An Introduction to Competency-Based Learning: What, Why, How

What do we know now about school that we didn’t know two years ago?

The disruptive events of the past two years—the coronavirus pandemic, the fight for racial justice, deepening political polarization, and more—have raised profound questions about education: its purpose, its design, and its outcomes. Part of this deep reflection has been increased interest in competency-based learning (CBL). Also known as mastery or proficiency-based learning, CBL offers a vision for a new educational system that adapts to the individual student rather than asking students to adapt to a rigid system.

GOA began working towards CBL in 2016 when we published six core competencies for students and started rethinking how students learn and show their learning in our courses. Since then, we’ve updated our assessment practices to focus on performance-based evidence and student voice; embedded belonging and wellness in our student support infrastructure; prioritized cultural competency, transparent learning goals, accessibility, and representation in our courses to ensure they are more equitable; and articulated five educator competencies to support teachers in taking a learner-centered approach to their practice.

For most schools, pursuing CBL is a major change. Before embarking on that change, it’s important to be clear about what CBL is, why it matters, and how to pursue it as a community.

What is Competency-Based Learning?

At its core, CBL is a system designed to mirror how people learn, work, and collaborate in the world beyond school. It is built on evidence-based assessment, and it prioritizes flexibility in time, space, and support to ensure all students have the chance to use the content they learn to practice durable, transferable skills. The Aurora Institute has led the work defining CBL, and it has articulated seven core elements:

  • Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.

  • Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.

  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.

  • Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.

  • Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.

  • Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.

  • Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

In reviewing these seven elements, it’s also important to be clear about what CBL is not. It is not a particular pedagogy (like project-based learning): all different forms of teaching and learning are part of a CBL environment and are used as appropriate to meet target outcomes. It is not about eliminating grades: while traditional grades are not compatible with CBL, CBL’s true focus is making assessments more relevant, responsive, and evidence-based. It is not just about what happens in the classroom: while many teachers will have to shift their practice to move towards CBL, there are structural and cultural elements of school that must shift, too, which is where the work often lies for school leaders in a CBL environment.

Learn more about what competency-based learning is and is not:

Why Does Competency-Based Learning Matter?

At GOA, we define the key priorities of CBL as Agency, Equity, and Transfer.

A graphic defining GOA's three key priorities of CBL: Agency, Equity, and Transfer

Empowering all students to master relevant skills that help them develop ownership over their learning is the most important work a school can do to prepare students for the world beyond it. The relevance of certain content and knowledge is constantly shifting, and the ability to learn deeply, in a variety of contexts, with new tools, is critical in a modern world. In addition, a growing body of research emphasizes the importance of noncognitive competencies to success in school and beyond—skills like empathy, self-regulation, and purpose—that students develop through doing complex work on meaningful tasks, not by absorbing as much content as possible. The traditional design of school as a time-based, content-driven experience does not support agency, equity, and transfer. This has never been more true than in the last two years.

Furthermore, the traditional model of school has never worked for many marginalized students because it perpetuates systemic barriers and inequities by allowing students to fall behind in a one-size-fits-all system. CBL is an equity movement and has been led by innovative U.S. public schools like Big Picture Learning, Boston Day and Evening Academy, and the Mastery Collaborative in New York City who are committed to redesigning schedules, assessments, and student support practices to ensure systems are designed to celebrate individual students and ensure they have the support they need to meet high expectations. Pursuing CBL reflects a deep belief that the system needs to change to become more inclusive and learner-centered.

Learn more about why competency-based learning matters:

How Do We Move Towards Competency-Based Learning?

GOA describes the transition to CBL in five key shifts.

A pentagon graphic depicting five shifts to CBL, going from content-drive to skills-driven, grading to feedback, lessons to experiences, time-based to performance-based, teacher-designed to co-designed

Each of these shifts represents a potential pathway for educators and school leaders: there is no correct order in which to do them, and these pathways are often tailored to the strengths and areas for growth already present in the school. Some examples of how schools begin to pursue each shift:

  • From Content-Driven to Skills-Driven: Develop a graduate profile to organize learning at your school around durable, transferable skills.

  • From Time-Based to Performance-Based: Consider how time disproportionately dictates how assessment systems work at your school and use online spaces and reassessment practices to build more flexibility into that system.

  • From Grading to Feedback: Dive into the robust research on effective grading to establish more transparent, equitable, and meaningful feedback practices.

  • From Lessons to Experiences: Redesign summative assessments to become more relevant performance tasks.

  • From Educator Designed to Co-Designed: Learn about agency and create opportunities for students to set, pursue, and reflect on their own goals.

Learn more about how to move towards competency-based learning:

Change often succeeds in a series of small bets and quick wins, and this is especially true in competency-based learning, where time and attention must be paid to helping educators, students, and families understand what a competency-based environment means, what it looks like, and how to be successful in it. In many cases, “unlearning” about how school should work must be accompanied by new learning about CBL, and we can’t underestimate the value of time, patience, and support in that effort.

GOA offers a series of online courses for educators on competency-based learning (free for educators from GOA member schools). We also offer online (via Zoom) and in-person workshops for teams on the five key shifts for competency-based learning. Reach out to our Design Lab to learn more.

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