Quality Design Principle #8: Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills

“What is honors? We realized that it wasn’t more work, or faster. It was deeper learning, something all students should have access to.”

– Jennifer Gay, Personalized Learning Project Manager, Luella High School, Henry County School District, GA, 2016


Competency-based education supports students to not only learn academic content, but also to apply it in different contexts. Through application or engagement in deeper learning students develop higher-order skills often referred to as transferable skills. These skills include evaluation, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity and communication. Instruction, learning experiences and assessment, including performance-based assessments, are aligned so that all students can experience deeper learning by applying their learning in the classroom and in the community.

Key Characteristics

  • Definition of student success. Definitions of success include academic knowledge, transferable skills, and lifelong learning skills. They explicitly value the higher-level skills students will need to be successful.
  • Application and transfer. Students engage in higher-level thinking by applying knowledge and skills to challenging, interdisciplinary contexts and problems.
  • Reflection and revision. Not only do students apply and demonstrate knowledge in meaningful ways, they also have opportunities to use assessment as part of the learning process. Feedback and data is used to improve their performance and deepen their understanding.
  • Performance-based. Students demonstrate mastery by showing what they know by submitting evidence of transferring knowledge and skills, participating in performance tasks or through performance-based assessment.
  • Productive struggle. Learning experiences encourage and support students to experience productive struggle as they engage with cognitively challenging work within their zones of proximal development and to experience failure as a necessary part of learning.
  • Moderation and calibration. Processes are in place for teachers to build shared understanding of higher order skills and consistency in grading to improve the reliability of their decisions about student learning so that students are not passed on with gaps in knowledge or skills.

How Is Designing for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills Related to Quality?

The concept of competency is the capacity to transfer knowledge to new contexts. Competency-based systems raise the bar in two ways: they expand the definition of student success to include higher-order skills needed to transfer knowledge and they expect that all students will meet this bar. Thus, districts and schools need to design systems of learning and assessment that ensure all students have opportunities to experience and demonstrate rigorous deeper learning.

Traditional districts and schools were organized around the assumption that intelligence was fixed, and that students should therefore be ranked and sorted to determine who was “college material.” In these systems, only students in honors or advanced courses had access to rigorous learning, while other students—usually those students who had been historically underserved—were only expected to memorize and comprehend. By contrast, competency-based education systems ensure all students have opportunities for building higher-order skills and inquiry-based learning.

While deeper learning is not tied to any one instructional model or pedagogy, it can be seen in high-quality applied learning such as capstone projects, inquiry-based, project-based, problem-based, expeditionary learning, and extended learning in the community, among others. These types of learning experiences are interdisciplinary and required students to select and develop the appropriate mix of knowledge and skills to use. Teachers find that collaborative design processes are helpful for creating robust applied learning experiences as so many instructional aspects need to be integrated. For example, teachers will want to draw on culturally responsive education strategies in recognition that how students demonstrate higher-order skills may be influenced by culture and intergroup dynamics. Districts and schools will want to ensure that capacity is developed for performance-based assessments so that teachers have a moderated understanding of proficiency in higher-order skills. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that there are no barriers to deeper learning, such as course placement prerequisites.

To promote rigor for all, districts and schools usually need to consider the number of strategic design questions. What social, emotional and noncognitive supports will students need to engage and persist at higher levels of learning? How will schedules promote deeper learning? How many community partnerships are needed to create authentic problems to be solved and opportunities for internships? How might teachers scaffold problem-solving? How can teachers balance deeper learning and meeting students where they are with the very real pressure to accelerate learning for the students who are the farthest behind? How can teachers build their capacity to support performance-based assessment? What mechanisms for moderation and calibration exist so that teachers have shared understanding and grading practices for assessing higher-order skills?

Without strategic design, setting this doubly high bar for student success is merely aspirational: there is little reason to believe that all students will meet a higher bar of competency if we have not designed for the edges. Gaps in knowledge will need to be repaired and learning experiences designed to ensure all students engage in rigorous higher-order learning at every step along their educational path.

Furthermore, this high bar cannot be met without attention to equity. Rigorous deeper learning isn’t something that is made available to students after they are proficient. If the definition of student success is academic knowledge and the expertise to apply it, then all students have to have the opportunity to build higher-order skills through rigorous deeper learning regardless of their proficiency level. Many schools set a level 3 to indicate proficiency and a level 4 to indicate deeper learning or honors level work. When this happens, students who are performing below their grade level are pressured to “move on” when reaching proficiency in an effort to “catch up” to grade-level standards. The result is that they never have the opportunity for extending their learning or engaging in deeper learning.

To prevent this situation from occurring, deeper learning can be embedded into the design of all learning experiences through core instructional strategies, intersessions, capstone projects or extended learning in the community. Some schools do this by including performance-based assessment or performance tasks that let students demonstrate their learning in ways other than quizzes and tests, which tend to emphasize lower levels of depth of knowledge. In this way all students, no matter their performance levels, can have the opportunity for learning how to apply skills.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Students are involved in at least one meaningful project that makes connections to the real-world.
  • All students, including those who are learning at levels below their age-based grade, have opportunities to apply knowledge and skills.
  • The schedule and calendar have been aligned to ensure students can receive extra help, participate in deeper learning such as project-based learning and take advantage of extended learning opportunities.
  • Teachers have time each week for planning, learning, collaboration, as well as professional learning opportunities, to build their capacity in instruction and assessment for higher-order skill development.
  • Performance tasks and performance-based assessments are used to ensure students are building higher-order skills.
  • Moderation and calibration processes are in place to ensure consistency in credentialing higher-order skills.
  • There is a school-wide strategy for helping students understand graduation-ready competencies and an opportunity to work on cross-cutting, transferable skills in multiple classes so students can see how they differ within different domains.

Examples of Red Flags

The graduate profile includes world-class skills or transferrable skills but students advance based on multiple choice assessments or other forms of tests for comprehension and analysis. The traditional system has emphasized the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy—memorization and comprehension. Assessment strategies that deem students proficient based on 80 percent pass rates, often embedded into digital instructional software, may result in reinforcing lower expectations. Students are passed on with potential gaps in knowledge and without the expectation or opportunity to apply and transfer skills. As districts are guided by the beliefs and principles about teaching and learning, many find themselves turning to performance tasks and performance-based assessments to help lift their instruction from the knowledge levels of recall and comprehension toward analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

School schedules are still based on 50-minute classes. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning all require time for deeper discussion and exploration. Students need blocks of time for collaboration, creating and innovating. More developed competency-based schools create schedules to support deeper learning including block schedules, inter-sessions for project-based or work-based learning and flexible opportunities to pursue research and inquiries.

Students can only do projects, community-based learning or elective learning when they have reached proficiency. Students who are behind grade level have to move on when they meet proficiency rather than go deep. Understandably, many teachers feel that this is the best way to help students who are behind; with all the best intentions, teachers rush their struggling students along. But there are problems with this approach. First, students who are the farthest behind are often the same students who are the most disengaged. When these students do not have the chance to go deep into something that intrigues them, they are less likely to persist. Second, a student who pushes forward to grade level but never has time to apply their learning in meaningful ways will only have demonstrated academic content knowledge, not deeper learning. They may have become proficient in the academic knowledge but not in the higher-order skills needed to use that knowledge. While it may look and feel (according to standardized assessments) like this student has closed the gap, there will still be a “deeper learning gap.” In other words, students who entered the education system more privileged will still leave the system more privileged if they are the only ones who get to experience deeper learning.

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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