"Competency-based learning removes the shroud of mystery that surrounds school for many students and helps them understand exactly what they’re doing in that building for six hours 180 days out of the year."
Schools and districts around the country are increasingly finding that the traditional classroom model is failing to engage 21st century learners. Many longtime teachers even report that they’ve never seen a wider gap between their engaged, high-achieving students and their disengaged, struggling learners. While it’s irrational to walk away from all the good aspects of our school system that we’ve created, it’s definitely time to rethink how we do school on a daily basis.
More than ever, learners are unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing in school. They recognize even better than their teachers that nearly all fact-based questions can be definitively answered and understood using internet technology, and that knowledge has made them look at their time in school more critically than ever before. If students don’t feel that school is worthwhile or doing something for them that a laptop, tablet, or smartphone cannot, then they’re simply not going to engage. As educators, we absolutely must find new approaches that get students to buy in by providing them with a high-quality, personal experience that goes beyond the didacticism of the 20th century classroom.
One of the best and most successful approaches for 21st century learners is competency-based learning (CBL). Competency-based learning inverts the order of traditional learning by placing end goals in the forefront of learners’ minds, making each experience toward that goal more purposeful and transparently valuable. Let’s take a moment to compare and contrast the traditional classroom with CBL.
Under the traditional classroom model, most units of study are built around concepts or topics (for example, a unit about genetics in science; a unit about the Revolutionary War in social studies; a unit about fractions in math). During the course of each content-based unit, students gain knowledge, learn new skills and increase their comfort navigating domain-specific texts on their way to a cumulative test or project. Classroom teachers know well, however, that this approach doesn’t work for all students. If a student becomes frustrated with the content early in the unit, they can easily disengage and miss out on the rest of the knowledge and skills that follow. Additionally, the model often mistakenly leads students and teachers alike to believe that memorizing fact-based content is as valuable as learning transferable skills and developing critical thinking.
Competency-based learning, on the other hand, upends this order, allowing knowledge and skill targets to become top priority over content. This mindset emphasizes the role that school will play in each student’s future, rather than their immediate present. Instead of learning material to do well on the test or get a good grade for the term, students are empowered to use school in the way it was always intended: to build a base of knowledge and skill that sets them up to have a meaningful role in the adult world. In this way, competency-based learning removes the shroud of mystery that surrounds school for many students and helps them understand exactly what they’re doing in that building for six hours 180 days out of the year.
CBL makes school a much more student-friendly environment because it makes expectations clearer than ever while also challenging students to become masters of each skill and knowledge goal they are presented with. While a shift towards competency-based learning may seem like a major adjustment in the way teachers and students do business, that’s exactly what makes it such a powerful, modern approach.