Quality Design Principle #1: Purpose-Driven

“Our community told us they wanted their children to be lifelong learners. We had to ask ourselves, what are we doing in our classrooms to help them be lifelong learners? What structures and supports do our teachers need to help develop lifelong learners? It came down to needing to have an active learning environment. Students need to be able to seek out things they are personally interested in, create a plan and find the resources. We are always looking for ways for students to learn beyond the classroom.”

– Doug Penn, District Principal, Chugach School District, AK, 2015


Quality requires intentionality and intentionality requires clarity of purpose. Creating a shared purpose that is meaningfully connected to the lives of students and families is essential to designing effective culture, structure and pedagogy. A shared purpose lives in the vision and values that orient a system. In competency-based systems, the shared purpose emphasizes the commitment to every student succeeding. The definition of success is expanded to include academic knowledge, transferable competencies and the skills to be lifelong learners. Students and adults draw connections between their educational experience and their current and future lives, bringing relevance and meaning to the learning experience.

Key Characteristics

  • Shared purpose. Districts and schools have a shared purpose to support every student being successful in their learning. Each member of a school community has a true sense of purpose: they make connections to their current and future lives within the learning process. The shared purpose promotes collaboration, continuous improvement and decision-making in the best interest of students.
  • Definition of student success. The purpose of education must be rooted in the current and future lives of students and their families. Districts and schools shape what this means in terms of specific skills, knowledge and traits. High-quality districts and schools design for the knowledge and skills needed for success beyond high school.
  • Relationships. Districts and schools invest in healthy relationships between students, teachers, leaders and the community.
  • Cultural relevance. Students and teachers see connections between learning environments, learning experiences and their personal and cultural identities.
  • Application. Students have opportunities to apply their learning in ways that are personally meaningful. Active connection between learning and the world around them increases students’ engagement and purpose.

How is Being Purpose-Driven Related to Quality?

A school’s purpose—the answer to why a district or school exists—intentionally shapes all aspects of its culture, pedagogy and structure. Districts and schools often turn to competency-based education for the purpose of turning the rhetoric of “all students prepared for college, career and life” into reality. From this purpose emerges all other design principles: nurturing a culture of learning and inclusivity so that every student and adult feels safe and supported in taking risks to learn new things, personalizing learning so that students learn the skills to own their education and become lifelong learners, responding to students by meeting them where they are with timely and differentiated supports, and advancing students based on demonstrated mastery not simply because they completed a semester or course.

In the following discussion three aspects of what it means to be purpose-driven are explored:

  • Creating a shared purpose;
  • New definitions of student success; and
  • Instructional implications of the purpose.

Shared Purpose

Public education is based on a social contract with families and communities. Schools prepare students for their futures: to pursue further education or training; take on adult roles in their families, the workplace and their communities; and foster their personal well-being. Districts and schools beginning the transition to competency-based education establish or renew the compact by engaging community members, parents and students in describing a vision for graduates. The process of creating a shared purpose and vision contributes to a sense of shared ownership and mutual accountability—a deep sense of responsibility to each other based on understanding their interdependence in reaching the shared vision—between teachers, students, parents and the community. District leaders offer several ways that engaging the community in creating a shared vision lays the groundwork for change.

  • Contributing Valuable Perspectives. Members of the community will create a richer conversation by bringing to the table ideas, values and perspectives that educators might not necessarily have thought to include.
  • Re-Building Respect and Trust. Community engagement can help overcome mistrust and build the mutual respect that is needed to create a culture of learning. In many districts, there are segments of the community that have either had bad experiences in school or have historically been underserved and disrespected by school systems. Districts must create a space for people to talk about what they want for their children and have honest conversations about the current academic achievement levels and graduation rates.
  • Nurturing Consensus and Leadership. Communities need to be given time to understand the new approach and why it is important. The greater the number of people in the community who are knowledgeable about the why and how schools need to improve, the more they can help others to understand.
  • Sustaining Change. Community engagement is an essential ingredient for staying the course when unanticipated consequences of implementation arise and when district leadership changes.

