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Aurora Institute

CompetencyWorks Releases Report Updating Definition of Competency-Based Education

Education Domain Blog

Today, the CompetencyWorks initiative of the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) released What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition. The report updates the 2011 working definition, which helped to build the field and create common understandings of key elements in competency-based systems among stakeholders. The definition has been used by schools to support design and implementation, by states to establish supporting policies and a common vision, and by national organizations to provide frameworks for networks of states, districts, and schools to discuss their initiatives and build shared understanding.

The 2011 working definition was developed by more than 100 education innovators at the first National Summit for K-12 Competency-Based Education. Several years later, feedback indicated that it should be updated to reflect a deeper understanding of key issues and developments in the field. The new report presents the updated definition, which was developed with extensive input from field surveys, invited attendees at the second National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education in 2017, and a Technical Advisory Group of more than 40 experts in the field.

Updated Definition

The updated 2019 definition of competency-based education is:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

Elements 1, 5, and 6 of the definition are new to place a greater focus on the importance of equity, student agency, and different pathways. Element 1 reflects the field’s greater understanding of the essential nature of student agency in building student motivation, engagement, lifelong learning skills, and depth of knowledge. The statement that students are empowered “daily” to make important decisions about their education signals the depth of commitment to student agency and personalized learning that is central to the shift from a traditional one-size-fits-all system to one that prepares youth more effectively for their futures.

Element 5 acknowledges that different pathways and varied pacing are essential components of competency-based education. Students still need to progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time (see Element 4), but they also arrive at mastery through different routes and in different time frames based on their personal needs, strengths, and challenges. 

Competency-based education has always been driven by the need for educational equity, and the addition of Element 6 reflects the field’s recognition of the unacceptable truth that deep inequities remain. It highlights the urgency of moving faster and deeper in changing school structure, culture, and pedagogy to achieve equitable student opportunities and outcomes.

A fuller understanding of differences between the old and new definitions can be realized from the figure below.

 Competency-Based Education: Beliefs and FAQs

The report supplements the updated definition with several additional sections, including belief statements, FAQs, what it looks like for students, common misconceptions, and resources. The promise of competency-based education systems requires a more extensive set of essential beliefs than can be provided in the brief definition so the report also includes a set of 10 “belief statements.” These include, for example: 

  • “Competency-based education is a replacement of the systems, structures, and pedagogies of the traditional system.” 
  • “Equity is a central goal of advancing competency-based education systems,” and 
  • “Learning happens anytime and anywhere.”

The FAQs explain terms and concepts from the definition of competency-based education and the belief statements. For example, two complementary definitions of the term “equity” are provided, as well as explanations of terms including “transferable,” “varied pacing,” and “different pathways.” The final FAQ provides a set of 10 responses to the question, “What do students experience in a competency-based school?”

The next section discusses two common misconceptions about competency-based education. The first is that competency-based education is nothing more than varied pacing, when in fact, that is only one of many elements. The second is that competency-based education is nothing more than adaptive educational software that enables varied pacing but minimizes the role and richness of the teacher and the classroom environment. The report discusses the risks that these misconceptions hold.

Developing advanced competency-based systems requires years of planning, implementation, reflection, continuous improvement, and redesign—ideally with the support of strong professional learning organizations. The report concludes with links to dozens of resources that leaders in the field have developed to support practitioners and policymakers who are engaged in this work.

Preparing all students for success requires creating an education system that ensures equity and promotes deep student engagement and learning. The revised definition of competency-based education and the companion materials in the report will support and deepen understanding of the effective, high-quality systems needed to attain these essential goals.

Download the full report here and learn more from the other resources below.

Learn More

Eliot Levine is Research Director at the Aurora Institute and leads the CompetencyWorks initiative.

Susan Patrick is President and CEO of the Aurora Institute.