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Go Forward or Go Back

A Tip from Boston

I grew up in the seventies with bands like Boston, Jefferson Starship, Journey, and Styx, among a few. The first release by the band Boston was entitled Don’t Look Back. The song’s first line begins with, “Don’t look back, ooh, a new day is breaking.” A few lines later, the chorus is, “I can see, it took so long just to realize …Now I know what I am is holding me down; I’ll turn it around. Without getting overly analytical, I believe these lyrics can apply to our current state of education. Surviving the past two years and the forthcoming years as teachers requires tremendous resiliency. Likewise, it is a chance to assess our teaching as we go forward.

Not looking back at traditional instructional delivery would be a step in the right direction. The opportunity to shake free of the hold of “traditional” modes of teaching and embrace teaching and learning that represents the 21st century and our students is now.

The SNH Model

I recently listened to the Edsurge podcast, which featured Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. He is known for his advocacy of competency-based learning and the advertisements for the university on television. Le Blanc focuses primarily on higher education and transforming from a flawed grading system. He states that the system is inflationary and not an accurate indicator of students’ skills when they enter the workforce. He believes that competency-based learning should be present in the K-12 environment. Realistically speaking, a change to this model will take some time and require a paradigm shift among educational institutions and policymakers.

Action Steps

What might this look like? Let’s begin with a learning management system(LMS). Having an LMS with learning outcomes is a must these days. Many districts rely on state or local standards already in place as the foundation for learning outcomes. However, utilizing LeBlanc’s philosophy for creating a competency-based environment, teachers would implement a more skills-based competency grounded in personalized learning and content. These outcomes would be uploaded into an LMS module, and students would be assessed as they progress through each lesson.

Example of a history learning outcome

As a history teacher, I focused on developing historical literacy skills using state history frameworks for content alignment. Using Canvas, I could create an outcome focusing on the historical literacy skill of sourcing, which is vital for any student to master in the discipline. I could apply this outcome to various units of study and the content. The key here is that the teacher is aware of the competencies required for passing the class and not bound strictly by content standards. The same can be said for students as well. When students can actually see what is required to successfully navigate through the course, they are better prepared and more confident.

Putting It All Together

Although the school year is half over, there is still time to implement competency- based learning. Most districts have weekly or monthly planning sessions scheduled for teachers. Using one of those sessions whether it be in grade level or content meetings an outcome can be selected and uploaded into the LMS. Teachers can set a time frame to revisit student achievement on the outcome with a goal to implement more as the year proceeds. Moreover, as the upcoming year looms closer, time for planning should be focused on the competency of skills. Taking a page from the Backwards Planning philosophy is a good place to start. As mentioned previously studying the actual skills required for the class and being precise about what is needed for student success is key. “Don’t look back,” the Boston chorus sings. Despite the challenges that teachers have there is a prime opportunity to make significant changes in how we teach and students learn.

Photo by Devin Bourg on

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