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Fisher: Who you know — 3 ways schools can foster competency-based education by focusing on student relationships

Julia Freeland Fisher | September 17, 2019



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Competency-based education has seen its fair share of champions over the past decade, offering the promise of a new architecture of learning. As the competency bandwagon continues to get more crowded, however, there is a critical — and too often ignored — through line between competencies and connections.

My recent book, Who You Know, focused on the transformative role that networks play in expanding opportunity. I argued that schools need to become far more intentional brokers of deep and diverse relationships for students. One of the best ways I identified to build a more networked school? Pursue a competency-based model. Put simply, competency-based approaches don’t just open up time, space and flexibility for learning; designed with the right intentions, they can also do the same for connecting. As a result, competency-based systems can yield not merely richer academic outcomes but more robust networks as well.

For the many systems nationwide making the pivot to competency-based pathways and assessments, here are three key opportunities to optimize for deeper and more diverse relationships in students’ lives:

1. Get to know students by assessing broader competencies

Many competency-based efforts begin with core academics. Educators making the move to competency-based approaches come together to define what constitutes academic competency in their discipline and how to measure it. New Hampshire, for example, requires that all school districts identify academic competencies. But school systems are also taking this a step further, starting to articulate the non-academic competencies that young people need to thrive in their careers and communities.

Measurement is a deeply technical exercise. But particularly when it comes to these non-academic dimensions, it can also be a social one. Assessing students’ non-academic abilities, such as how they collaborate or forge caring connections with peers and teachers, offers a window into a child’s social experiences and assets that merely assessing academic competencies may not. In other words, expanded definitions of success within competency-based approaches can begin to create the circumstances in which teachers consistently learn more and more about their students’ lives.

These deeper relationships can fuel a high-quality competency-based system in ways that simply setting goals and defining measures cannot. The better teachers know their students, the better they can differentiate their own teaching as students progress toward mastery. And the better a school as a whole understands students’ strengths and interests, the better it can act as an effective broker for the flexible pathways that a competency-based architecture opens up.

2. Unlock flexible pathways to diversify connections

Flexible pathways are a marker of competency-based systems’ anytime, anywhere nature. Students can acquire competencies in a wide range of experiences, in or out of school. At its best, this can open up a system wherein a broader base of people and institutions can have a role in students’ learning. If learning can happen anywhere, the school is not solely the provider of learning; it’s also a broker for extended learning opportunities. For example, students at New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academic Charter School can elect to master competencies by co-designing, with their online teacher, learning experiences in their communities and with local businesses.

To reap the greatest return on investment from these extended learning opportunities, competency-based schools should work to foster opportunities that produce extended networks. If a student engages in a job, shadow internship or community-based project, schools should ensure that he or she forges deeper and more diverse relationships in the course of those experiences. They can do so by encouraging students to create relationship maps of the connections they accrue in the course of their learning, and by creating out-of-school learning experiences that deliberately include frequent social — in addition to experiential — components. Simply scheduling regular check-ins with project mentors or internship supervisors can create a rhythm of relationship-building that can easily slip through the cracks if a student is engaged in a “work-based” project in isolation.

Gauging whether students are successfully forging new connections can also offer something of a sniff test as to whether flexible pathways are helping or hurting equity. Flexible pathway options can easily formalize the two-track system already informally at play in our schools, with children from affluent families — who already enjoy unprecedented investment in enrichment activities, exotic travel and internships offered through inherited networks — becoming the greatest beneficiaries of a competency-based system that awards credit for those experiences. In an equitable competency-based system, schools can use extended learning opportunities as a deliberate channel to reach beyond inherited networks, which is particularly important for students with fewer entrées into the knowledge economy. Schools can start to measure the efficacy of these pathways in part based on whether they successfully generated new and diverse connections in students’ lives.

3. Rethink credit to expand academic and social credentials

In most emerging competency-based models, to ensure consistency and quality, the teacher remains the arbiter of academic credit. Even if a student is acquiring and practicing an academic or work-study competency beyond the classroom, that learning is still formally credentialed by the school. But the more that competency-based systems successfully integrate a broader array of experts and mentors, that validation can move beyond academic credentials to include social ones.

Big Picture Learning co-founder Elliot Washor has observed this phenomenon among students learning through on-the-job internships in which they forge close connections with mentors: Whom you know matters and what you know matters, but especially powerful is who knows you know what you know. Washor is effectively describing the value of social credentials; mentors and experts who are invested in, and bear witness to, students’ strengths and abilities, and who can vouch for them down the line. Put differently, real-world experiences and feedback can unlock real-world social credentials that complement academic credentials. This can be especially powerful in cases in which students have never met anyone who works in a particular industry but end up not just connected to, but known by, professionals in that industry.

Enthusiasm for competency-based approaches continues to grow. According to iNACOL, all states but one have taken steps toward including competencies in the core of education practice. As policymakers and educators advocate for the shift from time-based to competency-based systems, they often characterize this fundamental change as reimagining the pace at which learning occurs and recalibrating assessments along the way. I’d argue that work can go a step further, to leverage opportunities for even more radical change in students’ lives. Reimagining time and tests can — and should — also mean reimagining the relationships brokered in the course of learning. That way, states are building toward a system in which students graduate not only competent but connected.

Julia Freeland Fisher is director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute and author of the book “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.”

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