KQED News, the PBS affiliate in the SF Bay Area, recently ran the following headline, To Break the Mold, Is Competency Learning the Key? Once again a current topic in the news echoed what Glasser emphasized for so many years. While admittedly I am a bit frustrated that Glasser is not included in a conversation he started, mostly I am pleased that voices within the educational community are suggesting that maybe a competency-based focus is the way to go.
Glasser described how the school program at the Ventura School for Girls ultimately had to focus on competency. With a student body of approximately 400 students, and with 3-5 of them leaving Ventura every week and 3-5 of them arriving each week, it was obvious that a traditional program just wouldn’t work. A new learning arrangement needed to be devised.
When I was a kid (which was at the same time Glasser was working at Ventura) I participated in a youth organization called Pathfinders. It was like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts rolled into one co-ed club. Pathfinders are a Seventh-day Adventist thing. My Pathfinder memories are from 50 years ago, but the organization is still going strong today.
So why bring up Pathfinders here? What does Pathfinders have to do with competency-based learning? I’m glad you asked. Ok, so when I was in Pathfinders there was this big notebook that held all the information on how to get honor badges.* (See the impressive criteria for earning a badge in Cycling below.) These badges were small, embroidered patches with pictures that represented various skills and areas of expertise. As kids we were interested in that notebook because we wanted the patches. Once a year there was a special ceremony that included handing out all the patches we had earned. I don’t remember being that enamored with the ceremony part, but I did like the patches.
We did other stuff in Pathfinders, too, like marching and saluting, and we went on a lot of camping trips, which was fine with me. Through it all, though, that notebook was never far from our attention. Some of the honor patches were pretty easy to get (Cats), while others required special equipment (Astronomy). Some patches you could do on your own, while others necessitated adult instruction. We would read through the honors’ criteria looking for ones that interested us, keeping in mind the extent to which it was actually possible to earn the honor. We were pretty strategic as I recall. Of course, whether the honor was simple or not you had to demonstrate your knowledge or skill in front of the Pathfinder leader or one of the counselors. When you showed that you knew the stuff or could do the required skill, you earned the honor and at that once a year ceremony you got your patch.
I had no idea at the time that I was experiencing competency-based learning. The girls at the Ventura School experienced something similar and it contributed to their graduating from high school, which most of them, prior to arriving at Ventura, had given up hope of ever accomplishing. Regular high schools had failed them. Traditional grading identified them as non-performers and nudged them out the door while muttering “good riddance” and “get your act together.” Ventura was different, though. Grades weren’t used as a threat or a punishment. In fact, grades were different altogether. You got credit for competence on an assignment when you demonstrated it and then you moved on. If competence was difficult in a specific area a teacher would help you until you got it. In this environment the girls seemed to thrive and accomplished things that maybe surprised even themselves.
There was no pressure at Ventura on the girls to perform academically. Yet they became involved in their education like never before. There was no pressure on me and my fellow Pathfinders to earn honors and get patches, yet we actively pursued them none-the-less. I can remember our Pathfinder leaders saying, more than once, “Will you get out of that notebook?” Maybe they felt that the more we were in the notebook the more work there would be for them.
The KQED Break the Mold article points out that “More schools are starting to question whether traditional age-based classrooms are the best way to go, and to change the dynamic of teaching to the middle, they’re experimenting with competency-based learning, a system that moves kids along at different paces once they’ve shown they can grasp a key concept of a unit.” The alternative is passing students along who aren’t competent (those that get Ds for example) and failing students even though they may know more than half of the material (those scoring less than 60%).
The ship is turning.
Shifting to a competency-based system will require big changes at every level, although states like Oregon, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Minnesota are already making this transition. Our obsessive focus on testing will need to change, along with the way we evaluate teachers, and the way we train them to be teachers in the first place. Yes, there is a feeling that we are trapped in a system that is “obsolete,” and that “provides diplomas with little validity,” but there are examples of the ship turning. Glasser certainly tried to alert us to this needed change. To the extent each of us is able, let’s keep pushing and nudging toward competency-based learning.
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* For example, the honor badge criteria for Cycling includes:
+ Knowing the name and explaining the purpose of the parts of a bicycle.
+ Repairing a punctured bicycle tire.
+ Taking apart, cleaning, and re-assembling a bicycle.
+ Adjusting the brakes and front and rear derailleur.
+ Knowing the rules of bicycle safety and courtesy.
+ Understanding the advantages of wearing a helmet.
+ Achieving a riding record that includes a) three 10 mile rides in different locations and b) one 50 mile ride accomplished in 10 hours or less.
+ Knowing how to read a road map and successfully plotting the 50 mile ride.
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