How Have Competencies Evolved And What Did It Take To Get There? | Jonathan Martin | 5 Min Read

A perhaps-underappreciated aspect of Mehta and Fine’s excellent 2018 book, In Search of Deeper Learning, is its thoughtful attention to double-loop learning.  Borrowing from the work of Chris Argyris, Mehta and Fine explain that many of the schools leading the way in school reinvention are skilled in “single-loop learning,” defined as “getting better within one’s existing paradigms and goals.”  These programs establish a lofty vision, compelling philosophy, and thoroughly aligned and articulated policies and procedures for their educational design — and often are succeeding by their own lights.  At the model “No Excuses” school described by Mehta and Fine, time is rarely wasted, students are increasingly on task, and test scores are on the rise; at what they refer to as “Dewey High,” student engagement surpasses that of most schools, and student work-product exhibitions shine. 

That’s good, and at the same time, it’s not enough.  What’s required for excellence, these authors suggest,  is “double-loop learning,” which “requires questioning fundamental goals and paradigms.”  It isn’t enough to fulfill the organization’s challenging ambitions; at the very same time, those leading learning must confront the limitations of their model and ambition, and envision what lies beyond it. 

This isn’t easy– after all, as Mehta and Fine explain, schools that commit themselves to a particular thematic approach define themselves almost as much as by what they are not as by what they are — “making it difficult to incorporate part of the other into their approach.”  To their credit, however, through their thorough examination of these schools, and the penetrating interviews they conducted with the school-leaders, Mehta and Fine reveal the ways in which the best of these programs, in their view,  are engaging in double-loop learning, the ways in which they are “questioning their fundamental goals and paradigms.”  

Their model “No Excuses” school is, they explain, partially letting go of its initially strict parameters for tight classroom direction (every moment accounted for), and seeking to strengthen student self-direction and expand project-based learning for which their original vision had little room; at “Dewey High,” (which is almost certainly California’s High Tech High), “conventional data should not [any longer] be considered a four-letter word,” with testing results and college-success rates now being factored into school improvement initiatives.   (These are just the capsule descriptions of double-loop learning in these programs; the book thoroughly elaborates upon these capsules, and future columns may return for further consideration.)

Double-loop learning can be perceived in other educational arenas; it need not be explicit, nor need it be necessarily confined to a particular school or educational organization.  It strikes me that the field of competency-based education (CBE) is engaging itself at least implicitly or analogously in a similar project of double-loop learning, pushing itself to detach from and transcend its “single loop” roots in online and blended learning, and to recognize that as often implemented, CBE has been “thin,” lacking in authenticity, rigor, challenge, complexity, and cognitive engagement, failing to empower students with voice and choice. 

A prominent example can be found in the celebration that happened around the Rocketship model of schools a decade ago, in the early teens.  iNACOL, Getting Smart, and Innosight all celebrated the Rocketship phenomenon of Silicon Valley, where students in elementary school spent most of their day in blended learning “stations,” individually proceeding through online learning modules that taught and tested in automated, multiple-choice formats.  Rocketship’s test scores demonstrated improvement, and in its faithful fulfillment of blended learning and what was then a more narrowly framed view of CBE, it, like Mehta and Fine’s “No Excuses” and “Dewey” high schools, was appropriately acclaimed for meeting the single loop standard by getting better “within its existing paradigm and goals.” 

However, at the time, only rarely did the blended CBE advocates seem to grapple enough with the limitations of a model that was often, in practice, far too automated, perfunctory, and “canned,” something of a forced march through “personalized pathways” that allowed students to demonstrate proficiency only in narrowly defined competencies and didn’t challenge students to think deeply, create or critique, or demonstrate collaboration and communication skills.  (See Anya Kamenetz’s 2016 takedown of Rocketship at NPR for more).

In the past year or two, however, we can observe the CBE movement engaging essentially in a second loop, “questioning its own goals and paradigms.”  For example, we see iNACOL reinventing itself by changing its name to Aurora and thereby ending its very name limiting its vision to what was a single loop vision of online learning, and by adopting a new definition of CBE that dramatically expands emphasis on student empowerment, a definition that would likely exclude the Rocketship form of personalized learning.  

Another terrific example of CBE questioning, and striving to overcome its own initial goals and paradigms, can be found in the recent publication, Deeper Competency-Based Learning (Corwin, 2020), a “dream team” collaboration between CBE expert Rose Colby, already the author of two of the best CBE books out there, and Karin Hess, widely recognized for her cognitive rigor matrix, among the best resources out there to guide instruction and assessment toward genuinely deeper thinking.   The collaboration in itself represents a kind of double loop, where Colby, by working with Hess, is in a sense challenging the prior CBE status quo by asking: how can CBE reinvent itself with greater attention not just to student empowerment but to include compelling, authentic, performance assessment at its core (not at its periphery).  

Throughout their book (co-authored with Daniel Joseph), Colby and Hess vividly illustrate their synthesis of CBE and Deeper Learning.  Performance assessment, they write, “invites critical and creative productive thinking and requires the integration of more than one skill, concept, or strategy.”  Performance assessment is essential, they argue, to move away from teaching to the test; it is a far more accurate way to capture student mastery, and it represents far better what students have learned than the standardized testing successes (the single loop’s fundamental goals) that were previously referenced when praising programs like Rocketship.  

Every educator might find it worthwhile asking: what is my school, my organization, my movement, or my own “single loop,” and how are we doing within that single loop?  And then, thereafter, ask again: what is our double loop– what must we ask and how would we answer when we probe the very paradigm within which we are working? 

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan E. Martin taught at and led schools in California and Arizona from 1989 to 2012; over the past decade he has been a writer, school consultant, and professional development provider to more than a hundred schools and thousands of educators in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. His affiliations have included EdLeader21, OECD PISA, NWEA, NAIS, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Blackbaud, Enrollment Management Association, CWRA, and Think Through Math. He is the author of Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education (Routledge Press, 2020), as well as scores of e-books, special reports, and white papers over the past 10 years. He currently directs professional learning for a global not-for-profit educational organization.

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