Why is Competency-Based Learning Good for Students?

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Competency-based learning (CBL) makes school more transparent and engaging for students.
"CBL blows away the fog between learners and the curriculum to show them what school is truly all about: making themselves better."

Competency-based learning (CBL) is a transformational methodology that eliminates the constraints of traditional pacing and empowers students to focus on building knowledge and skill rather than needing to “keep up with the class.” However, because competency-based learning strays so far from the traditional classroom model, many parents, administrators and even veteran teachers have trouble understanding what makes the CBL approach so special.

Here’s a look on some specific ways CBL supports students and sets them up for lifelong success:

Building Learning Skills; Not Learning Content
If the last decade has proven anything in education, it’s that 20th century approaches do not work for many 21st century learners. Increasingly, the previously successful sequence of introducing content through direct instruction, building comfort through homework and repetitive drills and assessing via summative quiz or test is either leaving students behind or failing to engage them in a way that truly promotes academic success.

Competency-based learning completely obliterates this standardized model by focusing on transferrable thinking and real-world skills. Instead of learning fact-based content that they have a set time to master, students are presented with skills, ideas or strategies that will help them tackle authentic problems and navigate the challenges that they’ll encounter throughout school and adult life. This means student’s don’t just gain “knowledge” in school, they grow as problem-solvers, build a baseline toolkit of skills and use each new experience or skill to enhance their understanding of what they already know how to do and what they still have to learn.

Providing Transparency to the K-12 Experience
Teachers hate hearing this, but the purpose of this whole school thing we do is still unclear to a large number of learners. While adults constantly assure them that the information they’re learning will directly inform their future and build success, it can be pretty challenging for a ten- or even sixteen-year-old to appreciate that long-range perspective. In fairness to students, there’s not a lot of Walt Whitman or Teapot Dome talk going on around workplace water coolers either, so their skepticism of the process is not without merit.

CBL blows away the fog between learners and the curriculum to show them what school is truly all about: making themselves better. A competency-based learning environment presents transparently valuable baseline skills and scaffolds each student upward in complexity with a pace and a support system that’s right for them. That means there’s finally time and space to discuss the real-world value of each new idea or skill, and, with CBL, students invest in learning experiences because they recognize them as investments in themselves.

Valuing Learning; Not Receptiveness to Teaching
Unlike the teacher-centric 20th century model, CBL is all about learners and learning. In the past, student achievement, performance and conduct were often viewed through the lens of how good a student was at doing things the way the teacher liked them. Whether it was properly formatting the heading on a piece of paper, accessing content through a particular avenue or demonstrating learning in a certain narrow manner, achievement often looked more like “being good at school” than actual learning.

Students love competency-based learning because it’s all about them and their evolving understanding of how to navigate the world. Achievement in a CBL environment is incredibly rewarding for learners because they can see themselves improving in measurable ways and developing a skill set that reflects both their strengths and their ability to navigate areas in which they are still building comfort and fluency. Since functional achievement is the emphasis in CBL, students can feel empowered to learn and explore in a variety of productive ways that lead to positive results rather than having to worry about how the teacher wants them to do it. This combination of freedom and structure is what makes competency-based learning so engaging and powerful for learners.