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competency-based curriculum

Curriculum trend: 4 ways to become more competency-based

How to make a classroom curriculum more competency-based, where the focus is on helping all students achieve meaningful learning objectives.

Small groups of students are clustered at tables examining a set of artifacts. Each set contains images, maps, and primary source documents that illustrate how geography impacted the history of the United States. Students use the artifacts to examine the essential question, how do the Earth’s features impact people over time? As they examine each artifact, they annotate and record information identifying the source and its purpose, the author and his or her point of view, the context in which it was created and important information about how the source reveals how the geography of the land impacted the historical event they are researching. A nearby laptop is open and readily available so students can use it to clarify or search for additional information.

The teacher circulates the room answering questions, directing students to additional resources and taking notes on student progress. Later the teacher will review the groups work and provide them with feedback directed at the competencies they are working to achieve. Students will then use the teacher feedback to revise and complete their research before sharing their learning with the class.

Why are students engaged in this work? What is driving the teacher’s feedback and next steps? If asked, the teacher would explain the goals of the unit and the related competencies the students are working towards:

  1. gather, use and interpret evidence from diverse sources
  2. take note of source context, content, authorship, point of view, purpose and format
  3. make inferences and draw conclusions
  4. analyze relationships between geography and history
  5. demonstrate strategies of a self-regulated learner

This classroom is indicative of one that could be found in a competency-based school, where the focus is on helping all students achieve meaningful learning objectives. How can a school make this shift?

(Next page: 4 ways to become more competency-based)

One place to start is with the document that most teachers use to make classroom decisions, the curriculum. A curriculum that allows teachers to focus on student progress towards important competencies is one that:

1. Clearly identifies standards and their related competencies. Listing standards in a unit of study, particularly listing just a standard code, is insufficient in creating a competency-based curriculum. Within every standard are a series of important skills. These skills need to be extracted and become the basis for the competencies that will drive student learning. In addition, competencies should move beyond content and address process and dispositions.

These outcomes are often found through the examination of other district documents such as the vision and mission statement, report card behavior and work habits, and process rubrics. They, like standards, need to be unpack to identify competencies to guide classroom instruction.

The following example illustrates how standards and other outcomes were used to create the content, process and dispositional competencies used by the teacher in the example above.

Standard/Outcome Competencies
1.     Recognize and analyze how characteristics (cultural, economic, and physical-environmental) of regions affect the history of the United States. (content) ·      Recognize cultural, economic and physical characteristics of US regions

·      Analyze relationship between geography and history

2.     Analyze evidence in terms of historical context, content, authorship, point of view, purpose, and format; identify bias; explain the role of bias and audience in presenting arguments or evidence. (process) ·      Analyze evidence

·      Take note of context, content, authorship, point of view, purpose and format

·      Identify bias

·      Explain the role of bias in an argument or document

3.     Our students will develop the social, emotional and academic skills to become self-regulated learners, able to contribute to the well-being of society. (dispositional) ·      Develop social, emotional and academic skills

·      Become self-regulated learners

·      Make contributions to others in the community

2. Strategically places and emphasizes core standards and their related competencies throughout the curriculum. The goal of a competency-based education is for all students to demonstrate proficiency of identified outcomes so it is necessary that competencies be identified and repeated throughout a school year. Students need ample time and practice to achieve them. The placement and emphasis of competencies requires awareness of such things as when new competencies are introduced in the curriculum, developmentally appropriate practice, and cross-disciplinary connections.

3. Ensures strong alignment between learning experiences and competencies. A competency-based curriculum needs to translate competencies into student actions. When learning experiences and competencies are strongly aligned it is difficult to distinguish between the two.


  • Analyze evidence
  • Take note of context, content, authorship, point of view, purpose and format


Weak Alignment Moderate Alignment Strong Alignment
Students identify the author and important information from the document. Students identify the author, document format, when and where the document was created and explain why this information is important. Students analyze documents by identifying the author, document purpose and format, content, context and point of view and how this information impacts the use of the document as evidence in explaining a concept or event.


Students may progress through learning activities that lead to demonstration of the competency but the curriculum itself is designed for strong alignment.

4. Provides related tools and resources to support the documentation of student learning. Tools and resources included in the curriculum such as “I can” statements, rubrics, checklists, reflection prompts should be clearly connected to the competencies for each unit. Coherence between these tools and the competencies will help to ensure that they translate into practice.

Even with these items in place within the curriculum, teachers will need support to successfully implement the curriculum and facilitate student learning. Teachers need opportunities to work with the curriculum and identified competencies to design daily lessons, create tools to document student learning, analyze student work and personalize activities to meet student need. At a school or district level the move towards competency means making sure that the competencies used to drive learning translate into other systems such as the assessment, and grading and reporting systems. A curriculum that focuses on competencies can create classrooms where students are at the center of learning.

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