"By focusing on setting and chasing goals, competency-based approaches transform school from a land of extrinsic motivation ('Teacher says…') to a place of intrinsic motivation ('I need to do this because…')."
Competency-based learning is an exciting approach that leverages technology, real-world learning opportunities, and powerful relationships with teachers to prepare students for adulthood in the emerging world. For at least three generations, American schools looked pretty much the same: students sat in rows, and a teacher taught them facts and concepts which they committed to memory for a test or quiz. Now, however, with the rise of internet-enabled handheld technology, the classroom is in the midst of its first major reincarnation since World War II.
How is the 21st Century different?
Whether we want to admit it or not, the internet is a game-changer when it comes to how we define and implement the whole concept of school. For centuries, if not millennia, the goal of school was to teach children valuable facts and information. However, with the near ubiquity of household internet service in the US, most of the information previously curated and doled out by teachers is now available as fast as students can type into a search field or click a mouse. This means that many schools and districts around the country are essentially running an obsolete operating system.
The Information Age also ushered in an era of a global economy and removed many of the geographic limitations to hiring. That means that, more than ever, young adults and recent graduates in the US are competing in the most flooded, competitive job market in recent memory. These changes have effectively unstacked the deck that made the US public school system so effective at preparing people for the workforce for so long.
What do we need to do?
Given the rapid changes of the last twenty years, it’s more important than ever that we as a country and a culture support school-age children to ensure their future prosperity, as well as that of our nation. This requires a fundamental shift in the way we use time in school.
Competency-Based Learning (CBL) offers educators a major paradigm shift while keeping the parts of our existing school system that already work well. CBL takes the passionate, innovative, student-centered teachers our universities and graduate programs produce in large numbers and invites them to see themselves as coaches and mentors rather than lecturers and repositories of information.
Teachers in a CBL system work with students to envision an end-goal for education, encouraging them to consider their talents and strengths and think about what they might do in the adult world. This fosters planning, reflection and metacognitive skills within students, all of which are key pre-professional skills. These end goals are then broken down into specific knowledge and skill targets, some of which may apply to all students, and some of which may be individualized to meet specific student goals.
By focusing on setting and chasing goals, competency-based approaches transform school from a land of extrinsic motivation (“Teacher says…”) to a place of intrinsic motivation (“I need to do this because…”). This kind of thinking helps prepare students for the realities of today’s economy and job market, where little is given or handed out without hard work and determination.
Competency-Based Learning has the potential to take what works about our 20th century school system and use the technology and realities of the 21st century to make it even better. By setting specific goals, placing the teacher in the role of coach and inviting students to become managers of their lives and careers from an early age, CBL breathes new life into our existing education system.