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Updated: Dec 11, 2019


Many of us grew up believing we were born with an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and that we were graced with cognitive ability at birth, or not. That notion is still quite present today, even among both general and special education teachers.


Today, though, we are understanding more about cognitive abilities. Plural. You can find a few psychological theorist models for this with one popular model being the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory.



Regardless of the model, though, it becomes clear that cognitive ability is more complex than simply an intelligence quotient. It also becomes easier to see how we can each have relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Our experiences with these abilities, especially in younger children and the elderly, also demonstrate that these things can change over time.


With these understandings, the need for a personal learning approach becomes obvious. The unique cognitive profiles in a classroom are as many as there are learners, with each learner bringing strengths to bear. Each learner will think differently and process at differing rates.


Learning experiences need to be designed to accommodate these differences. Teaching to a standard or a skill isn’t sufficient. This assumes all learners learn in the same way and at the same rate. Traditional approaches of insisting same age students are all taught the same thing on the same day in the same way may be the greatest malpractice in schools today. In addition to learners needing to be taught in their Zone of Proximal Development, they also need to be supported in the ways they are thinking about information. This supports the case for learning trajectories. For more on this topic, see https://www.sepatiingera.com/post/learning-trajectories-not-just-your-gussied-up-learning-progression.


Ultimately, educators need to be researchers…researching each learner in their sphere of influence. Educators know the importance of building relationships with learners and that to build a relationship you have to know about the learner. And, knowing about the learner means more than knowing a name and other facts. It means knowing someone’s likes and dislikes, passions, dreams, fears, and so on. Similarly, educators need to be researchers of how learners think. This involves knowing their relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses and constantly asking learners to share their thought processes in the moment. In this way, educators can correct misunderstandings quickly and stimulate the thinking to move the learner on to the next level of understanding.


Learning. It’s personal.

You might be hearing terms like “badges” and “micro-credentials” being thrown around more and more in the educational environment. Is this trend just a gussied up version of what the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been doing for years? No, not in the way most professionals are using these terms today.


Right now, badges are often being awarded to educators demonstrating some competencies resulting from a professional learning experience. They are more than CEUs, though. For a CEU, the educator often just needs to “sit and get” some professional development. True badges, in contrast, require the individual to demonstrate some learned ability or competence.


A badge, then, is a digital credential that represents an individual’s mastery of a competency or set of competencies.


A competency is a cluster of related abilities, attitudes, knowledge, and skills that enable a person to act effectively in a job or situation.


Competencies are more than skills. A skill is simply a proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired through training or experience. As an example, consider coding. Coding is more than the skill of writing statements in a particular language, such as Java. Coding involves organizing a series of computer-language statements in such a way as to accomplish a larger task. It requires logic, problem solving, planning, task analysis, understanding of implications for approaches taken like the ability to revise code in the future, etc. And, when a computer language becomes obsolete, a coder can quickly acquire a new language skill and incorporate that with the other coding abilities to remain viable. So, while a competency involves having skills, it is much more than that.


Badges are the mechanism for validating that an individual has indeed demonstrated mastery of a competency. And, while they are useful for teachers, they are essential for K-12 students, too. As noted in a previous blog, learning happens everywhere, so there need to be ways to document learning. Course grades only reflect student achievement based on what was taught in class and only through the assessments included in the course. But, what if the individual learned something through another mode? That learning is equally, if not more, valuable and worthy of being accredited to the learner, as well.


Badge systems have the capability of better helping industry hire the talent they need, too. Too many companies are struggling to hire the talent they need and it isn’t because the talent isn’t out there. It has a lot more to identifying the talent when they see it. A college degree or high school diploma isn’t enough information. So, many companies have acquired or developed systems to assess applicants for the competencies they need for specific positions. Others, though, don’t have the resources to invest in that kind of effort and so hope for the best when hiring. Badges are discrete enough to better match employers with job applicants. And, badges also help employers know how to relocate an employee in the company if the position they currently have is eliminated or identify an employee ready for a promotion.


A badge system, then, involves the badge awarder (often a school or university, but also a company), a badge earner (the individual), and a badge consumer (company or other organization seeking to identify talent). These badges are stored in an online system with their metadata, so the badge earner can easily share their success.


This video gives you a good overview of badges. It’s time to get rid of traditional grades and move to a mastery-driven, competency-based approach. Badges are part of this new paradigm.




Behavior. Teachers and administrators are more focused than ever on students with inappropriate behavior. Sometimes that takes the form of acting out and other times it looks like failing to do work, complete assignments, or participate. These students often have poor grades, as a result, and the blame game begins. Kids get blamed for being unmotivated; parents get blamed for not teaching their kids important values. Teachers get blamed for not managing their classrooms; administrators get blamed for not supporting teachers. But, very few are focused on the real issue and it isn’t student motivation.


In his TedTalk, Dr. J. Stuart Ablon emphasizes this one simple point:


Skill, not will.


Ablon makes really important points about kids, motivation, and how adults can do a better job supporting kids. Conventional wisdom is wrong, he notes. Conventional wisdom focuses all efforts on trying to motivate kids, believing kids don’t do well because they don’t want to. He says, instead, that kids lack the skills to succeed and many of those skills are problem solving, flexibility, and frustration tolerance related.


He also notes that some of our kids that are trying the hardest are actually our kids that are struggling. Our kids for whom learning comes easily aren’t having to try hard to learn, to behave, etc. Yet, our kids who are trying the hardest typically get the least reward.


Most importantly, when adults supporting kids change their mindset to “kids do well if they can” amazing results occur. These adults, for instance, adopt collaborative problem solving practices with kids using some pretty simple practices: empathize, help kid clarify problem, put our own problem on the table, support kid to come up with option(s) to solve the problem.


For so many students, developing problem solving, flexibility, and frustration tolerance will be key. Still, for others, they are truly struggling with trying to learn grade level standards when they haven’t mastered the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to perform on grade level. These students need instruction in the Zone of Proximal Development if they are to succeed.


And, all this points to the need for a whole child, personalized approach to learning. It starts with knowing each child, how he or she thinks, meeting them where they are, and moving them forward. It’s just that simple.


Watch the video here: