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Redesign Learning Experiences by Rethinking Time with Competency-Based Education

By: Drew Schantz on March 1st, 2021

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Redesign Learning Experiences by Rethinking Time with Competency-Based Education

Competency-Based Education  |  School Leadership

Time is weird right now. Hours can feel like months, weeks can feel like days, and a year into a global pandemic feels both like an eon and a few seconds at the same time. Regardless of how we perceive time or how much time has actually elapsed since school days shifted from 3D to 2D learning, we know that our students have coped with this complex time in a myriad of ways. Some have thrived, others have been barely keeping it together. Still others we might have lost touch with altogether. And that variety and variability of student experiences since March 2020 make it challenging to imagine how to teach when the next normal begins. 

The question we must ask ourselves becomes: when we open our school doors to all students again, will we revert back to standard operating procedures? Or will we take this seismic shakeup in the status quo to shift our practice to something more responsive, more equitable, and more student-centered? Let’s opt for the latter. 

A key lesson that we have learned over the course of this period of distributed learning is that authentic learning can – and does – take place outside of the classroom and outside of the school day. Older students who have had to pry themselves out of bed to make it to their 7:30 a.m. world history class on time only to fall asleep halfway through it have been given some flexibility on when they can start their school day and engage in the learning process. 

Such flexibility in the use of time is an integral component of a competency-based learning environment. One in which students progress on their learning journey by mastering content before moving on to something new, thus lessening the likelihood of learning gaps. In a traditional classroom, time is held constant, while the degree to which students master new material varies. Competency-based learning environments, on the other hand, flip the script: learning is constant, but the time that it takes students to demonstrate mastery is the variable

For example, the time spent teaching how to factor polynomials might be slated to take two weeks, at which point an assessment will be given, and a new unit will be introduced shortly after that. In a traditional classroom, students who don’t grasp the concept will still have to move on to new content but will bring with them a gap in learning that has the potential to deepen exponentially. In a competency-based environment, however, students who aren’t able to authentically demonstrate mastery over factoring polynomials have the opportunity to go back and fill in knowledge gaps. 

While making school or district-wide shifts to a high-fidelity competency-based approach to teaching and learning takes considerable time itself, here are a few strategies you can implement right away to provide more flexibility in the school day, regardless of where students are physically learning.

Competency-Based Education Toolkit – Free Access

Strategies to Implement Competency-Based Learning Right Away  

  • Incorporate Flexible Learning Blocks: Whether it’s a school-wide initiative or repurposing a single class period every week, grant students the freedom and flexibility to schedule learning at optimal times. This could involve choice boards and playlists to facilitate self-paced learning, or turning it completely over to students to pursue a passion project (check out Genius Hour). It’s important to remember that students who are less familiar with a self-paced setting, or who might be developing certain executive functioning skills, will need additional scaffolding and support to be successful during this time. 

  • Maximize Student Ownership and Reflection: When students feel empowered to make decisions and take ownership over their learning, they will feel more invested in the process. Give students the opportunity to set goals for themselves around what they want to accomplish at the beginning of a flexible learning block and check in on those goals as a low-lift strategy to maximize accountability. 

  • Give Permission to Stay Back: Perhaps a student is on the cusp of having that “aha” moment in their history class, but it’s time to transition to science. When students are in the middle of a productive struggle with a certain topic, encourage them to persist and give them permission to take that extra time. If you don’t have the ability to create extended periods of flexible learning time in the school day, giving students the option to take “bonus time” can be a powerful way to prioritize learning over scheduling.     

  • Harness the Power of “Deep Work”: If you’ve hit a stride with flexible learning blocks, see if you can extend the time students spend engaging with material at their own pace even more. When learners have a longer period of time to complete or go deeper with their learning, they are more likely to get into a state of “flow” or “deep work.” This term, coined by Cal Newport, refers to “cognitive depth,” or our ability to work in a state of deep concentration and focus for an extended, uninterrupted period of time. 

They say that time is our most valuable resource. Why not spend it more intentionally when our school doors open again for all of our students? Why not toss out the assumption that learning happens in an arbitrary 45-minute block of time? 

Now, you might be wondering as a teacher: I still have the same amount of content that I need to get through in a certain year — how can I reasonably expect that all students, at variable paces, will demonstrate mastery over learning that needs to happen in that period of time? As a leader, you might be wondering how you can reset expectations for teachers and further establish clarity for learning outcomes across your school or district. That’s where the competency authoring process comes in, and that’s where we’ll pick it up next time. 

If you can’t wait until the next blog post and you’re interested in learning more about how you can make shifts towards a competency-based system in your school or district, join me during CBE Shop Talk on Thursdays at 2:00 ET/11:00 PT starting March 18th. Together, we’ll unpack these concepts in more depth and talk about actionable shifts that you can put into practice to bring CBE to life.

Free Talk Series – CBE Shop Talk: Bi-Weekly Thursdays, Starting March 18th @ 11am PST/2pm EST

About Drew Schantz

Drew Schantz is a Design Principal on the Design and Implementation team. He is passionate about solving complex problems through an entrepreneurial lens and working with others to develop innovative, student-centered, and equity-driven practices that improve outcomes for all students. Drew began his career in Washington, D.C. where he worked with several nonprofit organizations, including Family, Career and Community Leaders of America; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and DC Public Schools. Immediately prior to joining Education Elements, Drew served as founder and executive director of VentureSchool — a Detroit-based organization dedicated to creating groundbreaking learning opportunities to prepare all students to become capable, curious, and courageous entrepreneurs. Through his past experiences, Drew has developed expertise around educational program creation and management, design thinking, communications strategy development, and group facilitation and training. Drew holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania in Education Entrepreneurship. He is a Michigan native and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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