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Competency-based education: Next-level learning

Date: 
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Some say they learn best by reading. Others say they learn best by doing.

For students who prefer the latter, the Cedar Rapids and College Community districts have joined forces to offer a non-traditional setting where the classroom has no walls, the coursework has no textbooks, and the grade level is not a consideration. Be assured this is no cakewalk: The students master skills and content consistent with their classroom counterparts. But they do so through projects that go beyond the school yard and solidly into the community.

The districts call the school Iowa BIG – big for its concepts, even bigger for its impact.

The school is an example of competency-based education, known in education circles by its acronym CBE, in which students learn at their own pace. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for CBE, but the underlying concept is enabling students who excel in school to go through coursework faster. It also gives students who need more time the ability to learn at their own pace, eliminating the very real possibility of getting frustrated and giving up.

There is no one particular student who is attracted to Iowa BIG; indeed, they come from all academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. But they share a trait: All of them are looking for opportunities to refuel their passion for learning, engage in authentic work, and better connect their learning to the outside world.

Though the program is in its first year, it’s already paying dividends.

Take student Kinzie Farmer, a junior at Prairie High School. Though she is an “A” student, by her own admission she had a hard time staying engaged in the classroom.

“Before this year, school was like checking a box,” she said. “I may ace the test even if I don’t remember anything.”

That was before Iowa BIG.

“This year I know what a real deadline is, and know how to really write a paper through exploration,” she said. “I have real-life skills that I’m really using. As the project started taking off, I started going out into the community.”

In order for anything to be a project in the program, said Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent Trace Pickering, it must have three components to it: It must be a real project that is relevant to the community, it must be something that the student wants to pursue, and it must meet critical academic competencies.

The concept of Iowa BIG – the brainchild of Pickering and Iowa BIG Headmaster Shawn Cornally – started coming to fruition when they invited business leaders from all different disciplines to spend time in classrooms to get their thoughts about today’s education. And thoughts they had.

“What struck them is that content was separated into individual classes, which simply isn’t how the world works,” Pickering said. “Participants who returned to school said, ‘we never thought about how ridiculous it was to separate subjects, such as social studies and English.’ That’s not how people learn in the work world. There, everything is integrated.”

Such was the case with Kinzie’s project – titled “Success to the Power of SHE” – which was a day-long conference that focused on inspiring girls to success. The spring conference drew about 200 people, including Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lisa Bluder, head coach for the Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball program.

The project started when Kinzie tired of being called “bossy” – that in spite of the fact she was class president – simply because she was female. Through conversations with Headmaster Cornally, “Success to the Power of SHE” was born and Kinzie was put to work to make it happen.

“It started as a conference to inspire girls to be leaders in the future,” she said. “But I learned that what success looks like depends on the individual – whether you are a stay-at-home mom or you own a business. Through exploring this, the conference was designed to inspire a girl to her own success.”

Cornally says project-oriented learning over the years has been used as an auxiliary to education, rather than a mainstay.

“But think back to the days you were in school,” he said. “Chances are you remember the projects you worked on more than anything. At BIG, I see kids who are ignited by this one seminal experience that pushes them toward a career or major in college. Why shouldn’t we use that as a lens?”

BIG wouldn’t have ever gotten off the ground without community support.

“Lots of models like this fail because of lack of integration in the greater community,” Cornally said. “Schools that integrate their larger communities, they thrive.”

It’s not just mere support Iowa BIG needs from the community – it’s real-life projects. For instance, a local company, Ecolips, has enlisted the help of BIG students. The company that promotes ecologically friendly products just created a cardboard box for its lip balm. The problem? The small company doesn’t have resources to determine if the cardboard box truly lives up to being eco-friendly.

Enter Iowa BIG.

“It’s a perfect project for BIG students to take on,” Pickering said. “Students next year will determine whether the cardboard breaks down, and whether it leaches any bad materials. This is a heavy science research project which includes lot of English expectations as well. In the end, the kids win, and the entrepreneur wins.”

Iowa BIG will be expanding, from this year’s 20 students to as many as 180 students next year. (Students in neighboring districts may participate provided they pay tuition.)

You can bet Kinzie will be participating.

“I feel like I matter to my community for the first time ever,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. It’s important – everyone wants to feel like they matter. Going to high school – it’s not new and exciting, whereas when I’m at BIG I’m doing something that wouldn’t happen if it were not for me. It helps me get up in the morning and be excited.”

From reservations to success

There is no particular formula for successful competency-based education (CBE). Programs vary from in-school coursework where the student learns at his or her own pace to internships and project-oriented work.

Ideally, students could choose which path to take since they have different preferences in the way they learn, said Iowa Department of Education Consultant Sandra Dop.

“Some students might choose one type of learning over another,” she said. “For instance, a student might want a specific learning environment for gaining proficiency in a particular subject, but another learning environment to demonstrate proficiency in another area.  All of this is negotiated with the teacher.  Kim Carter of QED Foundation calls it, ‘negotiated pace with gradual release,’ meaning that the students are not completely on their own to set a pace, and they slowly take over their learning as they develop the skills to do so. ”

Dop said CBE has less to do with the academic pace of students but rather ensuring students know what they are supposed to learn.

Elizabeth Sturms approached CBE with caution and doubt. Two years ago as a junior in Muscatine, she was invited to help design a model for her district.

“I had reservations at first,” said Elizabeth, who is now a freshman at the University of Iowa.
“I was used to the conventional approach where the teacher is at the front of the room giving  information to the students.”

She soon saw it differently. By her senior year, she was fully engaged in CBE.

“One of the coolest things for me is that I could get through my work a little faster than other students,” Elizabeth said. “It also was cool seeing students who took a little more time and not being penalized for it. In my government class, since we had our own time to show our understanding of the concept, we could finish the concept earlier and develop a project to show our understanding of the subject.”

Were there any long-lasting benefits? Elizabeth gives an unqualified “yes.”

“The CBE courses really paid off in college,” she said. “Within the first couple weeks as a freshman, having that CBE background really gave me confidence and enabled me to go headstrong into student organizations and projects. CBE is a great foundation for university-level thinking and problem-solving.”

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on July 31, 2015 at 11:34am.