Empowerment-Based Learning: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

 “A student who understands what it means to own their learning has an internal drive to get things done.” This comes from an Idaho rural school administrator who has unlocked the key to powerful learning. Empowering students to take an active role in their own learning is often referred to by many different names:

 

Using terms like these interchangeably can be confusing but here’s the bottom line:

With empowerment-based activities, students are more able to take control of their own learning.

They achieve success not because someone is forcing them to move at a certain pace, or memorize a set of dates for a test the next day–they learn because they want to. And, teachers are empowered to provide richer, more meaningful feedback to their students because they can customize learning experiences as needed. School leaders are empowered to make more thoughtful decisions about schools and school systems while parents/caregivers see their children enjoying school in a way they never did before.

All students deserve the opportunity to learn.

Many state departments of education have regulations that haven’t been updated in decades and most don’t even mention student-driven learning models. Contact (clock) hours mean far less than learning time–there is a big difference! Just because someone may be sitting in a seat with an open textbook for 50 minutes does not mean they are engaged, motivated, and focused. Most of all, it doesn’t mean they are comprehending, applying, analyzing, evaluating, solving problems, or synthesizing new information.

Students deserve the opportunity to take greater control over what they learn, how they learn, and how quickly they progress through material.

This can have a positive impact on motivation, attendance, student retention, graduation, satisfaction, and college enrollment. Likewise, learners who can demonstrate they have a solid foundation of content knowledge–and they can apply that knowledge to solve problems in real-life situations–are particularly valuable to employers. After all, employees must demonstrate their proficiency on-the-job everyday; why not help prepare them for success by using an empowerment-based learning model in our P-12 schools?

Empowerment-based learning is not limited to a particular school environment.

It can be implemented in public and private P-12 schools, in colleges and universities, and in homeschools. It can also be used quite effectively in online learning environments at all levels. That’s another beautiful aspect of this model–it’s not limited to a particular type of school or location--it can be implemented anywhere, at any time, for any level. 

This isn’t an easy, 1-2-3 step approach.

Despite all its advantages, creating such a model is not as simple as following a few easy steps; setting it up correctly requires a lot of preparation and some foundational knowledge. Moreover, the model is not intended to be static. After it’s in place it still requires periodic review and updates based on student learning data.

Success stems from preparation, communication, and stakeholder buy-in.

While the design can be highly effective in a variety of learning environments the one constant is that it requires a shared commitment to academic excellence on the part of educators, administrators, parents, and learners. In order for this to take place, school leaders must thoroughly educate themselves in empowerment-based learning. They must connect one of the models to their school’s vision, mission, and purpose. School leaders must also be adept at communicating to stakeholders throughout the process, seeking their input and active involvement. It is only when everyone shares a commitment to empowerment-based learning that it can be truly successful, but the results can be incredible.

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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Regardless of What It’s Called, Empowering Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning is a Good Thing.

“A student who understands what it means to own their learning has an internal drive to get things done.” This comes from the administrator of a rural school in Idaho who’s unlocked the key to powerful learning. This approach is often referred to by many different names, such as:

  • personalized learning
  • proficiency learning
  • demonstration learning
  • individualized instruction
  • competency-based learning

 

However, while these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not all one and the same. Here’s an at-a-glance chart that may help:

Approach

Questions to Ask

Sample Classroom Applications

Personalized Learning

Individualized Instruction

 

What do my students need to know?

What are my students intrigued by? What sparks their curiosity? How do each of my students prefer to learn?

How can I provide each of my students with the kind of experiences they need to learn and thrive?

–Curriculum could be based on specific learning standards for each content area, but in its purest form it could be based on the mission of the school or even each student’s learning goals.

–With guidance, students actively participate in setting their own learning goals.

–Project-based, theme-based or interest-based learning

–Experience-based learning opportunities (including internships & apprenticeships)

–Pairing students with a mentor who has expertise in a given area

–Small group or individualized meetings with learning coach, advisor, or mentor

–Work products can take many forms (portfolio, blog, video, book, music, event, etc.)

Proficiency Learning

Competency-Based Learning

 

 

 

What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

What should I do if I have an advanced learner who breezes through the material?

What should I do for learners who are struggling with specific concepts or skills?

–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of proficiency (or competency) is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through carefully constructed formative and summative assessments.

–Proficiency/Competency is determined by performance on those assessments.

–Students can progress onward after demonstrating proficiency/competence.

–Struggling students are provided additional instructional support, and then are reassessed. Cycle is continued until proficiency/competency is demonstrated.

Demonstration Learning What do my students need to know?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

How will I know if each of my students has met academic expectations?

 

–Curriculum is typically based on district-adopted learning standards for each content area.

–A specific level of performance is identified for key learning goals and objectives.

–Student learning is measured through a combination of formative and summative assessments.

–In many instances, students can select from a menu of assessment choices.

