3 Reasons Schools Should Embrace Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning is a powerful approach that helps teachers put students first while building a reflective practice.
"For teachers, embracing CBL removes the bonds of having to pace and conduct classes in a way that serves content and allows them to instead become support coaches with a more direct, measurable effect on success for each student."

As schools and districts around the country look for ways to engage 21st century learners and build bright, productive futures for each student, more and more educators are taking a hard look at competency-based learning (CBL). CBL is an approach that makes learning highly concrete for students by being transparent about what knowledge and skills each class or learning experience is supposed to help them develop.

There are many reasons competency-based learning is a compelling approach for today’s teachers and students, but here are three of the best, simplest reasons why CBL is so powerful:

CBL creates opportunities for more students to succeed

Under our traditional classroom model, identified high-achieving students generally do extremely well across the board, while identified struggling students generally do poorly across the board. This has created a de facto class system in schools across the country that extends beyond the realm of learning and affects students’ feelings of self-confidence, their social standing in their peer community and their optimism for their future. For decades, many students have failed to engage, buy in or fully take advantage of their education because of the way our school model makes them feel about themselves.

CBL, on the other hand, seeks to pry the schoolhouse doors open as wide as possible to increase access and authenticity for all students. By allowing students to focus on demonstrable skills and applicable knowledge, competency-based thinking invites students to see themselves as works in progress with achievable goals in sight. In this way, CBL broadens students’ and teachers’ definitions of academic success to create a world in which anybody, regardless of the grades they’ve historically gotten, feels like they can use their time in school to productively prepare for the rigor and challenges of adult life.

CBL breaks the cycle of content-centric thinking

When young teachers break into the profession, they generally plan their units and lessons around content. This is especially true for middle and high school teachers, who are required by definition to take ownership of student learning in a particular subject or discipline. However, content-driven classrooms generally wind up being highly teacher-centric, with an emphasis on students “keeping up with the work” for fear of falling behind the pace of the class. That mindset does little for student learning and communicates that the teacher and the textbook are the two most important things in the classroom by far.

When schools value competencies over content, they free up their teachers and students to use time and space in the classroom in a way that truly works for everybody. When the goal shifts from “learn all this stuff” to “master these measurable skills,” it helps students understand the purpose of each class much better, which builds engagement. In fact, done correctly, CBL eliminates the student question of “Why do we have to learn this?” because the takeaways from each class are well-defined and clearly transferrable to life beyond that subject area or classroom. For teachers, embracing CBL removes the bonds of having to pace and conduct classes in a way that serves content and allows them to instead become support coaches with a more direct, measurable effect on success for each student.

CBL makes it easier for teachers to assess students and themselves

Of course, assessment will always be one of the most important (and demanding) responsibilities for educators. However, competency-based learning invites teachers to look through a new lens when determining student achievement and performance. For decades, grading has alternately been interpreted as either a strict analysis of numbers and scores or a holistic reflection of a student’s work and behavior as a citizen in the classroom. CBL, however, encourages teachers to look at students in terms of functional skill and improvement.

That means that, instead of viewing a student as a “great kid” who works hard and gets good grades, CBL challenges teachers to zero in on areas for improvement or skills not yet mastered, even for the strongest students. Conversely, rather than viewing a student as someone who is “lazy” or “just doesn't’ get it,” CBL challenges teachers to truly assess what each learner knows and can do rather than labeling them in a way that limits their abilities for success in the future.

Furthermore, CBL shifts the teacher mindset in a way that promotes professional reflection and self-assessment. Unlike the traditional, content-driven classroom approach, which allows teachers to externalize poor student performance as a lack of effort, competency-based thinking keeps educators squarely focused on how they can best support learning. As teachers see what strategies, supports and interventions actually help students achieve their goals and master competencies more effectively, they quickly build understanding of what works and what doesn’t work for young learners. In this way, CBL provides educators with a moment-to-moment feedback loop that informs practice much more effectively than the unit-to-unit pace of the old model.