The education field is regularly plagued by the need for common definitions as new practices emerge. As we’ve seen with personalized learning, ambiguous terms for ambitious ideas can create widespread confusion and even skepticism. By contrast, a common definition can pinpoint a “north star” that helps practitioners and policymakers focus efforts to implement a new approach. In the case of competency-based education, researchers and educators have worked for years to define the term and document its component parts in detail.

However, even when a general term has a common definition with relatively wide acceptance, it remains persistently difficult to use that term to describe what implementation actually looks like because not all components of a broad definition are always in practice at once. Last year, as we began working towards better collective knowledge on school innovation through the Canopy project, this challenge came into focus as we heard that people’s expectations for a visit to a so-called “competency-based” school often turned out differently from what they witnessed in person. These interviews gave us a hunch that simply labeling schools “competency-based” didn’t go far enough to indicate what’s actually happening in the school.

Related content: 5 things to help us move closer to competency-based education

What does it mean to be competency-based?

The Canopy dataset (downloadable from the project website along with a report of our primary findings), compiled from a diverse group of 235 schools across the country, offered a way to test that hunch. To build Canopy data, nominators and schools used “tags,” or keywords and phrases representing elements of school design, to describe each school’s model. The tagging system includes the more general term competency education, as well as an expanded set of “specific practice” tags that describe more granular parts of a competency-based system.

About the Author:

Chelsea Waite is a research fellow at the Christensen Institute focusing on blended and personalized learning in K-12 education, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the design of new instructional models.


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