- Students advance upon mastery [not seat-time, i.e. whether students physically "showed up" for class]
- Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students [students know what broader skillset is being addressed, and can express this clearly when asked]
- Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students [the teacher is the main judge of whether a student has attained mastery, i.e. can advance to the next learning objective]
- Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs [clear learning pathways have been established which meet students at their own level; no two children are the same]
- Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions [competency education synthesizes acquisition of knowledge with that of transferable skills]
There's a quiet revolution underway in K-12 education underway. Had you noticed? Competency education has arrived at last. The good news: it's probably not what you think.
The word competency means different things to different people, especially in the context of educational models. The European Union, for example, has established a number of "key competences for lifelong learning," which include basic competency in science and technology, digital competence, cultural awareness and expression. (Many of these are akin to the American conception of 21st century skills, which can be applied across familiar subjects like math, science and language). In higher education, Competency-based Education has come to be associated with initiatives likes those at Western Governor's University (WGU), where online assessments permit students to accelerate degrees without direct instructor/learner engagement.
The traditional classroom model is outmoded, and does not adequately prepare our youth for the realities of life in the 21st century.
For primary/secondary (K-12) education in the US, the term competency-based education is used to describe a completely different learner-centric model, which involves extensive student-teacher interaction and formative assessment to guide both learner and teacher during acquisition of knowledge and skills. Thought leader CompetencyWorks defines competency education according to these criteria (working definition):
The terms "mastery," "proficiency" and others may be used in place of "competency" to capture this approach to personalizing learning, but the precepts are the same. Judging a student's knowledge acquisition based on the amount of time spent in a classroom, even if supplemented by summative/ periodic examinations, does not and cannot accurately capture what a learner really knows.
In recent months I've had the opportunity to collaborate with iNACOL and CompetencyWorks on a study of competency education around the world (forthcoming). This has been a phenomenal opportunity to examine other educational models and, in particular, a global trend towards learner-centered reform sparked largely by outcomes of the OECD's PISA exams and related analyses. The traditional classroom model is outmoded, and does not adequately prepare our youth for the realities of life in the 21st century.
What's the link to educational technology? Simply put, there needn't be one. However, in schools with the good fortune to have 1:1 programs – that is, a computer or tablet for every student – the opportunities to assess (and track) student knowledge are unprecedented. It may be hard to picture a class in which students are explicitly aware of their broader learning goals (e.g. to "Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing"), yet this has grown increasingly common with a shift towards the EU-style competences. A single skill may be studied and practiced across multiple subjects, and students may select their own way(s) of expressing their skills.
For a glimpse of competency education in action, watch a few minutes of these engaging videos from the state of Maine. They provide a glimpse of this "quiet revolution": a fundamental shift in the way we view education, from the teacher at the center of each exchange to the student at the center of each exchange. Thirty nine US states have adopted some form of competency-related measure already, e.g. by introducing seat-time waivers or even implementing pilots on a grander scale.
We'll get used to it. We have to.
Read more about the competency education movement in It’s Not a Matter of Time: Highlights from the 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit (iNACOL)
Sara Frank Bristow,