–Depending on age and grade level, examples of culminating demonstrations of learning could include: portfolio, blog, video, poem, art show, recital, podcast, write a letter to the editor, etc.

Mastery Learning

Mastery learning was purposely left off the chart. This approach is often used interchangeably with proficiency and competency-based learning, and while it does share many attributes to those approaches, it is not the same. There is a difference between demonstrating one’s proficiency or competency in a given skill and mastering that skill. For example:

  • I am proficient in using Microsoft Excel, but I have not mastered it.
  • As evidenced by my harvest this year, I am a competent gardener but most certainly not a master gardener.

Mastery learning represents a much higher bar of expectation—it goes above and beyond that of proficiency or competency. To master something means you have become an expert in a given skill, and that approach doesn’t seem to fit within an empowerment-based learning model.

While terms can be confusing, here’s the bottom line:

Students should be empowered to take an active role in their own learning. As a result, they achieve success not because someone is forcing them to move at a certain pace or memorize a set of dates for a test the next day–they learn because they want to, and they learn in a way that feels comfortable. Furthermore, teachers can provide richer, more meaningful feedback to their students because they can customize learning experiences as needed. School leaders are able to make more thoughtful decisions about schools and school systems, and parents/caregivers are elated because they see their children enjoying school in a way they never did before.

Regardless of what it’s called, an empowerment-based approach can lay the foundation for all students to stretch their minds in a rich and meaningful way, experience success, and develop a lifelong love for learning.

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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One-Room Schools: Outdated, or Ahead of Their Time?

I’ve always been fascinated by the old one-room schoolhouses. I think it all started when my younger sister and I would walk up our country road and play for hours on the site of an old school, long since abandoned. That school must have educated every boy and girl for miles around, and those children grew up to be postal carriers, soldiers, bankers, farmers, and teachers.

In that school and others like it, students from multiple age groups and grade levels worked and learned together. In many instances, older students taught younger ones, with the teacher providing guidance as needed. Classics frequently served in the place of textbooks, and students applied what they were learning in the context of what was relevant to their lives. They developed a body of knowledge, but even more importantly, they learned how to apply that knowledge to solve problems.

It was a simpler time, and yet many of the methods found in those one-room schools were ahead of their time. Today we often hear about new techniques and methods for helping students learn. We talk about concepts such as competency-based, proficiency-based, and personalized learning. I would argue that besides a homeschool environment, one-room schools were the birthplace of individualized instruction. And the new performance assessments that are gaining so much attention? Students in one-room schools often had to demonstrate what they knew through projects such as planting an herb garden appropriate for local soil; raising goats for meat and dairy; making apple butter; building a machine shed that could stand up to wind; or providing first aid. Like the competency-based educational model, Simousek points out that most one-room schools adhered to the “time is variable/learning is constant” mantra, whereby learners worked on topics and skills until they could successfully demonstrate their proficiency before moving on. In other words, what students learn is more important than how quickly they learn it.

There are actually still a few hundred one-room schools in the United States today, many located in very rural and remote areas. However, a charter school in Gainsville, Florida was started in 1997 specifically with the one-room school model in mind. Focusing on meeting the needs of high achievers, the One Room School House Project (ORSH) serves students through eighth grade. In addition, some modern-day homeschools are perfect venues for the one-room schoolhouse model.

While I recognize the benefits of larger schools today, I have to wonder if perhaps it might be worth having a conversation about the benefits of smaller schools designed around the one-room schoolhouse model. Even in our fast-paced, mobile society, I believe there is still a need for schools that serve as community anchors; that can truly provide individualized instruction and support for all learners; and that prepare students to interact with others in a positive way.

–rrf

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in education transformation, teacher preparation, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter and writer, she currently supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as educational systems design, online learning experiences, competency-based education, and accreditation. Roberta also blogs about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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Looking for Innovation? Think CBE.

Thinking about adopting a competency-based educational (CBE) model? This can be a great, innovative way to teach adult learners at the community college or university level, but it can also be quite appropriate for youngsters at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Here are a few basic tenets of CBE to consider:

Competency-based education is not an easy way to learn or to earn a college degree. Instead, it is a different way to learn. Rather than just sitting in a class and earning attendance points, learners really have to demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality assessments.

True competency-based education is standards-based education. A house must have a solid foundation in order to stand over time. Likewise, curriculum must be based on standards, and from those standards, competencies, learning objectives, and assessments are developed. As industry standards change, so must a competency-based curriculum evolve to ensure relevancy and currency.

 

Competency-based education is carefully planned and developed. It is not a simple matter to create or switch to a competency-based educational model. It requires a great deal of thought, planning, training, and a commitment to various resources. Simply put, it is not realistic for an institution to believe this can be created by one or two faculty members given extra teaching load pay over a semester or two. It requires systemic commitment and long-range strategic planning.

