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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From Soil to the Sun: CBE as a Blended Pedagogy Journey

Since arriving at Shelby County four years ago, I have been challenged in ways I did not expect.  Naturally, my role requires knowledge of blended learning best practices, and to keep up with the constantly changing world of edtech.  However, I have also learned about other pedagogies that may be enabled by technology but also exist outside of it: personalized learning, project based learning, and standards based grading, to name just three.

In the spring of 2017, Shelby County created its Profile of a Graduate with the input of our community stakeholders (parents, business owners, students, admin, and teachers).  It answers a simple sounding question:  What do we want a Shelby County graduate to be?   In short, we want them to be (clockwise from top) Critical Thinkers, Responsible Collaborators,   Lifelong Learners, Effective Communicators, Global Citizens, and Inspired Innovators.

More information about our six major competency domains is here.

By thinking through the lens of "life readiness" (which includes but goes beyond "college and career readiness"), we realized that students should demonstrate mastery of key competencies, not merely mastery of academic standards.  That's not to say academic standards are unimportant!  Rather, Core Content becomes the means to an end instead of an end in itself; true mastery can be demonstrated when the application of learned standards are effectively achieved.

Allow me a tangental metaphor.  Soon we will talk trees, but for now, let's talk cars.

Think of tires as standards.  As educators in a traditional teacher-centered system, we have become excellent tire salespeople.  We bring our customer-students into the store-school, describing the various tires in detail.  We implore to the students: Memorize the sizes!  Take note of the thread depth!   (Not very deep, truth be told.)  We obsess over the PSI as if numbers tell the entire story -- a 32 (or 100%, or an A+) is likely ideal, but truth be told, a 25 (70%, a passing grade of D-) will likely get you from point A to B, so long as you stay on the smooth roads...assuming the tires ever hit the roads, of course.

Our students may know tons of facts about tires -- and yet, because they haven't had to use the tires in any meaningful way, the knowledge is void of context or validity.  Meaningful application of knowledge is key.  When standards matter is when the rubber meets the road.  We really need all four (ELA, math, social studies, science) to make a car go -- thinking of content in silos is as useful in real life as driving with one tire.

In order to move students past being tire consumers, we need alignment.  Competencies provide this sense of purpose, a context for the standards to function inside.  Without alignment to competencies, the tires may pull the car in random directions.   If you have no standards, alignment matters little if you're sitting on just your hubcaps.  The synergy between the tires and the alignment -- the transformational relationship of standards and competencies -- is what can make competency-based education (CBE) so impactful, and therefore makes learning an act of creation instead of consumption.  Now the only thing left to do before embarking on our road trip is to have a destination.  And here is where the Profile of a Graduate's necessity emerges.  It becomes the goal we want our academic system to aspire towards.

But who is driving the car in competency based education?  The student should be, of course!  Certainly there are moments when a teacher-instructor gives tips from the shotgun seat or talks about the rules of the road, but if the student isn't ultimately driving the car, we can never truly say they have demonstrated mastery.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog entry!  With the Profile of the Graduate as our true north, our newest Strategic Leadership Plan (planned last fall, and goes into effect next school year) will focus on transforming Shelby County into a CBE system.   Luckily, we have made good learning partnerships, both outside of the state (such as Envision and EdLeader21) and within. In fact, one key Kentucky partner is Trigg County.  Trigg and Shelby County are the only two districts in the state that were recently approved for a CBE pilot:

I name dropped Envision earlier, and here is a good segue into discussing a book many leaders in Shelby are currently reading: Transforming Schools by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston.  (Lenz is the cofounder of Envision Education and Wells was the first English teacher of its first school.)  The book, along with other professional development, is certainly helping me see how CBE is the natural culmination of our various initiatives from the last several years.  At a recent Shelby admin "lead and learn," we read the book's opening chapters and gathered in teams to ponder the question of how all of our endeavors fit together.  My group included principals Jennifer Cox and Susie Burkhardt.  Each group was handed slips of paper with various educational pedagogies, initiatives and terms.  Our goal was to organize this in a way we thought best, while also considering an analogy that creatively addressed their relationship.  Once the three of us collaborated on a hierarchal design, I suggested we called it "From Soil to the Sun."

As you can see from the image above, we started with the roots: the essentials that educators needed to learn in order for our system-tree to live.  Without a solid foundation in competency, CBE, mastery learning and personalized learning, it would be very difficult for our tree to grow!  Borrowing from the Transforming Schools book, we believe the center trunk is Envision's "Know-Do-Reflect" triangle, from where three major branches jut out:
  • "The prepared graduate knows the content and the discrete skills of her academic subjects" [acquired via self-paced learning, mastery scales that define accomplishment, and backward designed units].  
  • "She can do what typical college courses demand...using her intellectual, interpersonal, and executive skills to make things happen"  [applied knowledge via workplace learning, project based learning, performance based assessment, exhibitions, and portfolios].
  • Lastly, "she has the ability to reflect, a habit of self-awareness and revision that sets her on the path of continued growth" [as done on, or through, the 4 C's, Defense of Learning, portfolio Artifacts, and various Rubrics] (page 24).   
But at least as important as the roots, trunk and branches is where the tree is growing towards, and this ideal goal -- our system's sun -- is our Profile of a Graduate.   Note that the tree can't quite hit the sun. What makes the competencies of a Profile of a Graduate so powerful is this: while mastery of these competencies may designate completion and validity for a SCPS diploma, the competencies should continually be applied throughout the lifetime of the graduate.  We hope not only to grow graduates, but grow perpetual learners who (to quote a favorite phrase of our superintendent Dr. Neihof) are always in the act of becoming.

Certainly our group's organization and tree analogy are not meant to be the final word.  Indeed, as other groups shared their visual representations, we had some healthy debate and discussion on how they saw things differently.  What was most important to me and others was the process of reflecting on several seemingly disparate pedagogies and educational terms and seeing how well they blend into a CBE system.   Seen in this (sun)light, competency-based education becomes a natural, organic evolution of what came before, not a tree separate from the rest of the educational forest.  

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