Five Shifts for Competency-Based Learning

How do we best prepare ourselves and our schools for competency-based learning (CBL)?

The increasing gap between how school works and how the world works has sparked deep interest in CBL (also know as mastery or proficiency-based learning), especially its focus on designing learning experiences where students can authentically practice essential skills.

With this interest have come questions about school change: What does it look like to start moving to CBL? How much do we need to change? How will we know if we’re moving in the right direction?

Based on our work with students, educators, and schools and learning organizations, GOA has identified five shifts for schools that are essential to adopting CBL. We created the Competency-Based Learning Toolkit to provide schools and educators with the content and strategies they need to make these shifts.

We believe each of these shifts is valuable in its own right, but when pursued together, they can transform schools into more personalized, relevant learning environments that prepare students for a modern world.

From Content-Driven to Skills-Driven

Rather than organize learning around domains of content, CBL organizes learning around the development of essential competencies. Schools do intentional research and reflection on what they want their graduates to know and be able to do, then they articulate those core competencies to all stakeholders. The schools design backwards from those competencies, identifying evidence of competency development in the form of learning outcomes. This work might reveal incompatibility between current teaching practices and CBL. Investment of time and resources in professional learning is critical at this stage, especially in understanding the relationship between content and skills in CBL. The goal is not to stop thinking about content; rather, decisions about what content to teach and how much to teach should be driven by communal focus on core competencies and learning outcomes. Every student and educator in a CBL school should understand why the content learned is relevant to the competencies and outcomes.

From Time-Based to Performance-Based

Most schools operate on a time-based system using Carnegie Units: students earn credit for spending a certain amount of time in a course and advance upon accumulating the right amount of seat time. In CBL, students advance upon demonstrating mastery: their ability to demonstrate that they have learned a skill is more important than the time it took them to learn it. This shift requires thinking differently about how time is structured at school. CBL schools create more time for student practice and reflection. CBL educators design opportunities for reassessment and prioritize differentiation and individualized support. CBL students collaborate with educators to make learning plans that suit their needs and the learning targets. Exhibitions of learning are common summative assessments that make students the lead explainers and defenders of their learning. Rethinking time in this way is often the most challenging element of adopting CBL.

From Lessons to Experiences

CBL emphasizes transdisciplinary skills that help students develop cognitive skills (automaticity, literacy, critical analysis, etc.) and noncognitive skills (resilience, curiosity, compassion, etc.). This more holistic view of learning allows for a broader view of when, where, and how students can demonstrate their learning. Thinking in terms of “learning experiences” rather than “lessons” is a first step toward imagining immersive and varied ways students can practice applying essential content. Students in CBL environments do work both inside and outside of the classroom, they engage with both educators and mentors in their local communities, they perform both traditionally academic tasks and real-world based projects, and they develop expertise both in essential content and in lifelong learning skills.

From Grading to Feedback

Implied in adopting CBL is a rejection of traditional grading practices, which tend to emphasize summative assessment and sweep various competencies and learning outcomes into a single letter or number. Rather than focusing on calculating and delivering a grade at the end of the learning process, CBL educators emphasize how best to deliver specific, actionable, formative feedback during the learning process, when students can use it. Common CBL practices such as explicit articulation of competencies and learning outcomes in a student-friendly way, use of rubrics as tools for ongoing communication and reflection on learning, and teaching students how to be excellent reflective learners, peer mentors, and givers of feedback are ways to focus on the learning process, not product. Questions of how to best synthesize and report on this learning for the purposes of transcript, college admission, employment, etc., abound in the field—one unresolved issue in CBL that various organizations like the Mastery Transcript Consortium are tackling.

From Teacher-Designed to Co-Designed

Traditional school environments favor the educator. CBL environments use their defined learning goals to engage students as equals and/or leaders in the learning process. Students with agency feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their learning. CBL offers students more voice and choice in assessments and positions students as potential co-designers of learning experiences. If we all have a deep, shared understanding of our learning targets, what’s to stop us from collaborating with students on imagining the kind of work they can do to meet those targets?

What WON’T Shift: The Importance of Relationships

A student’s connection to an educator, mentor, or other adult has a significant impact on that student’s learning. Sparking intrinsic motivation is essential to CBL’s success, and guiding students toward finding inner passion and purpose is already a critical element of school life. CBL takes what so many educators already excel at — forming meaningful relationships with students — and asks us to explicitly tie that skill to the learning process.

Which of these shifts is most relevant to you? Which is your school already working on? Let us know on Twitter @goalearning or email us:

This article is adapted from the handbook in our Competency-Based Learning Toolkit.

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