Shifting Accountability to Competency-based Learning

Accountability is really important in life.  Without it, we float around often lacking a sense of direction or accomplishment.  Yet, if we’re accountable to the wrong measures, we may have direction and accomplishment but be led down the wrong path.  Ideally, accountability should come from within ourselves; however, often in today’s K12 public education, we see accountability coming from the system, not the learner.

In many public K12 systems today, we focus on accountability to time – our school calendar, our pacing guides – instead of accountability to real demonstrations of knowledge, skill and understanding.  We focus on getting far enough during that time instead of ensuring that learners have achieved competency (or mastery) with the learning goals (the knowledge and skills).  Over time, gaps in competency create more significant issues in the learner’s ability to achieve the next learning goal, since he hasn’t mastered the prerequisite knowledge or skills.  Our current letter grade system masks the gaps and, at times, creates an illusion of competence.  Then, our children focus on the grade, not the learning.  They focus on passing the class, not ensuring they have the competence required for subsequent learning opportunities.  This accountability is leading the learners down the wrong path.

Re-Aiming Accountability on Competency-based Learning

For the past few years I’ve been an advocate for moving away from our current seat-time, grade-level oriented system toward a competency-based system of learning.  Why?  Primarily because I know that we all have learning differences – both strengths and weaknesses – and too often our public K12 system is focused on getting learners to move in lock-step through curriculum versus enabling them to learn for themselves.  Our kids are taught to play the game of education instead of building their metacognitive skills – “learners’ automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes”.  Our kids are taught to focus on grades, not on learning.

A recent MindShift post by Katrina Schwartz, How ‘Deprogramming’ Kids From How to ‘Do School’ Could Improve Learning, provides a nice account of Adam Holman’s (high school teacher) struggle with making this change.  Adam said, “We know how kids learn; we know what classes should look like, and yet our classes look almost the opposite.”  Both Adam and his students had to “reprogram” themselves away from the current accountability model toward a competency-based model, where learners developed an appreciation for mastering concepts over getting letter grades.  “Teachers often complain that more progressive approaches like this suck up time and they can’t cover everything in the jam-packed curriculum. These arguments are excuses, Holman said.”

These are excuses because the system currently rewards us for adherence to the pacing guide over adherence to mastery.  We need a greater focus on what Chris Watkins in learning: a sense-maker’s guide refers to as a “learning orientation” over a “performance orientation” – one in which each child is focused on improving his learning, not proving his learning.  As Adam Holman and his learners recognized, this shift in focus toward building competency, not building seat-time credits, is not an easy one.  We have to unlearn an adherence to the current public K12 accountability model and reprogram our learning environments toward a competency-based learning model – a model in which the accountability is centered on the learner, not the system.

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