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Seat-based Versus Competency-based Learning


By Deborah E. Louis, Ph.D.

With technology and especially online learning, the idea of competency-based education is a viable option and may be best used in a blended learning environment. Blended learning is an idea that may offer more time for teachers to provide continuous and effective assessment, but it does not address the challenge of students having different skill levels and, therefore, different levels of progression. What does address this challenge is Competency-based Learning (CBL).  And the combination of CBL and Blended Learning is a dynamic duo to student learning.

The traditionalist attitude continues to demonstrate an affinity toward the early 20th century basis for measuring school work known as the Carnegie Unit system. A unit would represent a single subject taught for one classroom period for five days a week. Thus, the Carnegie Unit equates seat-time with learning. The traditional length of the typical class period (50 to 55 minutes), the school day, and the school year stem from the Carnegie Unit in an attempt to standardize and ensure the quality of high school education. In this traditional approach, teachers typically provide instruction to all students at the same time, and deadlines for assignments and projects apply to all students. Recently, in a brief titled “State Strategies for Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning by the National Governors Association (2012, p. 1), “a total of 36 states currently have policies that provide school districts and schools with some flexibility for awarding credit to students based on mastery of content and skills as opposed to seat time.” Reports like the one developed by the National Governors Association have encouraged other thought leaders to consider allowing time on task to be a variable and competencies of objectives to set the bar. This idea is an example of a new myth replacing the old. What has emerged is a concept among educators known as competency education. In “The Art and Science of Designing Competencies,” Chris Sturgis (2012, p.5) and innovators from across the country developed a working definition of competency education:

  • students advance upon mastery;
  • competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Also known as proficient-, standards-, and performance-based education, competency education allows students to learn objectives with time flexibility. Therefore, a student who understands and masters an objective or standard sooner than others may move forward. In addition to Competency-based instruction, blended learning, combining traditional teaching approaches with integrated technology, is a way for teachers to gain more time for personalized approaches to student learning. According to the Innosight Institute definition by Heather Staker and Michael Horn (2012, p. 3), blended learning may be defined as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.” Four models of blended learning discussed by Staker and Horn (2012, p. 2) in “Classifying K-12 Blended” include the Rotation model, the Flex model, the Self-Blend model, and the Enriched-Virtual model. These new approaches to the ebb and flow of the classroom do not oppose traditional senex values; rather, they augment the teaching and learning in a way that allows the senex approach to have more meaning because the approach is more personalized.

The Rotation model, according to Staker and Horn (2012, p. 8), is a program in which “within a given course or subject students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one which is online learning. One example of the rotation model is the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom is a phrase coined by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, teachers with a combined 37 years of experience. It suggests that a teacher flip the common instructional approach.  Bill Tucker, in a 2012 article from Education Next discusses the concept: With teacher-created videos and interactive lessons, instruction that used to occur in class is now accessed at home, in advance of class. Class becomes the place to work through problems, advance concepts, and engage in collaborative learning. Most importantly, all aspects of instruction can be rethought to best maximize the scarcest learning resource—time.

Other modalities might include teacher-led instruction, small, collaborative groups, individual conferences, or seat-time with pencil and paper. The location of these modalities might occur at stations within a classroom, different locations on a campus, a remote location (often home) after school, as explained in the flipped classroom approach, or in an individually customized fixed schedule in which students’ rotation may not include each station. Staker and Horn (2012, p. 12) describe a Flex model as a program in which students receive content from the Internet and move on an “individually customized, fluid schedule” with the teacher-of-record on site and accessible. A Self-Blend model is one in which students may select to take certain courses online with the teacher-of-record being an online teacher. Finally, Staker and Horn (2012, p. 15) describe an Enriched-Virtual model as a “whole-school experience in which within each course (e.g., math), students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction, adding that the “Enriched-Virtual model differs from the Flipped Classroom because in Enriched-Virtual programs, students seldom attend the brick-and-mortar campus every weekday.  It differs from the Self-Blend model because it is a whole-school experience, not a course-by-course model.” In a blended learning environment, teachers have more opportunity to approach their students’ learning of skills and concepts by providing lessons, units, or projects that may be completed by the individual in an online setting, in small, collaborative groups, in teacher-led instruction, and/or a combination of the three. Teachers guide, supervise, monitor, and assess the mastery of standards-based skills and concepts on a continuum; students are not slowed or accelerated by time but rather by their ability to understand, apply, analyze, and synthesize. Students are not labeled as needing remediation or enrichment.  Their performance outcomes on specific standards guide those decisions.

Some teachers worry that using online approaches that blended learning encompass will replace the role of teacher, but the blended learning environment as well as CBL promotes and requires supervision of students’ learning, as Richard E. Ferdig (Davis, 2011, p. 38), a research professor at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, has indicated, that “incorporating the face-to-face mentor into students’ use of online courses is directly linked to success.”  Teachers can never be replaced with regard to effective learning. The Teacher is an archetype, a dynamic figure in our collective unconscious. And the student-teacher connection is also an archetype.  Any time I ask a student about naming the one thing that had the most impact, the answer is always “My teachers.”  It’s true and will always be true.

With a combination of CBL, personalized instruction, and digital tools that include blended learning, portable and mobile learning, and computer-based instruction, students are engaged and teachers have the time to plan, create, grade, and tutor, and less time on behavioral problems and parent phone calls. If students are engaged, dropouts by students and their teachers might also decrease.

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