I had the privilege of participating in a panel on Competency-Based Education at last week’s NewSchools Venture Fund Summit 2018.  Facilitated by my friend, Dr. Jeremiah Newell, the panel also included Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks and Nate McClennen of Teton Science Schools.  We had a terrific conversation about the challenges and opportunities of CBE, as well as a realistic look at the state of the field. Coincidentally, my colleague, Tom Gaffey, was facilitating a session for a group of innovative educators from New England at a Barr Foundation convening at the exact same time 3,000 miles away in New Haven, Connecticut.

These two convenings pushed us to do some reflecting on lessons learned from our 5 years of competency-based education implementation.  Up first, and this one is frankly hard to overemphasize, is the importance of change management. (For what is it worth, Nate from Teton Science Schools also had this one at the top of his list.)

Beginner’s Mind and Change Management

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”     

–  Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki (1905-1971)

Our school community, and our community “writ large”, are not capable of bringing a completely fresh perspective to how we organize schooling. The students who arrive at our schools for their first day come with 9 years of experience in traditional K-12 schools.  Teachers and Administrators arrive with 13 years of experience as students and usually at least 3-5 years of additional experience as an adult in the system. We are all subject to explicit and implicit biases and assumptions about how to “do” school ingrained over years of participation in the traditional system.

This poses a specific challenge at just the wrong time in the launch of competency-based models that seek to upend traditional age-based, time-based and seat-based ways of organizing learning. Specifically, when the going gets tough early on, as it inevitably will given the scope of transformation we are taking on, we (students, teachers and leaders) will naturally fall back on what we know and what is familiar. We will lose sight of the possibilities of novel ways of doing things differently, and grab on to those comfortable ways that we are “expert” in.

So how to combat this inevitable pull towards the “default” way of operating?  We found the following approaches helped to shield our ears from the seductive Siren call to go back to what we knew:

  1. Establish Vocabulary – Create a shared vocabulary of teaching and learning early and push everyone in the community to adopt it as quickly as possible. This includes how we talk about planning and design, assessments, student progress, competencies, skills, performance tasks, continua, feedback, and revision (and how we try not to talk about things like grades, credits, courses, grade levels, quarters, semesters…).
  2. Celebrate Early Wins – Emphasizing early successes across the school is critical. It nurtures hope, and gives everyone the confidence to let go of the comfortable and the familiar to be replaced by the new and unknown. Examples include sharing and publishing excellent examples of teacher planning and design, exhibiting authentic student work, and calling out students who are demonstrating growth.
  3. Growth Mindset in Action – Acknowledge failure, learning and iteration. Create the time and space for teachers, administrators and students to share things they have tried to do that did not go so well.  Embracing these failures as learning opportunities and reflecting on how we can apply these learnings creates a culture where adults and students are more likely to take risks and see failure as the path to success.

The final piece of advice to share here is be patient with yourselves because …it gets better! The launch year of a competency-based school is particularly challenging given the dynamics described above. Your teachers will at times feel frustrated, overwhelmed and lost. Your initial cohort of students will have no students to look to for how to “do” this new kind of school, no “bell cows” to naturally fall in line behind.

Sticking to the vocabulary, celebrating wins and owning failures will ease the pain of this transition, just as time will.  Once you have 2 or 3 cohorts of students engaged in the work and a majority of your teachers with 1-2 years experience in the model, the ownership of the change management will subtly shift from a lonely set of administrators to an informed and energized community of students and teachers.

Here is a student’s perspective on this phenomenon.  The excerpt below is from the “Building 21 First-Year Survival Guide”, penned by one of our third-year students in Allentown, Nzigirabarya Leocadia:

“[In Year One]…Everything was new not only to the students but to the teachers. From schedule changing to getting used to the competencies everything was a mess. The year threes were the first lab rats for the making of building 21. We went through many challenges and stress trying to survive our first year.

But, now you don’t have to go through the same clustered and out-of-control first year that we went through. Instead, we have come up with a survival guide on how you can survive your first year at Building 21.  Many of us are proud of the school that we’ve created … I hope that the advice I’ve given you can help you survive and thrive at Building 21.”

Our kids, as usual, showing us the way.