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Classroom Technology

The Mastery vs. Seat-Time Debate Takes Center Stage Under Remote Learning

By Mark Lieberman — November 04, 2020 9 min read
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COVID-19 has forced educators to reexamine some of their core practices, and in some cases, circumvent them altogether. Measuring learning by how much time students spend in a classroom could be next for an overhaul. But making that transition won’t be easy.

Numerous U.S. school districts have experimented in recent years with a teaching approach that emphasizes student mastery of discrete skills or “competencies” over assessment-based, one-size-fits-all measures of learning progress. Most states have policies that permit this experimentation, and a handful have explicitly codified efforts to expand this type of education. The approach consists of a wide variety of practices, from directly communicating learning objectives to assigning projects that demonstrate learning in a variety of qualitative ways.

Proponents of the model believe the pandemic has reinforced its value: When students don’t have the luxury of being in the same room as their teachers all day, they need to draw from intrinsic motivation, and teachers can’t expect all students to progress at the same pace, given the wide variation in access to and comfort with technology tools.

Some schools that had already begun making these changes have advanced their efforts more quickly since March, when COVID-19 forced most school buildings nationwide to shut down for the remainder of the school year. Others have newly adopted competency-based or personalized learning practices, like allowing individual students in a class to progress through learning material at different paces, out of necessity, as remote learning makes traditional instruction more onerous.

Most states have relaxed policies that require students to complete a certain number of in-person school days in a given year for last school year, this school year, or both, giving schools more flexibility to provide instruction for students using the methods that worked best under COVID-19 constraints. Most of those policy changes were not designed to stick long-term, according to an analysis from the Education Commission of the States. But some competency-based learning advocates think they should.

“History may prove the situation with COVID-19 as a watershed moment of true transformation for K-12 systems,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, which helps schools develop and refine online and personalized learning programs. “The structures that traditional systems rely on are just not built to support all students’ needs at a personalized level.”

A broader shift in education toward competency-based learning may be a long way off, though. Even schools that implemented competency-based practices years ago still struggle to get teachers to support and adopt them. Teachers have been so beleaguered during COVID-19 that they may resist additional pushes for change. The pushback can also come from parents, who feel skeptical about a school model that’s different from the one they experienced as a child, or that departs too much from their notions of how school should work.

“When we made the shift in March, for teachers who already understood competency-based learning, they said, ‘I can make this shift pretty easily,’” said Ann Hadwen, curriculum administrator for the Exeter school district in New Hampshire. For others, she said, “it was really a struggle, and it continues to be a struggle.”

Accelerating the Shift

Some schools have been planting these seeds for years.

The Harrisburg school district in South Dakota a decade ago began transitioning to a competency-based model after teachers consistently found some students who finished Algebra 1 quickly were getting bored and frustrated while waiting for other students to catch up. The district’s high schoolers have had the option to engage in competency-based learning for seven years, and more recently the district began offering competency-based pathways to middle and elementary schoolers as well.

Even before COVID, making these changes wasn’t easy.

“Kids are trained to be told [what to do during] every single part of their day and never have to think for themselves,” said Travis Lape, the district’s innovative programs director. The competency-based approach “puts the pressure and the ownership on the learner” to determine their needs and preferences—an important skill that many college counselors have told Lape they need to see in the students who apply to their institutions.

In the Harrisburg district’s competency-based program, curriculum and digital instructional modules serve as the foundation for learning, and direct instruction and interaction with students deepen engagement. Students involved in that program were more prepared for full-time remote learning, Lape said, because their teachers aren’t devising lesson plans based primarily on how much material the teacher had covered the previous day.

From a social-emotional perspective, competency-based teaching also prepared educators in Harrisburg to acknowledge students’ diverse needs and be flexible with due dates, Lape said. Those considerations proved essential as COVID-19 upended families’ lives and schedules.

In some cases, simply knowing that it’s possible to depart from the traditional teaching model has been enough to spur interest in competency-based approaches. A cohort of 10 teachers in New Hampshire’s Exeter district last year completed an 18-month master’s program in competency-based education at Southern New Hampshire University, and they’ve been spreading the gospel to their colleagues ever since. They credit their relative success with remote learning to their master’s program experience, which involved rethinking their teaching and testing out new approaches in their classrooms.

