Managing Utah’s Digital Teaching and Learning (DTL) and Personalized Competency-Based Learning (PCBL), Syd does not lose sight of the fact that a “certain level of trust and intimacy [is] required for this, something that can only be done effectively on a personal, local level.” From its large Indigenous population stretched across reservations and rural areas to the influx of refugees that make up a large portion of many urban and suburban communities, the culture topography of Utah is rich and varied. “In one district alone we have over 130 languages spoken...imagine the challenges that presents for the administration, educators and students on top of the already daunting task of delivering a quality public education in today’s world.”
When you start to think about diversity on this level, the obstacles faced by school and state leadership to truly recognize, appreciate and adequately serve the way of life, history and culture of each of these important populations seem nearly insurmountable, especially in the face of traditional learning paradigms. To that end, USBE has piloted a program to specifically support the creation and broader implementation of personalized competency-based learning programs across the state. The state innovation grant funding UT-MTC partnership was launched two years ago and continues to expand in the number of schools taking part. Syd’s team is building a strong instructional foundation for personalized competency-based learning, something that is essential to meeting the needs of Utah’s diverse population.
“While still in the early phases, these grants fund some exciting innovations in competency-based education that give educators a jumping off point for their programs,” Syd states. “This program empowers local innovation in public and charter schools to lead the space and inspire others.“ If this all sounds familiar, it should. Much of the approach in working with the educators and administrators in this pilot program directly mirrors the tenets of competency-based learning and the mastery transcript model.
“Learning is about empowerment and modelling,” Syd continues. “For our students to feel encouraged and safe to learn by taking risks, from failing forward, they need to see that their teachers are willing to do the same. But for many educators, there’s a fear that failing takes away their authority, their credibility as a teacher. Our program gives them a safe place to take risk and learn in an environment where the learning process is just as important as ultimately mastering the skill.” This is why USBE shies away from many top-down initiatives in favor of those that put more power into the hands of the local administration, choosing rather to provide guidance and structure, but allowing the flexibility for local districts and schools to determine the best path and timing for initiatives that work best for the populations they serve.
“There’s very little a teacher can teach a student in the way of content that the student can't find on Google. It’s more important to teach about the learning process, resilience and how to think through different ways of solving problems. Students who get these skills become adults who know how to approach problem solving...empowered individuals who can rise above any circumstances because they own their paths and know what options are available to them,” says Syd. “Mastery learning addresses how students apply their dispositions and knowledge skills in a relevant context with an authentic audience. That increases motivation, buy-in and ownership no matter who the student is because if they have voice and choice and ownership they will drive their own learning and growth and forge a pathway to their personal success.”
Syd’s fervor for strategizing ideal, local conditions where individuals see themselves as change agents, dates back to her days as a biologist. We are grateful for her heartfelt motivation to tap into our most vulnerable parts—whether that of learners, teachers, or flora—going deeper to unearth our special differences toward evidencing a robust, educational ecosystem. Much like the honey bees with which she was fascinated as a girl in rural Oregon, Syd’s scientific purview fertilizes flowering minds, and we are thrilled for MTC to support her continued work in Utah.
To learn more about the USBE Personalized Competency-Based Learning initiative, please visit Competency Based Education (CBE) (utah.gov).
As the Personalized Competency-Based Learning Education Specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, Syd is doing for teachers what Mastery Transcript does for students. A keenly inquisitive mind that’s never stopped growing and seeking out the underlying meaning and inner workings of all she sees and experiences, Syd is keenly motivated to help educators and administrators envision ways to more effectively translate innovations into reality for K-12 public school systems.