The Five Essential Skills Teachers Need to Lead Competency-Based Learning

Every time I’m with a fellow educator and mention we’ve developed teacher competencies at Global Online Academy, they ask to see them. Despite the enormous effort in competency-based learning (CBL) to identify what students need to know and be able to do, doing the same for adults strikes people as an unusual decision. Yet, how can anyone do any job well without clarity about the skills needed and what success looks like?

At GOA, we’ve responded to an important question — what do teachers need to know and be able to do to design and facilitate GOA courses? — with five core competencies:

  1. Design and give feedback that leads to learning.
  2. Write course-specific competencies and outcomes that guide design and enable students to set learning goals.
  3. Design course architecture that leads students to develop agency and autonomy through competency-based learning experiences.
  4. Build, foster, and participate in an inclusive learning community.
  5. Reflect on, review, and revise design and facilitation.

Why these competencies? Two years ago, we moved the GOA Student Program to competency-based learning. In collaboration with our faculty, we developed competencies for students: core competencies and course-specific ones, designed by teachers for each course and based on course-specific knowledge and skills. We use these competencies, and their companion outcomes, to frontload expectations for what learning looks like in each course as well as in units and assignments within courses. Further, CBL enables teachers to provide outcomes-based formative feedback on student work, to articulate criteria for student self-assessment and reflection, and to track student progress over the semester. What’s also essential: students develop competencies that have real-world relevance and a life beyond the course and far beyond the “grade glances” that completed assignments often receive. (Read more about GOA’s strategy for CBL in its Student Program).

While implementing CBL, we decided to be similarly transparent about what our teachers need to know and be able to do to design and facilitate GOA courses. To articulate the teacher competencies, we leaned on seven years of observing and working closely with our teachers, research on effective professional learning, student work and experiences, and student surveys. Because our teachers work closely with coaches, we also mined those partnerships to identify common questions and challenges.

We aren’t the first to articulate teacher competencies, but what is new is our pairing of teacher competencies with a coaching approach, one where we prioritize feedback and provide ongoing professional learning of varied forms, all anchored to the five competencies.

To ensure teachers could pursue these competencies confidently and in a way that focused on progress and performance, we developed outcomes and responses to the prompt “What does this look like?” for each of the five competencies, again leaning on existing models for student competencies. For example, our teacher feedback competency is accompanied by the following:

Outcomes: the teacher can…

  • Design a sustainable and varied approach to feedback.
  • Provide actionable, outcomes-based formative feedback and the time to digest and apply it.
  • Identify evidence for how students’ application of feedback leads to measurable progress.
  • Write narrative comments rooted in competencies and outcomes drawn from student work.

What this looks like…

  • Students live in a competency-based teaching and learning approach, using the language of competencies and outcomes fluently and consistently.
  • Students receive timely feedback and opportunities to digest and apply it.
  • Feedback lives within a learning-driven ecosystem.
  • Students create outcomes-based and actionable feedback for peers, who can apply it to improve.
  • Students track their competency growth over time and target competencies to strengthen.

“What this looks like” has emerged as especially valuable for teachers’ ability to envision what they and students would do differently within a CBL setting. Such differences characterize both course design and course facilitation, the two interlocking categories the competencies support. When courses aren’t running, teachers focus on design, which often encompasses refreshing competencies and outcomes, reimagining assignments, and designing new projects that leverage the opportunities in CBL to privilege competency over calendar or to give students varied means for demonstrating competency. While a course is running, the focus shifts to the competencies focused on relationships and driving learning, including community-building and effective feedback. (See our complete list of teacher competencies and outcomes.)

GOA teachers come to us with excellent experience, but competency-based professional learning may be novel to them: when we first introduced it to our faculty, one teacher noted how this was the first time in his 30+ year teaching career that anyone had provided this type of information.

How much more smoothly might a competency-based approach prepare new teachers or those moving into new settings if we simply articulate the skills and knowledge needed? Share on Twitter →

While everyone has to learn by doing and practicing, how might support and transparency make such efforts more productive and less frustrating and exhausting?

No matter if we are working with teachers or with students, at GOA evidence of successful competency development comes from student work. Whether students can transfer and apply these competencies when navigating new settings and challenges is our ultimate measure of enduring learning and effective teaching. What we’ve realized: what works well for students also makes sense for teachers and maybe even for all people. Perhaps CBL is the ideal for human-centered learning?

What are the core competencies you believe teachers need to develop? Share your ideas and resources with us on Twitter!

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