Helping Students Advance At Their Own Pace

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

This came across my feed the other day. It’s a great example of why it is so important to have people who understand BOTH teaching AND technology.

Finding the Most Creative Ways to Help Students Advance At Their Own Pace | MindShift | KQED News.

In 2005, New Hampshire’s Department of Education set a policy requiring schools to implement a competency-based system, but didn’t define the specific skills each school would be expected to master.

This is a great argument for state (or in my case province) wide curricula. The Canadian system has flaws, of course, but it’s better than a free-for-all.

“There wasn’t any training nor was there funding for it,” said Ryan Kaplan, Principal of Windham High School in New Hampshire.” Every school had to figure it out on their own.”


The question of student pace — the main feature of a competency-based system — has not been the most important to Windham teachers and administrators. Instead, the school staff has worked hard to integrate technology effectively into its curriculum.

Here’s a problem: integrating tech and developing a competency-based system need to be done TOGETHER. It’s not iPads/computers first, THEN figuring out how to switch from drill and kill to a competency-based system. Technology is a TOOL, not an “innovation”. It’s what you use TO INNOVATE, not the innovation itself.

“How do you do it with 30 students in a classroom. What does it look like and how does it work?”

OOOOH! I know! I’ve been doing it in classes that range in size from 6 to over 250, and using technology is absolutely an important part of that. However, the KEY is that I understand the technology – I know what it’s capable of because I know how it works Blind_men_and_elephantThis is REALLY important. Without that, all you see is the outside. It’s like the blind men and the elephant. In order to really be able to SEE, you need to understand the beast. Most teachers, through no fault of their own, don’t. Unfortunately, most faculty in Education, ALSO DON’T, and this is a serious problem. Sure, they may be whizzes with their Apple devices, and they may be really competent USERs of technology, but the vast majority of them don’t actually understand how any of it really works. Therefor, they can’t possibly teach their students (who will become teachers).

Bernasconi is skeptical of allowing each student to move at his own pace through content, worrying that a system like that will lose its rigor. She teaches some units in a mastery-based style, but only chooses topics that lend themselves to a clear leveling-up of knowledge, like genetics.

See, here again, it takes someone who understands BOTH education AND technology. I’ve been doing this in my classes, and I’ve talked about it here, and here (search the tag gamification on my blog for more).

“How can I be effective and an excellent teacher when I’m trying to teach everything at once?” Bernasconi said. She teaches from a student-driven inquiry standpoint and can’t imagine helping students moving at 12 different paces. As it is, she helps students interpret the driving question in an assignment, facilitates lab experiences, manages lab material and acts as a resource to students throughout the day. She doesn’t see all that being possible if students are all in different phases of the process.

Part of the problem is that this whole “student-driven inquiry” thing needs work. I don’t think we’re doing it right.

“I think that where folks struggle with it is the infrastructure for it,” Bernasconi said. “How do you do it with 30 students in a classroom. What does it look like and how does it work?” In her genetics unit when she gives up some control over pacing, technology has been very helpful. She has a YouTube channel with video podcast lessons that students can check when they need help. But she’s skeptical of relinquishing her class to technology entirely.

See? It’s NOT about relinquishing control to technology, it’s about gaining control of technology so it allows you to do the things you want to do. In order to make that work, you need to understand the technology.

“I get nervous about taking the human element completely out of it,” Bernasconi said. “A discussion in my class is really powerful. It’s interactive; the students are asking questions; they’re challenging each other’s thinking.” If students were moving at completely different paces it would be harder to leverage that community element of learning, she said.

The thing is, they’re NOT going to be moving at completely different paces. That’s part of the problem with the way educational “innovations” are implemented: people seem to think it’s always all or nothing. New Math? Great! Let’s change everything to that? Whole word reading? Let’s throw out grammar and phonics! The thing is, nothing works for all learners, in all situations, and all the time (Mann, 2001, p. 241).

“To give over control of your classroom to your students, to trust them to learn and use the tools and the environment you’ve created — it’s terrifying,” Bernasconi said. “And the first time I did it I had no idea what I would get back. I was blown away by what students produced.”

News flash: You never actually had control of your classroom. It’s a myth. Don’t mistake disengagement for compliance.


The innovative teaching practices that Bernasconi and her colleagues exhibit, coupled with good test scores (top five in the state) and high achieving students haven’t inspired Windham’s teachers or parents to care much about moving towards the time-flexible education system that competency-based models offer.

“You are fighting against learned behaviors,” Kaplan said. “We have learned a traditional system that we’ve been using for 100 years.” Parents and taxpayers don’t see why that system should change. In fact, they see competency-based education as an intervention for low-performing districts, not for them.

“We have teachers doing incredibly innovative things, but using a more traditional way of assessing it,” Kaplan said. “We don’t have a system where you have to pass every competency in the course.” Students can still average out to a passing grade and advance to the next level, even with holes in their knowledge. It’s that exact scenario that competency-based learning is meant to prevent.

“In a true competency system you would need to pass everything and there would be no social promotion,” Kaplan said. “It’s where I feel we need to go. It’s happening, but slowly.” Without the support of teachers, parents and district leadership, and operating as a first-year principal, there’s not a lot Kaplan can do to push the agenda forward more quickly.


Kaplan feels better about the lack of progress Windham has made towards a more authentic competency-based system when he thinks about Campbell High School. The school opened 14 years ago with the intention of being entirely competency-based, long before there were state laws requiring schools to take that route.

“In a true competency based system — and we opened with it — you did not have a letter grade,” said Dennis Perreault, a veteran social studies teacher at Campbell. “You were either advanced, proficient or NC (not demonstrating competent).” In less than a year local education officials told Campbell to get rid of that system and adopt a traditional A-F grading system.

“What was kept is if you don’t pass a competency, you don’t pass the course,” Perreault said. Similar to Windham, each department has its own set of competencies. For social studies they are fairly broad: Comprehension, analysis, evaluation, research and writing for the social sciences.

“I think we’re doing a lot of what we set out to do, but we’re just not doing it in the manner that we thought we would be doing it,” Perreault said. For example, the school has a policy that all students can retake any assessment that is part of their grade in recognition that each student learns differently. Perreault is comfortable with the middle path the community decided on because at its essence he thinks it allows for personalization.

Yes. THIS. See? It CAN mesh with a traditional system.

Bethany Bernasconi agrees. “There’s great danger in a good initiative that’s not done well,” she said.



It’s an interesting read – worth reading the whole article.

Mann, D. (2001). Documenting the Effects of Instructional Technology, A Fly-Over of Policy Questions. In W. F. Heineke & L. Blasi (Eds.), Research methods for educational technology ; v. 1: Methods of evaluating educational technology (Vol. 1, pp. 239-249). Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Pub.

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