We keep talking about how the dual pandemics have accelerated changes that existed in society pre-pandemics. Can I share with you a revealed change that makes me hopeful going forward? The deep appreciation for and understanding that content covered does not equal content learned.
Pre-pandemics, many schools had started down the roads towards competency based learning. Schools seemed to be on a spectrum; from dabbling with to embracing concepts like the Mastery Based Transcript, standards-based grading, Universal Design for Learning, and much more. The pandemics hastened schools’ work in these areas for a simple reason: we had to. As teachers began to plan for this school-year-unlike-any-other, they came to the understanding that a traditional approach of course organization by content was not going to work -- or they came to that understanding at some point during the first semester this year. Moreover, teachers realized that a reckoning with racial injustices required different foci and curricular objectives. Courses, and the allocation of time within them, had to be organized differently -- by competencies, skills, and learning objectives. Now, we’re ready to define the outcomes that we care about driving with our work.
This shift in course design hastens another pre-pandemic trend: the shift toward personalization from differentiation. If “competencies gained” is the measure of student learning, rather than “content covered” by the teacher, then there needs to be a deep understanding of where student achievement is on an individual level -- that is, there needs to be deeper appreciation and understanding that students learn differently and at different paces. This shifts faculty work in the classroom from asking the question “How might I present material in a variety of ways in order to reach all my learners?” to “How might I present multiple choices -- pathways, if you will -- in order for students to demonstrate their knowledge and competencies gained?”
If we are in agreement that content covered isn’t the same as content learned, then we should also reframe standardized assessment as a diagnostic rather than evaluative tool. Standardized assessments have a place in a post-pandemic world. The annual standardized assessment as record-keeper -- wherein schools use them to document changes in their student population -- has significant implications for everything from enrollment to equity to wellness within our schools. And, if we’re in agreement that enrollment, equity, and wellness are three of the biggest issues facing independent schools post-pandemic, then recasting the curriculum to be designed backwards from rigorous competencies rather than what’s on AP exams is an imperative.
And that leads us to the question of how students will demonstrate those competencies. The Advanced Placement testing that’s underway in high schools this week all too often requires a narrow set of skills for success that’s not always tied tightly to the competencies of the course. As a result, the students in those courses tend to be the ones with the skills that align to the exam--and that can leave out too many students who care deeply about the subject matter but don’t fit the learning profile. Instead, if secondary schools rethink their most rigorous and challenging courses to prepare students’ with the competencies and skills to find success in higher education pursuits, then they will be better off.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)