A Parent’s Guide to Proficiency Based Learning
The core premise of proficiency based learning is quite simple:
“Schools teach students the most important skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in life and make sure students have learned them.”
While schools aspire to this goal, what you might not realize is that many of traditions, systems, and structures of education get in the way. Three examples of these are the Carnegie Unit, 100 point scale grading and age grouping.
The Carnegie unit was established in the late 19th century as a way to standardize college learning. Its adoption was based more to do with professors retirement pensions than what was best for students. In a Carnegie Unit, students learn as much as they can in a fixed unit of time, time is a constant and learning is variable.The Carnegie Foundation itself conducted a study to “consider how a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning in high schools, colleges and universities.”
In Proficiency Based Learning, learning is the constant and time is the variable. A school identifies what skills and knowledge are important, and then structures teaching and learning so that all students gain them regardless of how long it takes.
The A, B, C and GPA that we know of traditional grading began around 1900 and has remained relatively unchanged since then. Most people don’t question it too much, it was probably the same way as they were graded at school, and their parents. But more and more, the research of learning and the brain has shown that it is not a very effective way to help students learn. Consider that a student might have grades of 85, 82, 90 and 0. They were late to class several times, handed last week’s homework in late and had mixed participation in class. Try as they might, as they average all these factors together, different teachers will come up with different “grades”. Particularly in high school, a student’s grade often does not reflect what they learned or can do.
In Proficiency Based Learning, the teacher describes what it looks like when a student has mastered a skill or learned a concept, and then provides direct and focussed feedback on the student’s current performance and what they need to do to get better. This approach, in fact, mirrors what happens in the “real world”. Athletes and musicians get feedback on their performance, a surgeon would get specific feedback on their technique, to pass a driving test, you can drive, or you can’t.
Again, for a hundred years students have been grouped by age in schools. They all get taught the same thing, in the same way, and have the get the same result (the correct) answer on the test. Most people probably realize this “factory” idea of education might not be the best way to teach our children, but like these other traditions of education, it continues relatively unquestioned.
Proficiency Based Learning offers an opportunity to organize learning by what is best for the student rather than what is most efficient. Through flexibility and personalization, it can help students become more engaged in their learning. Teachers define a standard and proficiency and students can demonstrate that they have mastered it in different ways. This can expand the possibilities for learning beyond the classroom, to external courses, internships, travel and more.
The first part of our definition, while not solely unique to Proficiency Based Learning, is important in the opportunity it provides, “the most important skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in life”. The factory model of schools has been one that has focused more on the acquisition of knowledge. Through seat time, “credits” of content, tests and quizzes, learning has often been about knowing more and more.
While knowledge remains important, at no other time has there been such a tension between what high schools produce, and what college and career will demand of our children. Today’s world is less about the retention of information than the analysis of it. Called “21st Century Skills”, or “Transferable Skills”, there is a growing recognition that in a world that changes faster and faster, graduates need the skills and habits of communication, flexibility, problem-solving, innovation and collaboration, among many others. The U.S. Department of Labor summed this up by stating “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created”. This means we need to consider carefully what skills, habits and knowledge graduates need to be prepared with when we cannot really say what exactly they are being prepared for.
Proficiency Based Learning offers an opportunity for schools to “reset” the vision of their graduates to better match the next century rather than the last. It will help them better align teaching, learning and the structures of schools to achieve that vision.
These refinements in teaching and learning are not a sudden change or fad. The reality is that for two decades schools have been evolving in all of these areas. Teaching for understanding, scaffolding, performance tasks, learning pathways, personal learning plans, portfolios, rubrics, senior projects, capstone projects, project learning, standards-based instruction, these are just a few examples of educational initiatives that would come under the umbrella of Proficiency Based Learning. Most, if not all of these ideas are already being used in schools. To a certain extent, Proficiency Based Learning looks like something “new” because it takes these refinements and aligns them coherently in a single structure and organization and gives them a new name.
If you would like more information about the research underpinning PBL, the Great Schools Partnership has gathered and curated the most accessible findings.
- Research Supporting Learning Standards
- Research Supporting Assessment Practices
- Research Supporting Grading + Reporting
- Research Supporting Instructional Strategies
- Surveys of College Educators and Employers