What Supports our Journeys? JOURNEYS

By Janet Twyman / April 25, 2014

Recently I had the privilege of being a Reflector for the Center on School Turnaround's webinar, “Journey to School Improvement: The Personalized Mastery Approach, an informative conversation about the challenges faced at Carl Sandburg Middle School (home of the Pretzels!), in Freeport, Illinois. The discussion, held with school, district, state, and regional leaders, focused on how to produce school-wide improvement in a small-town school with a large achievement gap, and how it might work for the rest of the district and the state.

Their solution? Personalized Mastery.

Personalized mastery is a model that allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, focusing more on demonstrating “competency” and not how much “seat time” is spent in class or school (for more information see this comprehensive policy paper on personalized mastery by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition).  Whether it is called personalized mastery, mastery learning, proficiency-based, or competency-based, the approach exemplified by these terms can be a valuable roadmap to guide a “journey” towards school improvement.

Like many things that work well, personalized mastery, which I’ll refer to as competency-based education (CBE), is not completely new. The idea that we should clearly identify what it is we want our learners to know or do has it origins in the formation of learning objectives (actually first mentioned in Franklin Bobbit’s 1912 The Curriculum), made mainstream in the 1960s by Robert Mager’s description of instructional objectives[i]. Well written objectives, specifying who, what, and under what conditions help us know where we want to go and give us a pretty good idea of how to get there. Yet CBE is not solely about specifying learning objectives, it’s also about learners setting their own pace and having a say in what the trip will be like. The verified tactic of an individualized instructional pace that progresses based on what a learner knows and does (often called “self-paced”) also has it roots in the 1960s[ii], with programs that encouraged students to proceed through material at their own pace, not one pre-determined by the teacher, the textbook, or the calendar year. Thus, a central maxim of CBE challenges traditional models of schooling. In CBE time is variable and the learning is fixed. Self-pacing supports individual differences in rate of study, and is critical when we want all students to achieve a similar level of achievement. In self-paced learning environments, the teacher’s role changes considerably—rather than primarily being the transmitter of new information, the teacher becomes a facilitator for learning, a guide on the student’s journey through the material.

Just as we check road signs, mile markers, and other signposts while making our important journeys, CBE supports learners and educators by checking progress along the way. Ongoing formative assessment (another “not new” idea from the 60s[iii]), a necessary component of CBE, offers frequent checks on learning (preferably meaningful, quick, and embedded)—a form of “yes, you’ve got that, let’s keep going.” With formative assessment you know quickly when you’ve gotten off course, before going hundreds of miles (i.e., several days, weeks, or months) in the wrong direction. And just as we now have GPS and all sorts of technology-based tools to help guide our physical journeys, we now a have a plethora of technology-based tools (such as student response systems, interactive video, learning management systems) to help guide our educational journeys.

Importantly, formative measures of learning help ensure that all the component pieces are in place before moving on, en route to demonstrating the “competency” in competency-based education. “Competency” is often referred to as the ability to apply knowledge and skills in and across the content area. When we think of someone being competent, we think of her or him as knowledgeable, fluent, and agile (in the ability to apply that knowledge or skill across various situations). A vital side benefit of CBE is that it forces us to think about what competency looks like for all the things we think are significant enough to teach or learn. Individually and collectively, we have a lot of work ahead of us in defining the competencies we care about, and how to know when they are there. Fortunately, iNacol reports that over 36 states are working on CBE policies, and we look forward to what comes out of that work.

Embedded within CBE are these and more tried and true (aka. evidence-based) pillars to support our journey of school improvement. Have you tried CBE? Let us know how these supports have worked for you.


[i] Mager, R. F., & Peatt, N. (1962). Preparing instructional objectives (Vol. 962). Belmont, CA: Fearon Publishers.

[ii] Keller, F. S. (1968). Good-bye, teacher…. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 79-89.

[iii] Scriven, Michael (1967). The methodology of evaluation. In Stake, R. E. (Ed.) Curriculum evaluation. Chicago: Rand McNally. American Educational Research Association (monograph series on evaluation, no. 1).


This blog is also cross-posted on The Center on Innovations in Learning’s blog site: The Glint Blog.

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About the author

Janet Twyman

Guest blogger Janet Twyman is the Director of Innovation and Technology at the Center on Innovations in Learning.

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