Isn’t it exciting to look into the future? The place where we hold all of our hopes and dreams and begin to imagine what could be?

Working in education, I often find myself between the worlds of endless possibilities to support student learning and fighting the preconceived limits of the status quo. The notion that we educate our students in a way that is no longer effectively preparing them for college and career, because, well, “That’s the way it has always been done,” is being turned on its ear. Thanks to advances in and accessibility of technology and innovations in the field of education, students are making connections with their learning through engaging educational experiences.

I am traveling the country (soon, hopefully the world) to uncover the very best educational practices that engage learners and prepares them for a connected, digitally-enhanced future. We cannot continue to educate using the factory model of the 19th century, championed by the robber barons and captains of industry of the industrial revolution. Although factory jobs continue to play an important role in the United State economy and employ roughly 8.8% of the entire U.S. workforce, most of today’s students are preparing for careers that don’t even exist yet.


Solving the Problems of the Future

The questions I hear the most from the most innovative schools include:

  • How do we prepare the learners of today in K-12, higher ed and workforce development (can we agree to call this K-20+ because let’s face it, who wants a workforce that stops learning?) to solve problems that don’t yet exist?
  • How do we encourage connectedness and foster communication as we incorporate online or blended learning and prepare to work in a more digitized workforce?
  • How do we broaden the capacity to find innovative solutions and work within the complex global community?

Local or global, connectedness is the most important aspect of schools that are making the transition to competency-based education.

Teton Science Schools
Teton Science Schools

In a recent visit to Teton Science Schools, I talked competency education and learning relationship management (LRM) with an amazing group of educators. Teton Science Schools are committed to preparing today’s learners for the world of tomorrow by engaging students through connections with their environment and the organisms it contains. By fostering environmental stewardship, Teton Science Schools provide a bridge between the natural world and fosters connectedness with the modern digital landscape where most of our students live, regardless of the altitude.


Building Connections via Geography

The idea is place-based learning, and the beauty of the concept practiced at Teton Science Schools, in the heart of the Grand Teton National Park, is as stunning as its location.

Placed-based education allows learners to connect with the world around them and engage in learning through inquiry about the physical space they inhabit while finding solutions through design thinking for the challenges that we face in our modern world. Place-based learning fosters connections between peers and facilitators of education and their community while providing students with the space and breadth necessary to find the ideas that are important to them.

The philosophy of TSS is steeped in research-backed data supporting place-based education that indicates that a students’ sense of self, motivation to learn, community engagement are enhanced through meaningful interactions with immediate physical and cultural environments. Students learn best when they are able to place learning in a context and make connections with other learners. These core beliefs are the hallmark of great education and the innovation that will allow for these connections to take place, literally around the world, allows for TSS to seamlessly connect the K-12 learners in their journey school, offer graduate programming and certification. Through an innovative education model and agile tools build to suit their needs by Motivis Learning, Teton Science Schools, once confined to the National Park, will have the ability to offer students all over the world a state of the art education that engages the learner with the natural world around them, no matter where they are in the globe.

-Nate McClennen, Vice President of Education and Innovation, Teton Science Schools

Place Based Learning


Where Competency and Place Meet

Competency-based learning, a more individualized approach to education, that requires student mastery of skills to demonstrate learning. When combined with place-based learning practices of Teton Science Schools, it makes for one of the most innovative schools I have had the opportunity to visit (not to mention, one of the most beautiful, and trust me, I have seen some pretty amazing schools). Engaging students in their natural environment, challenging them to think critically to collaborate to be part of the solution, gives students agency and makes the learning authentic.

At Teton Science Schools, students come from all over the country during the winter months for ski school and training in the Grand Tetons. Nate McClennen, Director of Education and Innovation, wants to enable students to take the classes that address the competencies they need to stay on track while they are away from their local school. By providing students with the opportunity to access competency-based, blended learning that is highly individualized and based entirely on the needs of the student to help them stay on track while they are away from their school of record.


Learning Through Experience

Place-based learning is one example of experiential learning, or the art of learning through one’s experience. It’s successful because it allows students to learn by doing, whether thats in the form of place-based learning, community involvement, volunteering, service learning, internships, travel or semester abroad. Experiential learning engages learners in real-world, authentic activities by creating self-directed and intrinsically motivated students.

Teton Science Schools is not the only school in the nation focused on helping students succeed by fostering student engagement and success through connectedness and competency education.

Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) in Exeter, New Hampshire provides learners with many options when it comes to designing their education based entirely on their unique needs. VLACS offers students many different approaches to student-centered learning, from building a competency backpack that allows students to choose the specific standards required to fulfill their academic needs to Experiential Learning Opportunities (ELO’s). In ELO’s, students work with the academic adviser and the director of Experiential Learning at VLACS to design a learning experience that is student-centered, relevant, and experiential. ELO’s may include a form of place-based learning from a recent trip, it may involve the creation of a solution to a problem.


The Need for Modern Tools

While competency-based education and experiential, place-based learning are great for modern education, they can also be highly challenging to scale for modern teaching. For educators tasked with implementing competency-based education at Teton Science Schools and other schools around the country, monitoring student progress and scaling for truly individualized learning becomes a burdensome, monumental feat when schools attempt to utilize traditional Learning Management Systems (LMS) options like grade books that do not meet the complex needs of student-centered, competency-based learning.

Additionally, the most important aspect of an ELO is that it reflects the student’s passion. Like competency-based education, ELO’s are not one “one size fits all.” ELO’s, like other experiential learning examples, are reflective of the student’s individual needs and interests and are the focus of the learner as well as the educator. This personalization, essential for student engagement and success, is again difficult to assess using a traditional grade book. Schools that utilize ELO’s, as well as other forms of experiential learning, need a tool that helps to monitor each individual student’s progress and reports that data to stakeholders in a way that is meaningful as well as transparent and fosters relationships between the educator, the student and the learning that is being demonstrated.

To solve the need for a more comprehensive, student monitoring system that provides real-time data to help students, parents and teachers monitor progress, it is essential to have a Learning Relationship Management (LRM) system that builds connections within the learning community through transparency and accessibility of data—enabling approaches like CBE and experiential learning. LRM provides the innovative tools necessary to make breaking out of the “box” of traditional education a successful experience for students and all stakeholders.


No Longer Limited by Status Quo

Teton Science School and VLACS are working to innovate. They recognize that indeed there is a better way for our students to be learning and they refuse to be limited by the status quo that has kept education from innovating. But they are also able to see that they need help measuring student success in such a differentiated and individualized way.

As schools across the country are transitioning to competency-based education, they must be willing to put students in the center of the educational design by allowing them to experience learning in different locations and through different situations (not always sitting at a desk!). Once a student-centered focus is established, schools must support it with innovative and agile tools that allow for transparency between and among stakeholders to ensure successful program implementation. Supported by innovative technology that measures success, students and educators are no longer limited by the status quo. The future is theirs and they are free to dream big. The sky’s the limit.

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