Unpacking ALA – Competency-Based Learning in Practice

ALA Group laugh

I’ve been on a lot of school visits.  Personalized learning, blended learning, standards-based grading, competency-based learning, portfolio assessment, project-based learning.  The buzz terms and hyphenated words roll off the tongue.  Anybody can claim them.  “We do personalized learning!”  “We’re a PBL school!”

It’s a worthy aspiration.  In practice, however, it’s a bit more complicated.  These terms, sometimes lumped together and described as Deeper Learning, or 21st Century Learning, represent sophisticated instructional practice.  No doubt when done well they can be transformative, for both teachers and students.  But it’s hard, complex work.

Which is why I’m spending my morning here at Advanced Learning Academy, or ALA for short.  ALA just opened it’s second year, and it’s our flagship competency-based learning experiment in Santa Ana Unified. And I deliberately refer to it as an experiment. Not because it’s temporary or done on a whim. Quite to the contrary, ALA is an experiment in the very best sense.  It’s a school designed as a learning laboratory for adults as well as students.  It’s a space for quick iterations and trial and error.  It’s a terribly ambitious place.

So I’m here too, and hope to be here each week.  To observe and learn and reflect and document and share.  I want to dig into the complexities of the work being done by our ALA teachers and staff, and try to make sense of the emerging pedagogy and instructional strategies being employed in their herculean effort to significantly accelerate student learning.  What does it mean to be a competency-based learning school?  What are the promising practices that can and should be shared?  What are the professional and emotional challenges for staff in a school that turns conventional practices on their head?

As one of the incredibly talented teachers at ALA said this morning, “I’ve been teaching for 31 years and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Perhaps a statement like that sounds alarming to some.  I interpret it in a very different way.  It’s a beautiful thing to hear such a clear intention from a teacher to be a learner.  It’s what happens when a confident, skilled educator willingly steps out of her comfort zone to embark on a journey of professional learning.

It’s a bold experiment, in the very best sense.


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