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competency based learning

4 important lessons our school learned about competency-based learning

Competency-based learning creates a personal, rigorous, and meaningful learning experience for students

The rigors of an interconnected, global society have changed the way in which schools need to approach student success. In previous generations, the “organize and sort” method, typified by an A-F grading scale, was the most thorough manner of assessing students given the lack of unifying systems that could track and chart specific skill development.

But times have changed. In the last 10 years, a school’s ability to dig deep into the specific skill sets of students and provide meaningful information about their strengths and challenges has grown dramatically. Through competency-based education, we can now provide more relevant, personal assessment for each student and use that assessment to truly develop an equitable model of student success—as long as we are willing to accept innovation.

Of course, for schools to make the jump to competency-based education, they must adjust their pedagogy and learning systems in a manner that emphasizes student-centered and human-centric learning practices. If the data that competency-based education provides is used as simply a greater and more robust means of sorting out “winners and losers,” then the many benefits—from personalized instruction to equitable classroom models—go out the window. We must adjust our own collective sense of meaningful pedagogy in concert with the change in technology to take advantage of what we’re capable of doing now and steer it in a manner that benefits kids.

So what school-wide practices support true competency-based education?

1. Human-to-human relationships
Competency-based learning requires a much closer relationship between student and teachers. When a student feels seen and understood by an adult, their ability to engage in the intricacies of a competency-based program increases exponentially.

At Bennett Day Upper School in Chicago, we’ve incorporated a robust advisory program, including 60-minute daily meetings and home visits, so that every teacher has a relationship with their students that goes above and beyond the typical connection. This allows that teacher to both help a student determine a relevant path to obtaining competencies while simultaneously providing accountability for students that doesn’t seem punitive.

2. Shared vision for the portrait of a graduate
Tying competencies to standards such as Common core or NextGen Science standards is efficient, but it doesn’t necessarily provide students with a personalized experience. Schools should take the time to connect their competencies to the unique students that come through their buildings each day. The most effective way to do this is through the development of a portrait of a graduate.

Once the essential skills that the school has determined make up a graduate of the school, competencies can be tied to those skills. As a bonus, this allows schools to identify the ways in which seemingly disparate siloed subjects require common skill sets, such as the importance of logical thinking in both geometry and persuasive writing.

3. Flexible, student-driven curriculum choices
The true advantage of competency-based education comes from the options it creates for students in terms of how to fulfill the competencies. Creating unique courses that allow for competencies to be reached in ways that appear more meaningful and relevant to students allows for schools to challenge students and make school a place in which they feel their identity and voice matters. Whenever possible, incorporating student voice in the creation of these courses is even more preferred; if teachers are focused on the competencies and essential skills, why not allow students the chance to decide the content?

4. Thoughtful incorporation of local and national partners
Partnering with local businesses, nonprofits, and community groups to offer students additional ways to obtain competencies provides an even greater expansion of learning opportunities for students. Because competency-based learning eliminates the need for seat-time requirements, schools should take advantage of the freedom to offer students the chance to make a difference outside their building. By connecting with the world outside the school, students have the chance to make an impact on the world. When students find something to be truly authentic, their performance dramatically increases. Rethinking what, and who, is involved in the teaching of students is a possibility that competency-based education provides, and we cannot avoid the opportunity to open our doors to the world at large.

To paraphrase an oft-used quote: The most dangerous seven words in the English language are “because we’ve always done it this way.” In an era in which every aspect of our society is undergoing a tectonic shift, we cannot rely on that logic to guide our education system.

We owe it to our young learners to use every tool at our disposal to create the best learning environment for them. And competency-based learning is a step in the right direction. However, we must coordinate our jump to competency-based learning with a movement that takes advantage of the freedom afforded and creates a truly personal, rigorous, and meaningful learning experience for our students.

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