Teaching Opinion

Deeper Competency-Based Learning

By Tom Vander Ark — August 14, 2013 4 min read
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Underlying the shift to blended and student-centered environments is the transition from marking seat time to tracking learning. In competency-based
environments, students show what they know and they progress when they’ve demonstrated mastery.

There are a couple versions of competency-based learning that may result in accelerated progress but not necessarily better preparation. Perhaps you’ve
seen one of these examples:

· A credit recovery lab where students fly through flat content, click a few buttons in an end-of-unit multiple choice quiz, and move on to the next unit, or

· a teacher has turned standards into checklist of sub-skills in preparation for a fact-based test.

Both examples are well intentioned but not true examples of deeper learning. CompetencyWorks, a project of iNACOL, stresses the use of ongoing,
authentic and integrated assessments to gather information about where students are on their individual learning trajectories in order to guide curriculum
and instruction.

We’ve been scouring the country for schools that are not only competency-based but provoke inquiry, critical thinking, production of professional quality
work products, and skillful communication. We found a handful of schools that ask the big rather than the small questions. They don’t just ask students to
turn in a test, they demand public demonstrations of learning. They don’t just track test scores, they catalog student work. Students don’t fail, they just
get more time to learn and improve.

Big questions.

According to principal Chris Stinson, Anson New Tech’s project-based learning approach means “students
begin by identifying an authentic, genuine issue of importance in the world, and then work to solve it.”

Anson County
is east of Charlotte North Carolina. One of the district high schools, it is a member of the New Tech Network, 150
project-based high schools that share thought provoking projects across the Echo platform. New Tech teachers promote critical thinking by building it into
the rubrics used to assess student projects.

Noting a “strong culture of revision,” Envision Education superintendent Gia Truong explained that “students have to
defend their work, and they may not pass. They may have to go back and do some things again until they can prove mastery.

Envison Education,
a network of three model Bay Area high schools, uses a portfolio system linked to competencies. They “require students to continue to work and revise, work
and revise, so they learn to persist and to accept and use feedback.”

Anson students are judged advanced, proficient, or unsatisfactory. The proficient column represents mastery of the state standards and the advanced one
represents the ability to apply that knowledge to another situation. Unsatisfactory means the student gets to go back and try again.

David Coleman, CEO of College Board called portfolio “a collection of personal bests.” Portfolios are central to the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which focuses on “literacy, reflection, and interdisciplinary, project-based
learning.” Because they must be presented publicly to peers, parents, and the larger community, portfolios also operate as evidence of students’ written
and oral communications skills.

Sussex Academy
, an EL school in Delaware, uses portfolios to document the mastery of state standards, to highlight the EL principles, to chronicle student progress
throughout the year, and to assess continuous student performance.

Sussex teachers encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students work with teachers to set their own goals, record their daily
expectations and achievements, and maintain their own student data.

Going public.
Dee Thomas, director of Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), says their approach is to “ask students what their passion is and weave the state standards
into that.” As a result, students outline their own learning goals under the direction of a licensed advisor and then show mastery of core academic content
by producing or creating something and then defending what they have learned with a team of licensed teachers.

MNCS, anchor of the Edvisions network, demonstrates that interest-based learning can be integrated into
standards-based learning. They track competencies (using ProjectFoundry) but students aren’t accumulating a
bunch of abstract knowledge and skills, they are co-constructing a sequence of powerful learning experiences.

While technology is not a prerequisite for competency education, learning environments that offer easy and reliable access to blended and online
opportunities certainly streamline the assessment and feedback loop for teachers and students.

In Cohorts to Competency, we outlined advances in technology
making it possible to bring competency education to scale, thanks to the growing set of tools that can help create and manage customized pathways. “Without
leveraging technology and discovering new ways to use time and resources differently, we will fail to achieve the goals of college- and
career-ready standards.” Shifting to competency-based education is an important step in the process.”

Competency-based environments and policies can promote deeper learning where teachers ask big question, build a culture of revision, demand public
demonstrations of learning, and collect artifacts that represent personal bests. Platforms like New Tech’s Echo hold the potential of bringing powerful
practices to scale.

Tom is a director at iNACOL

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.