Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Competency Based Learning

Students experiment with growing sweet corn in the greenhouse.
There is currently a proposal in the Iowa House's Education Reform Bill that allows school districts to award credit, or advance students from one grade to another based on the student demonstrating competency in that particular discipline.  The Senate version of this bill supports competency based learning, and this was one of the center pieces of the Governor's reform bill.  Current law allows for school districts to apply for a waiver to implement competency based learning, and any district that applies for the waiver is granted one. 

Currently, students are advanced from one grade to another, or are awarded credit based on the total number of minutes they have accumulated in a grade level or discipline.  For example, a school year is 180 days long, and once students have satisfied 180 days, they are advanced to that next grade level.  We further organize our students into grade levels and have arbitrarily stated that a 6 year old is in first grade, while a 10 year old is in fourth grade.  The principle is essentially the same in high school, students meet the seat-time requirement for a particular course and are awarded a Carnegie Unit.  It takes an accumulation of 56 Carnegie Units to graduate from Hudson High School.  Within that system, we require that a student needs to have a certain number of Carnegie Units in specific disciplines such as Math, English, and Social Studies.

Changing to a competency based system would be a significant paradigm shift for Iowa school districts.  After all, we are all used to a 16 year old being a sophomore in high school!  The seat time and social promotion model has served us well for over 100 years, but is it time to change that model?  Think about this for a second in the simplest of terms.  Does it make sense that the same 16 year old mentioned above is granted a driver license by merely passing a test and reaching a benchmark age, or should they be required to demonstrate competency behind the wheel?  Pretty simple principle isn't it?

When we look at competency based education it may be all too easy to simply measure competency by administering a series of tests and assessments, but we also know that this type of measurement doesn't necessarily measure competency, but rather a students' ability to memorize trivial facts and figures.  To truly measure competency, we must provide our students with real world problems to solve, relevant research to conduct, and opportunities to experiment. 

That doesn't mean that there isn't a place for traditional assessment, there most certainly is! In fact this afternoon our students will be dismissed early from school so our faculty can participate in an inservice on the topic of assessment and how it can be used as a means in which to form instruction.  Sorry, I digress, that wasn't the point of this post so I will continue.

The idea of using real world problems to demonstrate competency got me thinking, how difficult would it be to make the switch?  I began to take stock of what was going on around the district to see what types of projects students are engaged in with teachers, and it didn't take very long to find numerous examples! 

Last night for example, I had the honor of attending the annual FFA banquet and was so impressed with our students.  A lot of credit certainly needs to go to Mr. Deppe for serving as the Advisor to this group as well as the Agriculture instructor for the district.  I was so proud of the accomplishments of the students!  They were recognized for a number of projects and skills.  Without demonstrating competency in these fields, they would not have earned these honors.  Our program has such a solid reputation of demonstrated competency, that our group earned a $2,500 grant from Monsanto!  We have talked a lot about the greenhouse this year, and continue to be amazed at the number of plants and the work the students have done.  Last night, I realized that this is much more than a mere greenhouse; it is also a science laboratory.  I was listening as Mr. Deppe was explaining to a group of parents an experiment that a student was conducting to see if she could get seeds to propagate without using the germination chamber.  It was a fascinating experiment.

Middle School students answer questions about their
NHD projects at the Grout Museum.
This morning I stopped out in the shop to see what Mr. Scott had going on in the shop.  Really, I was interested in seeing how they were progressing on the car they were building for the Ultimate Mileage Competition that will be held in Altoona later next month.  Last year they were able to construct a vehicle that got 147 miles per gallon, this year the goal is 200 miles per gallon.  Talk about an incredible competency based project!  The students in this class had to design the car, develop plans, and be able to defend their decisions.  Before starting the construction, I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation from the class where they explained to me in great detail why they had selected the material they were proposing and the physics behind the tires that were selected.  Anyway, that class wasn't in session this morning, instead Mr. Scott had a group of students tearing down in internal combustion engine and identifying the parts.  Competency based, anyone?

Last week, our middle school students participated in the annual National History Day presentation at the Grout Museum in Waterloo.  This is a huge social studies project that Mr. Haskovec has his students do annually.  Basically a theme is chosen and students develop a project around this theme.  Not only are students expected to become experts in their topic, but they need to be able to present their findings in a visually appealing way.  This is done through a variety of medium including website development, creating documentaries, or through a traditional research paper.  If the project isn't enough, these youngsters need to be able to articulate their findings and presentations to a panel of judges who evaluate them using a scoring rubric.

So, I think it is safe to say that competency based learning wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the Hudson Community School District.  These are but a few examples.  I could go on an on, from the projects that our journalism students produce, to the bean plants that are grown in the 4th grade. 

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