Vocab Lesson: “Competency-Based Learning”

Today we bring you a “vocabulary lesson” with help from some friends.

Anyone who has had a conversation with me in the last month knows my resolution for 2015 is to nurture alignment among what I’ve dubbed the various “_____ learning” movements. As I’ve talked to more people about this problem and possible solutions, it has become clear that one of the core needs is just to get everyone on the same page about definitions. That seems like an important foundation upon which to build common goals.

As Ken Kay (@KenKay21) recently explained to me, “We can’t just point to each other. The problem is linkage. We have a huge nomenclature problem. And no one knows that we’re all talking about the same thing.” That’s a sentiment shared by Andy Calkins (@AndrewCalkins) in one of our favorite blog posts. His quadrant on next gen learning (Next Generations Learning Challenges (@NextGenLC), Getting Smart Advocacy Partner) does a nice job of bringing everything together. (Fun fact: I’ve been known to form a human version of this as an edu party trick.) Similarly, Mean What You Say from iNACOL (@nacol) is another favorite resource for sorting out how all the dots connect and lines intersect.

So, in keeping with my personal mission to get us all on the same page, thanks to a great new set of resources from Achieve (@AchieveInc), today’s focus is:

Competency-Based Learning, Competency-Based Education & Competency-Based Pathways

(Note: In some states, competency-based learning is referred to as proficiency-based, or mastery-based learning.)

The new competency-based pathways communications toolkit and core messages from Achieve does such a great job of breaking down definitions and key messages that I couldn’t resist sharing them in full. The toolkit contains a step-by-step planning document for states, a useful set of FAQs (my favorite is the first one, “Why the need for change?”), ideas for communicating success-stories, and additional worksheets and tools.

Definition: Competency/proficiency-based education helps prepare all K-12 students for college and career by ensuring that they proceed through course material at a pace that is right for them, rather than waiting for their peers to catch up or moving on without having fully mastered the material. Under this model, students learn one set of skills and knowledge within a subject area before advancing to the next set –rather than move on as part of a group whether or not they have learned the material.

  • For students, competency-based pathways provide flexibility to master each set of skills and knowledge necessary to meet the learning objectives of a course before they face the next set that builds on it.
  • For teachers, it creates opportunities for them to tailor their support to the specific, current needs of each student, rather than teach to the middle.
  • For administrators, this means building a learning environment that focuses on supporting, evaluating and reporting on students based on their current demonstrated level of mastery of specific learning objectives.

As a result, all students build a stronger academic foundation and are better able to master the knowledge and skills critical to prepare them for college and career.

Three Key Benefits of Competency-Based Learning from Achieve:

  1. It is personalized, not “one size fits all”: In a competency-based system, the student’s individual needs and interests are the focus of all teaching efforts, instead of a cookie-cutter approach that holds back students who are ready to move ahead and advances others before they are ready. Because it’s personalized, it is harder for students to fall through the cracks; teachers and age parents know how a student is doing and can ensure he or she has the support needed to succeed.
  2. It better prepares students: By focusing on the mastery of critical knowledge and skills, competency-based pathways prevent learning gaps from developing and growing over time. As a result, this approach keeps students on the path to graduate from high school ready for college and career.
  3. It is transparent: Diplomas and transcripts from schools that use a competency-based model clearly communicate a student’s level of preparation and give parents, college admissions counselors and employers a more complete sense of what a student has in fact learned.

These descriptions of competency-based learning and the benefits for students, teachers and leaders echo our findings in the The Shift From Cohorts to Competency project (produced in partnership with Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, Digital Learning Now (@DigLearningNow). In our paper and related infographic, we describe 10 new capabilities of a competency-based systems and offer 10 design principles for building competency-based classrooms.

For the “policy wonks” out there like me (come on; I know you’re out there), be sure to check out these two great resources from KnowledgeWorks (@knowledgworks) and iNACOL (@nacol):

Recommendations includes piloting and supporting competency-based accountability and assessments, helping states build the learning infrastructure needed to enable competency education and building teacher/leader capacity through next gen professional development. (See Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning for our thoughts on next gen teacher prep and professional development using micro-credentials and badging.)

What definitions hang you up? Let us know and we’ll add your word/phrase to future  our “Vocab Lessons.”

For more on competency-based learning, check out:

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