Competency-Based Learning

To see the recent educational trend of general competency in action, one need only look to our local state university, UMass Lowell, and their mission statement: “Work Ready, Life Ready, World Ready.” In the past, education has been about teaching people something. Now, it is more about making sure students develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain world. As a result, some schools are now featuring tasks, projects, and programs that challenge young people in authentic ways to build, design, collaborate, and communicate–all essential skills that will hopefully help them succeed when they graduate. 

Educators think the most promising but challenging part of moving towards competency-based learning will be the transition from marking time to demonstrating mastery. For hundreds of years, schools have been organized around age groups and standardized progress based on a compulsory school year and credit hours. The problem is that this system doesn’t work for many learners–some students are bored and frustrated, while others don’t get what they need and are pushed through the system with big academic gaps that prevent success at higher levels.

A new report outlines some of the reasons our school system has been difficult to change, starting with the fact that it isn’t easy to measure learning. Local, state, and federal policies that guide student progress, graduation, and college admissions are often based on time alone, and there are a couple hundred years of tradition to overcome. There are enough benefits to make an argument for change, however. 

Quality preparation. Much of the corporate training world has shifted from participation to demonstrated skills in order to prove job readiness. As useful as the Khan Academy video tutorials have been, Sal Khan’s big contribution to education may prove to be his advocacy for competency-based learning. His now famous house built on a bad foundation analogy makes the case that passing students on who have only mastered 70 or 80 percent of the material leaves fatal gaps in understanding that are likely to never be closed, and leave learners unable to demonstrate their knowledge. He argues that students should master skills at a high level before moving on to enable skill transference.

Learning science. As Harvard’s Todd Rose notes, there is no average; each of us has a “jagged profile.” He and others argue that we should address the individual needs of learners. The research on how students learn examines how important it is to meet a student within their zone of proximal development, allow for productive struggle and design progressions effectively – where learning hinges on successful prior learning.

Student agency. More than a decade of research suggests that mindset matters for career success. The extent to which a student owns their own learning, aka “agency,” is key, and it’s represented in new outcome frameworks such as XQ Learner Goals and MyWays from NGLC. Mary Ryerse of Getting Smart reflects, “When students themselves have a sense of who they are, where they are headed and what it will take to get there — both in terms of daily habits and long-term plans — there is a unique sense of purpose and ownership.”

So what’s next? To disrupt the inertia that has made change so difficult, and to fundamentally rethink what graduates ought to know and be able to do, innovation is required in five dimensions: 

  1. More innovative learning models and networks, particularly for high schools (XQ, NewSchools, and NGLC could help)
  2. Competency-based learning platforms, gradebooks, badge and portfolio systems
  3. Quality guidance systems that ensure equity and access
  4. Mastery-based transcripts that allow students to more fully share their capabilities with postsecondary institutions and employers
  5. State policy that advances a relevant graduate profile, makes room for innovation pilots, and articulates a quality outcome framework

The global shift to competency is underway. It will better enable us to meet students where they are, ensure that they get what they need, and help them tell their unique story. Everyone involved in education has opportunities to help make the transition faster, better, and more equitable. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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