Engaging communities in creating a shared vision and purpose is always shaped by the context. Leaders and teachers will want to find ways to recognize and address historical disenfranchisement. To not do so sends signals that educational leadership doesn’t care or doesn’t respect communities enough to understand their experiences. Individuals and communities who have experienced exclusion, who have felt that their education system was not designed for them, may not leap to participate in education systems in the ways described here. Historical mistrust will need to be navigated and intentional efforts to build or rebuild trust be consistently demonstrated. Districts and schools cannot simply call for active participation from community, they must work to engage those who have been historically and systemically left out.

New Definitions of Student Success

As communities, districts and schools clarify the purpose of school they tend to focus on preparing students for college, careers, civic participation and to be lifelong learners. New definitions of student success usually include three types of expectations, although they may use different terminology to capture them: academic knowledge, transferable skills and the skills and traits to be independent lifelong learners. New Definitions of Student Success (below) provides a detailed explanation of each of these expectations.

Academic Knowledge, often referred to as content, are the set of facts, concepts and processes used in the domains students are expected to learn in school, including but not limited to mathematics, English language and literacy, natural sciences, social sciences, the arts and technical subjects. State, district and school policy define the domains and expectations for performance that students are expected to learn in school.

Transferable Skills are the adaptive expertise and abilities that enable people to effectively perform roles, complete complex tasks, or achieve specific objectives. Successful young adults have sets of competencies (e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration) that allow them to be productive and engaged, navigate across contexts, perform effectively in different settings and apply knowledge to different tasks. Some or all of these skills or competencies may be referred to as transferable skills, higher-order skills or 21st century skills.

Lifelong Learning Skills that prepare students to be independent learners are based on the Building Blocks for Learning including healthy development, social and emotional skills, mindsets, perseverance and independence. Related terms are intrapersonal skills, student agency or non-cognitive skills.

Source: Building Blocks for Learning from Turnaround USA. Reproduced with permission.

Districts and schools use this purpose statement, often referred to as a graduate profile, as the North Star when designing schools and systems. The hope is to redesign schools so that all aspects of learning environments and learning experiences align to help students develop the building blocks of learning and the higher order skills that let them apply academic knowledge and skills to real-world problems.

How Purpose Drives Instruction

After communities align around a shared purpose around a definition of student success, they commit to ensuring that all students—each and every student—can achieve this goal. Truly aspirational, this commitment to equity is the turning point for the shift from the traditional model to a personalized, competency-based one. When they make this commitment, districts and schools recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work: they will want to customize learning to meet students where they are academically, emotionally and developmentally. Structural and pedagogical approaches will be required that can provide each student with the right supports at the right time, all the while emphasizing each student’s personal agency and responsibility to drive their own learning.  All decisions about culture, structure and pedagogy originate from this commitment to ensuring all students can achieve newly defined high standards for success.

Academic standards are essential for clarifying the academic knowledge and skills students need to pursue postsecondary education and training. However, they do not offer guidance on what it will take to get students there. For that, competency-based schools turn to the research on the science of learning that students are active learners and that learning is a complex interplay between cognitive and psychological aspects of the learner. The demand for students to become independent learners requires that students learn to learn. They do so by developing the “building blocks of learning” including a growth mindset, self-regulation, social and emotional skills, metacognition and perseverance. These skills are often bundled together under terms such as student agency or self-determination. When students have the skills to take ownership, the dynamics of the classroom change: teachers are able to provide more intensive instruction
to small groups and individuals.

