time and support the student may need?

Stop worrying about what we have always done, and begin thinking about what we need to stop doing.  Begin doing it differently.  A true system of learning is one that promotes learning for all.  Not some.  Not most.  All.  We know we do not have that system currently.  What do you want your education system to support, and what does this system look like?

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F = Failure or F = Feedback

What does failure mean to you?  What opportunities does failure present to you?  I recently had a conversation with one of my teachers who is working towards her bus license.  She made a comment to me that she was working very hard to pass the test, but felt as though she was probably going to fail the first time.  Instead of fearing this failure, she was ok with it, and stated that if she failed she would learn exactly what she needed to work on for the next test from this failure.  The first thought that went through my mind was… WOW!  Failure = Feedback and an opportunity to learn?  Now that’s a different frame of mind and one that excites me to no end.

However, how many of us truly view failure in this light?  How many of us give our students F’s on assignments, tests, and report cards with little to no good feedback?  How many of us give F’s and then just permit the student to move on with very little to no understanding, and give no further opportunities to demonstrate understanding or learn the concepts?

Imagine a business world where failure was an option.  A world where if you didn’t understand something, or were unable to perform up to expectations, you were either immediately fired, or worse just permitted to continue on without ever having to learn it.  Our lives would be completely different, and many of us would be searching for work at this very moment.  Life does not permit failure on a daily basis.  Life requires us to learn and, if we struggle, to continue trying until we understand.  Why isn’t school like this in every classroom?  Why is it that many educators continue to hand out F’s to their students when they fail to learn a concept and then allow them to move on without mastery, or worse don’t even permit the student to try again?  What are we teaching our students with these philosophies?

I believe that an F should no longer equal Failure.  Instead let’s create a system where F = Feedback and further opportunities to learn.  Let’s change the F together.

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Organic Implementation

As I continue to think about Competency Based Education (CBE), I continue to struggle with the process in changing from a traditional approach in education to a completely personalized educational system with Competency Based components.  Below I have outlined my thoughts on the best way to proceed, and I would greatly appreciate any push back, opinions, successes, and thoughts on the process.

It is my opinion that there are two ways I could change the educational system over to a truly personalized CBE.  One way would be to have many conversations with staff, parents, and the community about CBE.  Over time, get buy in, and then at the end of one year announce that when students and staff return there will be no bells, and students will have more ownership in their learning by having input in how, when, and where they are learning.  I am greatly over simplifying this, as there would have to be a great number of supports for both teachers and students put in place, but, in essence, this method would be like flipping a switch and all of a sudden we are a personalized CBE system.  This sounds like, and is, a major change for all stakeholders.  And, it sounds and feels very scary for all involved.  Which leaves me thinking…

There’s got to be a better way that feels more organic.  Organic is a term my superintendent, Jason Ellingson uses to refer to something that happens naturally. My school currently has some students learning through online learning and others taking classes in the traditional classroom.  We have other students who have been advanced and are taking classes at a college nearby.  We also have a teacher who is flipping his classroom by delivering instruction with the use of videos for homework, and creating a problem-solving atmosphere in his classroom each and every day.  We have a teacher who is instructing students on how to weld, who scores students on whether they have mastered a series of competencies in order to pass the class.  There are a couple of teachers who are very interested in standards-based grading for the middle school language arts department, and a math teacher who wants to give formal formative assessments each week over the previous standards and benchmarks covered with multiple opportunities to retake if not passed.

Every one of these scenarios have pieces of personalized CBE.  Am I witnessing the beginnings of a tipping point?  Are these the beginnings of a school organically changing into a personalized CBE system without feeling like a major change?  Is it even possible for a school to change in this manner?  At what point will teachers ask me to take away the bells and the walls of the building because they are in the way of learning?

It is my opinion that this kind of change is definitely possible.  With continuous support from the administration, teachers supporting and challenging each other, and many more conversations, I believe this can and will happen.

So, what’s next?  Do I need to help the parents and community understand what personalized CBE is, why it is good for all learners, and how it can benefit everyone involved?  Or, will the process happen so smoothly that it will feel natural to them as well as the learners and staff?  This is pretty exciting to think about, and there is a great deal more work to be done, and questions to be answered!

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