The Case for Competency
It’s that time of year when seniors look forward to a final summer of freedom before heading off to college. It’s just past their fingertips, almost able to be grasped, and yet still elusive. They are hit with a tidal wave of final questions and decisions (Did I choose the right college for me? What will I wear to graduation? Will I pass my AP test? Did I order a yearbook?), and one final looming hurdle: Senior Project.
Sugar Bowl Academy’s Senior Project program is designed as the culminating academic experience at Sugar Bowl Academy. Seniors individually develop a research topic focus, create an essential question and lens through which to view their research, and learn many of the skills they will certainly lean on in college (outlining, annotated bibliography, presenting, connecting with unfamiliar adults, conducting research, proving their ability to support a thesis, and persistence). This project has become a rite of passage for our students and something our staff has cited as evidence during our NAIS accreditation that our students are ready to move on from the comfort of our bubble. This is not to say that every project is perfectly executed in all aspects. Rather, it is that despite the mishaps along the way, learning and dedication has come to a final public exhibition of skills and knowledge - proof that they are ready to pick up the collegiate mantel and carry on.
Ted Sizer, Founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and Professor Emeritus at Brown, was the brain behind the Senior Project exhibition experience. An educational guru dedicated to reforming schools and putting students at the heart of their own learning, Sizer saw the homogenized design of schooling in America, modeled after the factory system formed during the industrial revolution, as obsolete – a model that fracture thinking in an artificial manner (Okay for these 45 minutes you are to think only about Science – don’t connected it to anything else). He rightly saw this as a means to crushed out imagination, negate connection in the real world, and demand uniformity in thought in exchange for a desired GPA or letter grade that does little to show understanding of content or skill (What’s an 87% anyway? What does it mean to know B+ amount of the stuff you are supposed to learn?). Sizer asserted, “The first object of any act of learning, over and beyond the pleasure it may give, is that it should serve us in the future. Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily.” Enter the call from educators and think tanks around the United States calling for “21st Century Skills” as emphasized through No Child Left Behind and Common Core Standards. Who wouldn’t support a call to make schools “better,” our children “smarter”? Unfortunately, somewhere along the line of improvement, rather than increasing levels of learning, schools have shifted to proving that their students test well and lost the push for what matters most: curiosity and growth.
The more recent movement toward competency-based learning is something Sizer would have celebrated. In the article “Understanding Competency Based Education” by Strategy Lab, the writer explains “Competency-based education is an approach to designing academic programs with a focus on competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities) rather than time spent in a classroom.” This idea hits two-fold in Sugar Bowl Academy’s Senior Project program. For students who travel the most out of any in the school (limited seat time), the Senior Project experience aims at pushing kids to develop and demonstrate that they have reached competency in skills. Students at SBA are asked through the Senior Project to write, present, and prove they have grown and to ultimately teach their community. When a student stands up to deliver her final presentation, no rubric is needed to see the learning and growth that has taken place over a year’s inquiry, though they are there. The pride and depth of self-satisfaction is evident on each student. As Sizer notes, “Inspiration, hunger: these are the qualities that drive good schools. The best we educational planners can do is to create the most likely conditions for them to flourish, and then get out of their way.” This seniors, is your hurdle jumped. Bravo.