Quality Design Principle #13: Invest in Educators as Learners

“Sure, we could make it easier for teachers, but then our students don’t succeed. The other option is to admit that teaching is a complex system, invest in the systems, nurture the culture to support professional teachers…and have the kids actually learn. It’s obvious which one is the better choice.”

– Jed Palmer, Head Teacher, Tatitlek Community School, Chugach School District, AK, 2015


Educators, both teachers and leaders, are active learners who have regular opportunities to engage with colleagues to deepen their knowledge and skill. Educators progress on a personalized learning trajectory as they build instructional strategies to support higher-order skills and student agency, personalized classroom management and deeper domain-specific instructional strategies. Adult learning is driven by student needs, which are used to define school- or district-wide improvement goals, as well as personalized goals for every educator. Districts and schools put in place the systems for educators to be supported in developing the mindsets and skills consistent with a culture of learning and inclusivity including addressing bias.

Key Characteristics

  • Shared definition of professional competency. Districts and schools articulate shared definitions of professional competence: the knowledge, skills and mindsets that educators need to support student success in a competency-based system.
  • Teaching as learning. Educators model growth mindset and continuous improvement in their practice. They take risks, learn through failure and reflect with their students.
  • Personalized development. Educators have access to opportunities for growth and learning that meet their individual needs and help them achieve professional goals.
  • Collaborative practice. Educators have opportunities to work together: they collaborate around instructional design and continuous improvement practice. Educators share responsibility for student success and for one another’s development.
  • Cultural competency. Districts and schools support educators through the processes of investigating their own racial and cultural identities, identifying and addressing bias and developing skill sets for culturally responsive relationship and instruction.
  • Aligned evaluation. Educator evaluation is aligned with culture of competency-based education and the pedagogical philosophy. This includes meeting teachers where they are, feedback and supports in response to mistakes and incentives for growth.

How Is Investing in Adult Mindsets, Knowledge and Skills Related to Quality?

The importance of the principle that educators need to be supported as learners is very simple: for each and every student to learn to high expectations, each and every adult needs time and support to build their professional competency. There will be some teachers already familiar with many of the practices used in personalized, competency-based school. For others, competency education will demand learning new mindsets, new knowledge and new skills. Adult learning reflects the same beliefs about learning that are held for students: it is based upon the learning sciences and seeks to meet teachers where they are.

As a result, districts and schools will want to have frameworks for effective professional practice and offer meaningful opportunities for personal development accordingly. For those districts that begin by clarifying the principles of teaching and learning upfront, it is simply a next step to then define the necessary competencies. For those districts and schools that begin with structural changes and then discover their pedagogical principles through the process of alignment, it will be more likely an ongoing process of refinement.

Professional Practice and Educator Competencies

In Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Jobs for the Future provide a helpful overview of the landscape of what teachers need to know and be able to do. This figure introduces the four domains with the competencies listed below.

Cognitive Domain/Need to Know: the academic content and knowledge of brain and human development that personalized, learner-centered educators need to know to foster students’ cognitive and metacognitive development.

  • Utilize in-depth understanding of content and learning progressions to engage learners and lead individual learners toward mastery.
  • Have knowledge of the sub-skills involved in effective communication and apply it to instructional strategies that develop learners into effective.
  • Communicators understand and employ techniques for developing students’ skills of metacognition, self-regulation and perseverance.

Intrapersonal Domain/Need to Process: the set of “internal” skills and habits of mind that personalized, learner-centered educators need to process, such as a growth mindset, high expectations for students and inquiry-based approaches to the teaching profession.

  • Convey a dedication to all learners—especially those historically marginalized and/or least served by public higher education—reaching college, career and civic readiness.
  • Demonstrate an orientation toward and commitment to a personalized, learner-centered vision for teaching and learning.
  • Engage in deliberate practices of adapting and modeling persistence and a growth mindset.
  • Facilitate and prioritize shifting to and maintaining a learner-centered culture.
  • Demonstrate an orientation toward and commitment to lifelong professional learning.
  • Analyze evidence to improve personal practices.

Interpersonal Domain/Need to Relate: the social, personal, and leadership skills educators need to relate with students, colleagues, and the greater community, particularly in multicultural, inclusive and linguistically diverse classrooms.

  • Design, strengthen and participate in positive learning environments (i.e., school and classroom culture) that support individual and collaborative learning.
  • Build strong relationships that contribute to individual and collective success.
  • Contribute to college and career access and success for all learners, particularly those historically marginalized and/or least served by public higher education due to differences in background, demographics, learning style, or culture.
  • Seek appropriate individual or shared leadership roles to continue professional growth, advancement, and increasing responsibility for student learning and advancement.