When the pandemic hit and teachers had no choice but to abandon some of their traditional approaches, the district’s competency-based education converts had an easier time getting their message across to their skeptical colleagues. The notion of having regular meetings with students or explicitly communicating to students how assignments serve the learning objectives seemed more suited to the pandemic situation, said Catherine Thorn, a science teacher at Exeter High School who participated in the SNHU cohort.

Trying to suggest intriguing new practices for teachers without tying them to an intimidating concept like competency-based education is “like putting vitamins in the chocolate milk,” she said.

Struggling to Make It Work

Competency-based learning isn’t inherently better suited to the remote environment than to in-person teaching, though. Lape said some teachers have struggled to maintain predictability and routine for students and families while also tailoring instruction to students’ individual progress.

In a typical school setting, teachers might have a quick, impromptu conversation with each student in a class about progress on a set of reading objectives. But during remote instruction, teachers have struggled to maintain that kind of spontaneity.

“Things have to be somewhat predictable for families so they can get on their Zoom call and not be stressed out in terms of, ‘Why’s my schedule changing every day?’ ” Lape said.

Rita Boyd, a biochemistry teacher at Del Lago Academy, a public science high school in Escondido, Calif., has been teaching students with competencies in mind for a couple years, and has emphasized project-based learning even longer. But in the virtual context, some of the vital pieces of her competency-based approach—namely, the student-to-student interactions that can enrich learning during group work—have proved impossible to replicate on videoconferences.

She’s also “pared down” her standards for certain projects, such as asking students to present a slideshow rather than a full lab report. “In online learning, kids get bored more easily” and attention spans are shorter during videoconferences, she said. Even using videoconferencing breakout rooms and other digital tools, teachers in Exeter have struggled this fall to build relationships with and among students. In a normal school year, by early October, Thorn and her science colleague Annie Gonsalves would be expecting students to share detailed feedback on each other’s work. This year, though, they are proceeding “very gingerly” as students have seemed reluctant to offer feedback as openly as they would in a regular classroom setting.

Room for Improvement

Could more-flexible policies accelerate the move toward competency-based learning, even past the pandemic? The jury’s still out.

“New Hampshire has had a good set of rules and laws for more than a decade, and we’ve made some progress, but not near the amount of progress that we would have wanted to,” said Frank Edelblut, the state’s education commissioner. He said he hasn’t heard recently from fellow state education leaders who might be curious about emulating the state’s competency-based education approaches.

He has heard, however, from district leaders in his state who believe they’ll have an easier time moving their schools toward competency-based learning because more people have now seen the value of offering flexible options and rethinking antiquated traditions.

Without state policy changes, Patrick from the Aurora Institute worries schools will struggle to “move to have deeper or personalized learning with rich performance assessments that are authentic while the state is still planning to impose accountability” using traditional assessment-based metrics. Schools in the Exeter district, for instance, expect students to be self-directed and creative in their work, but the students still receive traditional letter grades on report cards and transcripts.

Still, there’s already plenty of evidence that competency-based practices are taking hold. Thorn said all of Exeter’s teachers are collaborating more this year out of necessity and conducting more meetings with students one on one, because the workload during virtual learning is heftier than usual. Teachers have no choice but to develop workarounds on the spot when individual students’ technical glitches get in the way of their learning. And the education field as a whole has been confronted with glaring technology access gaps that reinforce the need for differentiated teaching approaches.

All of these efforts represent a more personalized alternative to the more traditional model based around lectures, standardized tests, and all students in a class moving through content at the same pace.

Hadwen has no illusions that her school, or education at large, will fully embrace competency-based education overnight, even during the pandemic. But she has seen teachers unknowingly putting competency-based practices into action, as when they spent the first days of the school year explaining expectations and objectives to students, rather than diving right into content.

The concept of “competency-based learning can be really complex,” Hadwen said. “I think being remote has made [understanding of the concept] a little bit more clear.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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