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How Should We Define Competencies for Competency-Based Education Models?

I enjoyed hearing more about Competency-Based Education at the recent iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium. Both the keynote address as well as several of the conference sessions emphasized the goal of moving toward more competency-based models using principles and strategies outlined by the organization CompetencyWorks. Competency-based approaches certainly help educators “plan backward” in that student-learning outcomes are defined from the outset. Even some universities are implementing competency-based models, though there are some reasonable concerns about logistics, rigor, coherence, and credentialing. However, the underlying principles of a competency-based approach are clearly in the best interest of students, their learning, and their use of time in formal education settings.

In brief, the five aspects of competency-based education shared at iNACOL (and paraphrased by me) are:

  1. Students should advance on their learning path upon demonstrated mastery
  2. Competencies should be transferable learning objectives that empower students
  3. Assessments and the assessment experience should be positive and meaningful
  4. Students should receive timely, differentiated support as they progress toward goals
  5. Competencies should emphasize the application and creation of knowledge, as students develop important skills and dispositions

I’m excited about the possibilities for students of all ages to advance and progress based on demonstrated mastery (#1 above). The option of “testing out” of courses hasn’t often been available at the K–12 level for logistical and other reasons that I frequently encountered as a teacher and district math leader. However, blended learning models and online offerings eliminate many of those barriers when students have truly demonstrated mastery. Just as universities allow a student to enroll in Calculus 2 regardless of that student’s age, there are increasingly more opportunities for students in K–12 to prove their mastery in courses and therefore advance at a unique pace. There are also more data to help educators provide the differentiated support called for above (especially #4).

What worries me about competency-based approaches is ensuring that we achieve the rigorous outcomes listed above in #2 and #5. Too often, “competencies” could easily become a list of discrete skills or rote knowledge—things that are easy to measure but can’t serve as evidence of “mastery” when evaluated separately. The vision cast by iNACOL very clearly states that the learning objectives should be “transferable,” “empowering,” and involve “application,” “creation,” and the development not just of skills, but also of “dispositions.” The Muscatine School District in Iowa is defining a competency as “an enduring understanding that requires the transfer of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to complex situations in and/or across content areas and/or beyond the classroom.” These are the correct types of learning goals that should be monitored and measured in competency-based models, and they echo the ideas in three of my favorite books: How People Learn, Understanding by Design, and Teaching What Matters Most.

Given that independent transfer and dispositions (habits of mind) are critical goals in competency-based models, it’s important to ensure that there are meaningful, valid, and reliable assessments of those dispositions (#3 above). These models will not improve students’ critical thinking if the assessments used only test what’s easy to test. For example, in mathematics, having number sense and computational fluency requires more than knowing the times tables. It means that a student doesn’t grab a pencil to solve 302 – 297 or need a calculator to solve 6 x 13. Therefore in competency-based models—as is true in any educational model—the assessments are critical. The evidence we collect of students’ dispositions and their ability to transfer and create knowledge reveals a great deal about what we value in student outcomes, what we mean by “mastery,” and how we will support students in reaching these goals.

Tim Hudson