Instructional Domain/Need to Do: the pedagogical techniques that educators use—what they need to do—to sustain a personalized, learner-centered environment for all students.

  • Use a mastery approach to learning.
  • Use assessment and data as tools for learning.
  • Customize the learning experience.
  • Promote student agency and ownership with regard to learning.
  • Provide opportunities for anytime/anywhere and real-world learning tied to learning objectives and standards.
  • Develop and facilitate project-based learning experiences.
  • Use collaborative group work.
  • Use technology in service of learning.

Districts and schools will set priorities for building capacity based on what they have already put into place, their roll-out strategies, and  what is most important to respond to their student population. Many start with introduction of classroom management practices that create a culture of learning and student ownership of their learning. Some schools prioritize laying a foundation of the growth mindset and building capacity around social and emotional learning. Others with a strong focus on equity have emphasized introducing cultural responsiveness and building the capacity to challenge bias as a critical step in improving instruction and enhancing the culture of inclusivity. Teachers may well have many of these competencies developed in their years in the classroom. Some may be new to them or their school. It is unlikely any teacher is going to become an expert in all of these areas quickly. Thus, schools may want to begin to think of assessing and investing in collective organizational expertise with the assumption that teachers will draw from each other’s knowledge as needed.

Inquiry-Based and Personalized Professional Learning

In a competency-based system, educators model the process of learning for students as they engage in their own development. While districts and schools will develop different approaches to professional learning based on their own contexts, they share certain attributes. Professional learning is inquiry-based and collaborative, as professional learning communities study data and student work to deepen understanding of student learning and adjust practice. Professional learning is personalized so that each teacher can build their skills in the context of their own practice. And, professional learning is growth-oriented; it expects and even encourages learning from failure.

Development, Growth, and Evaluation

Most districts and schools find themselves on a journey of intense learning and discovery in the first years of converting to competency-based education. Teachers frequently reflect that their first year in a competency-based context was their hardest year of teaching and their most meaningful. Because these shifts can be so monumental and challenging, it is important to view growth developmentally. Dramatic changes to professional practice will not happen overnight. These changes are likely to require corresponding changes in beliefs, assumptions and mindsets for some teachers. Changing beliefs will require dialogue and opportunities to test assumptions. Some teachers will have a harder time than others when asked to let go of the idea that talent alone determines achievement (i.e. a fixed mindset) and from their experiences in traditional school.

Professional growth happens optimally when evaluation, incentives and reward structures are aligned with the purpose, values and culture of competency-based education. It is harder for teachers to fully commit and put forth the effort to try new practices in their classrooms when they worry that they will be penalized for it in evaluations. Thus, leaders will want to align evaluation, pay, and have other structures to reinforce the growth mindset in which failures are anticipated and taken advantage of to further learning.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Teachers are supported in building the necessary knowledge and skills well before the new knowledge and skills are integrated into high-stakes professional evaluations.
  • There are frequent opportunities for educators to meet, plan and learn together. Professional learning communities are valued, resourced and nurtured.
  • Teachers have opportunities to collaboratively pilot new approaches.
  • Student data and student work is used to inform professional learning.
  • Teachers support each other in identifying and eliminating bias and inequitable practices. Leadership is responsive when teachers bring forward examples of inequitable systemic policies and practices.
  • Educators are supported in their learning and taking risks at a level they feel comfortable. For some, this means jumping into personalized classroom management, and for others it means trying one new practice at a time.
  • Professional development has been personalized so that educators are accessing coaching and training based on their prior knowledge and goals for improving instructional skills.
  • Teachers are able to explain what they are learning and what it took for them to learn new knowledge, skills and practices.

Examples of Red Flags

Introducing personalized, competency-based education without time for educators to meet, learn or plan together. Too many times, schools start down the path toward competency-based education without first laying the groundwork for educators to become learners. Schools need to create schedules that have adequate time for teachers to plan, collaborate, review student data and learn. Robust professional learning communities or similar structures are a non-negotiable.

Integrating new knowledge and skills into teacher evaluation systems without providing opportunities for personalized growth. With the impetus to fully align structures, districts may begin to revise the teacher evaluation system too soon. Teachers may not feel comfortable taking risks to learn new practices if they believe it will have consequences if they fail. It is important to sequence building a system of support to teachers to build the new knowledge and skills well before the day they are evaluated. More advanced competency-based districts find they need to rethink teacher evaluation to be consistent with the organizational culture and guiding beliefs about learning and motivation. There are likely to be inconsistencies between the values and beliefs undergirding the personalized, competency-based approach and those informing the state teacher evaluation systems and state professional teaching standards. These are opportunities for the school community to recommit to the shared purpose as well as engage state leadership in understanding ways they can create policies that are fit for the purpose of ensuring every student successfully reaches readiness for college, career and life.

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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