The curriculum found in a high-quality competency-based educational program comprises both breadth and depth. As previously stated, a solid curriculum must be standards-based. In addition, a CBE curriculum can’t just “cover” certain key concepts and principles—this approach will not lead to deep, sustained learning. Instead, major content must be identified and embedded multiple times within signature learning experiences; they must be scaffolded throughout a program of study at increasing levels of complexity. Learners must be given multiple opportunities to understand and apply what they are learning in various contexts.

Self-paced learning is a cornerstone of the CBE model. Rote memorization has been debunked by many over the years as an ineffective way to learn. Likewise, educators now acknowledge that lockstep teaching and learning does not meet the needs of individuals. An age-old approach known as “Teach to the Middle” is still often the norm in environments where class size is excessive and teachers need to work as efficiently as possible simply to manage their classrooms. However, this approach neglects the needs of students who are struggling, and it neglects the needs of students who have already mastered those skills and are ready to move on. One of the most beautiful aspects of competency-based education is that it is based on a self-paced learner model: Students work at their own pace, taking as much or as little time as they need to understand, apply, and demonstrate their proficiency in the stated competencies and learning objectives. Learners are less frustrated; they feel empowered and more in control of their own progress.

The competency-based model lends itself well to online learning. CBE certainly can work well in traditional face-to-face learning environments. However, it can work equally well in distance learning models. There are different nuances to consider in the planning stage, but CBE is adaptable to all learning environments. What’s important is the strength of the curriculum, the learning resources, the quality of instruction, and the support given to learners. If the curriculum can be seen as the foundation of the house, then the other instructional elements can be viewed as the walls supporting the structure.

The quality of a competency-based program is heavily reliant upon the quality of its assessments. In a competency-based model, learners demonstrate what they know and are able to do relative to specific learning objectives. They demonstrate this through a variety of high-quality assessments, frequently in the form of internally-created objective examinations, performance assessments, field-based assessments, and externally-created proprietary assessments. If the curriculum is the home’s foundation, and the walls are comprised of learning resources, instructional quality, and learner support, assessments represent the roof. There must be direct alignment between what learners are taught and how their knowledge is measured.

Continuous, critical review of assessment data is essential. Many educators throw around the term “data-driven” decision making these days, but few really understand what it means. As with curriculum development, a comprehensive assessment plan is essential to any institution, regardless whether it adheres to a competency-based educational model or not. There are many steps that need to be taken to ensure the quality, integrity, and continual improvement of the ways in which learner proficiency is measured.

The bottom line: It’s all about efficacy. Irrespective of the educational model being implemented, the strength of a program actually can best be determined by the sustained impact on the lives of learners and those they interact with in their chosen profession. For example, do graduates from an educator preparation program demonstrate a positive impact on their P-12 students’ learning and development? Do graduates from a medical school demonstrate a significant impact on improving the quality of their patients’ lives?

Competency-based education is not just about learning in the moment; it’s about learning for a lifetime to serve the greater good.

–rrf

 

 

Personalized Learning Models: Not as Easy as It Sounds

This article focuses on some work supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York called Opportunity by Design: New High School Models for Student Success.  With a goal of helping to increase the graduation rate of high schoolers and prepare them for the workforce, the project focused on experimenting with various types of innovative school designs in urban schools. While innovation can vary across models, the project’s founders concluded that there are 10 integrated principles that are indicators of effective high schools:

  • Integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort
  • Develops & deploys collective strengths
  • Empowers & supports students through key transitions into & beyond high school
  • Manages school operations efficiently & effectively
  • Remains porous & connected
  • Prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college & career readiness
  • Has a clear mission & coherent culture
  • Maintains an effective human capital strategy aligned with school model & priorities
  • Personalizes student learning to meet student needs
  • Continuously improves its operations & model

The study focused on small schools that adopted various personalized learning models, which are often also referred to as mastery learning, proficiency learning, or competency-based learning.

As indicators of the project’s success, researchers focused mainly on a couple of metrics:

  • Calculation of four-year and six-year high school graduation and dropout rates
  • Distribution of entering high school students by NAEP math scores, grade level, and number of years of a 1.25x teacher needed

Current data suggest an improvement in graduation rates of students whose school participated in one of the innovative designs focusing on personalized learning and less on the traditional model using the Common Core Standards. In addition, not surprisingly those students starting out the farthest behind need the support of more teachers for a longer period of time.

After talking with students, teachers, and school leaders, researchers concluded a continued need for professional development training, high-quality instructional materials, and better communication. In short, personalized learning is not as easy as it sounds—there are many moving parts and an effective system is birthed from a comprehensive, cohesive systems design.

While interesting, the report is just a starting point—a springboard for further conversation, experimentation, data collection, and reflection. There are many more ways in which to triangulate valuable data, and we need to track the success of this project over time in order to determine its efficacy.

 

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation and academic quality assurance. She currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher licensure, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC.  

 

Source: RAND study provides early lessons on personalized learning model | Education Dive