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October 2, 2013

Personalization without isolation

by Julia Freeland

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a competency-based high school called Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) in Roxbury, Mass. A number of people have written about BDEA’s work because of its long-standing efforts in competency-based education: Chris Sturgis has documented the school’s academic approach to enumerating and assessing competencies and a Nellie Mae report outlines some of the school’s key instructional approaches. So rather than reiterate those findings, I want to address another ingredient to BDEA’s model: community.

Competency-based learning is inherently personalized insofar as it requires that students move at their own pace. Students accelerate through subjects in which they excel, but don’t move on to new or higher-level subjects until they demonstrate mastery of existing coursework. For those of us raised in traditional classrooms, that individual endeavor may sound sort of lonely. I think that when we talk about personalized learning there is a lurking fear that we are building tiny silos for each child, in turn depriving students of the opportunity to socialize, collaborate, and build community. But at BDEA, socialization and personalization are not at odds. I observed a few phenomena that seemed to shape the strong community surrounding the school’s competency-based system. First, students trust the competency-based system. Second, the school promotes a culture of peer-to-peer academic support. And third, opportunities for collaborative group projects are woven into the curriculum and the school year.

BDEA students often arrive under-credited, below grade-level, or having dropped out of school entirely. Meeting these incoming students at their individual level undergirds every aspect of the high school’s curriculum. Students attested to the delicate balance achieved by the school’s emphasis on personalization. In the same conversation, one student described that the school met his needs because “it provided a lot of structure.” Another student, moments later, explained that BDEA was different from other schools because “the school gives you more freedom.” To an outsider, those two sentiments would appear at odds. But the students were able to articulate how BDEA’s clear and transparent emphasis on mastery can engender both discipline and liberation. Students know what is expected of them in order to graduate, and they must stay on top of their attendance record. But the pace at which they master material is individual, unlike the lock-step schedule of learning (or lack of learning) in traditional schools.

Students’ trust in the system seems to spill over into trust in one another. For example, I asked students: do you feel like you have real academic peers if everyone progresses at different paces? Do you feel badly when your friends move through a course faster than you do? Of the four students I was talking to, all four echoed the sentiment that it didn’t seem to matter because students help each other out. If you have a classmate who has learned material more quickly, he’s often willing to explain concepts to you. Mastery then, is not just an individual project or accomplishment, but also a signal to your peers that you can help; and reaching mastery is a process that students own individually, but during which they can rely on fellow students for support.

In some ways, competency-based learning may naturally lead to a sense of community because it can temper negative competition that plagues traditional high schools. BDEA has found that when students own their learning and are on different tracks to graduating, there are fewer opportunities for students to pit themselves against their peers. But I don’t think that strong community just happens in a competency-based school; a culture of supports is not, per se, a natural byproduct of allowing students to move at their own pace.

In fact, BDEA is actually very deliberate about generating a sense of community. For example, the school places all new students—regardless of their pace or strengths—in a seminar together when they first arrive. This could offend the tastes of a competency-based purist who would want students at different levels to be learning according to their individual ability and pace. But BDEA has found that inducting students into their system as a group builds a sense of supportive community from the start. Only after that initial seminar does the students’ performance on pre-assessments serve to sort them into different learning paths.

It’s also worth noting that features of the curriculum may foster a sense of community. For example, in December, BDEA allows students to participate in Project Month. Students work together on group projects that BDEA teachers create to incorporate various competencies that students apply to real-world challenges and artistic endeavors like analyzing the NBA lockout, building rockets, or making a documentary. Project Month ends in a symposium night, when students present group projects to the public. These projects are another way to build students’ skills and offer promising forums for students to interact and collaborate.

Running a high-quality, competency-based program is not easy. From what I observed, I think that BDEA’s teachers and leaders have been just as deliberate about building a competency-based community as they have been about working out the complex technicalities of creating a competency-based curriculum (not a minor task in and of itself). The school is an encouraging example of how personalized competency-based learning need not be an isolating endeavor; instead, it’s one that can happen in a rich and deliberate context, where students know where to look for social and academic support along their individual way.

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