Districts around the country are moving away from teaching models based on lectures and textbooks—but transition isn’t always simple. Creating a competency-based or mastery-based environment requires re-thinking everything, including teaching methods, assessments, and how to best prepare students for life after school. Both Kankakee Public Schools in Illinois and Naugatuck Public Schools in Connecticut are making the shift to competency-based learning, and have had their share of challenges along the way. Here, administrators from the two districts chart their journey and reflect on the importance that project-based learning (PBL) has in preparing students for college and careers.

Caroline Messenger, director of curriculum at Naugatuck Public Schools

As the director of curriculum, I help students answer the age-old question, “Why do I need to know this?” A few years ago, this question inspired me to begin exploring a route for K–4 and 5th- and 6th-grade students that would allow us to stray from the traditional model of lecture and testing. Rather than focusing on traditional curricula, we transitioned to a mastery-based learning model. Competency Works defines this type of learning model as “designed to ensure students are becoming proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery.” Districtwide, we now focus our teaching and learning on the competencies we expect our students to achieve.

Two districts discuss their transition to competency-based learning

As part of this transition, we are making PBL a larger part of our curricula through more student-driven learning experiences. Teaching real-world skills in authentic situations has become the root of what makes a lasting impact on student learning. By allowing our teachers to take a step back, we put the students in charge of their own learning so they can discover for themselves the reason why certain knowledge and skills are relevant to them.

We knew that building a mastery-based curriculum from scratch would be a long process, so we use supplementary tools and programs like Defined STEM that support our curriculum, to provide teachers and students with the resources they need to show what they know and complement the learning experiences and tasks in the curricula. When we move the spotlight to shine on student growth and how PBL encourages examining that growth, teachers can offer more timely feedback, deliver more targeted instruction, and assist students as they explore concepts and ideas.

About the Author:

Caroline Messenger is director of curriculum at Naugatuck Public Schools in Conn.

Felice Hybert is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Kankakee School District in Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Find8Fences.


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