Rather than developing compliant, obedient students, competency-based systems are designed with the assumption that students will be active learners as informed by the learning sciences. For this to work in practice—for students to take ownership of their learning—they must be motivated and engaged to do so. To this end, competency-based systems nurture cultures and strategies that motivate and engage students by fostering connections and relevance. They connect learning to individuals’ sense of purpose and passion to help students envision possible future selves, and they validate individuals’ personal and cultural identities so that learning and professional environments are relevant. In all these ways, competency-based systems cultivate a culture of connection and relevance so that students can participate as active agents in their learning.

To ensure each and every student is successful, districts and schools reject the weak proxy of seat-time for learning. Instead they turn to the concept of advancement upon demonstrated mastery. This requires transparency of a learning framework and where students are in their learning. Learning becomes customized to meet students where they are. Instruction, assessment and learning experiences are organized to maximize student effort by engaging them as active learners and paying attention to the role of their emotions and motivation. Schools become more responsive to ensure students receive timely, differentiated supports. Finally, consistency in credentialing learning is needed so that variability is minimized and students are no longer passed on without the skills they need for more advanced studies.

Finally, it is important to note that altering the vision for student success will have implications for teachers as well. Changing outcomes for students changes the role of the teacher: they must be empowered and must have autonomy to be more responsive to students. Districts and schools utilize distributed leadership strategies that enable those closest to students to develop the best solutions. Teachers will need new types of support and opportunities for growth: to change their instructional practices, to change classroom culture and management practices, to confront and address their own biases and to learn to form deep relationships with each and every student. They develop their knowledge, skills and professional judgment through personalized and collaborative professional learning rooted in inquiry.

How does a shared purpose relate to quality? If purpose includes competencies we know students will need for success after high school, aligned schools promote rigorous deeper learning that continually build these knowledge and skills. If purpose is developed to include the goals and values of communities and families, stakeholders share accountability for every student’s success. If purpose is truly shared and culturally relevant, then diverse stakeholders can collaborate and persist through the inevitable challenges of transitioning to a competency-based model. In these ways, becoming purpose driven is the first step in creating a personalized, competency-based system.

Policies and Practices to Look For

Shared vision, a graduate profile and guiding principles used for decision-making are developed through a community engagement process.

  • Staff can explain the rationale and connections between instruction; learning experiences; assessments; and meaningful career, college and life competencies.
  • The definition of student success drives how student progress is measured and monitored. Multiple ways of measurement are used including quantitative and qualitative data. Assessments include demonstrations, portfolios, and capstone projects.
  • Proactive, culturally relevant strategies are used for engaging stakeholders with a focus on including marginalized voices.
  • Educators have ongoing conversations about alignment and continuous improvement in the context of the shared purpose and vision.
  • District organization has been redesigned to support mission, strategies and support to schools. Districts and schools have revisited structure and job descriptions and human resource policies—including evaluation—to reflect values, mission and strategies.

Examples of Red Flags

Superintendent defines the vision. In many cases, superintendents as the leaders of a district set the vision for the school system. Although that vision might be just what the community would have intended, it nevertheless creates challenges in sustainability with the departure of one superintendent and the arrival of the next with a different vision. In addition, the process of setting (and revisiting) a shared vision created with community, parents and students establishes a foundation of trust that is needed for mutual accountability. The process of community engagement in setting the vision can also be very useful in the stages of early implementation when there may be bumps and mid-course corrections.

The transition to competency-based education is driven by compliance, not a student-centered purpose. In many cases districts and schools turn to competency-based education because they have realized that the traditional model is flawed and limits the ability to serve all students well. They turn to personalized, competency-based education because they believe that students will achieve at much higher levels by drawing on the learning sciences, customizing learning and ensuring students actually learn rather than passing them. However, there are some cases, especially in states that have boldly set the direction toward transforming their education systems, where the late adopters are changing in response to state policy rather than because it is good for students. These districts may put into place a few practices or focus solely on the technical changes without changing culture or pedagogy. For these districts, it may be valuable to take a step back and engage in an inquiry-based study about the research on learning and to what degree their policies, culture and instruction align.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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