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Aurora Institute

Global Highlights: A Scan of High-Performing Countries Using Elements of Competency-Based Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Susan Gentz

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Policymakers and educators in the U.S. can learn important lessons from high-performing education systems around the world. Last year, CompetencyWorks (an iNACOL initiative) surveyed and studied several high-performing countries’ elementary and secondary education policies and practices.

This blog explores how three high-performing countries demonstrate elements of competency education within their systems.

Elements of Competency Education

What are the elements? CompetencyWorks’­­ 5-part definition of high-quality competency education is:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Competency-based progressions are fundamental to personalizing learning at scale.

Competency Education Abroad: Highlights from Canada, Finland and Scotland

British Columbia (BC), Canada

One Canadian province, British Columbia, adopted an education plan, the “K-12 Innovation Strategy,” to create more personalized learning opportunities for all students within the province.

Personalizing learning for every student involves curriculum redesign. The new curriculum is based on guiding principles that increase autonomy at the school level, provide greater curricular flexibility, and focus attention on students demonstrating competency on higher order skills. These guiding principles include: ž

  • Making curriculum more flexible to better enable teachers to innovate and personalize learning; ž
  • Reducing the prescriptive nature of current content-driven curricula while ensuring a solid focus on essential learning; ž
  • Focusing new curricula on higher order and deeper learning, giving emphasis to the key concepts and enduring understandings (big ideas) that students need to succeed in their education and their lives;
  • Making explicit the cross-curricular competencies to support life-long learning; and
  • Respecting the inherent logic and unique nature of the disciplines while supporting efforts to develop cross-curricular units.

British Columbia’s plan offers greater autonomy to teachers, who permit students to choose how they “show what they know” and demonstrate competency on deeper learning outcomes. Educators can maximize innovation, personalization, creative thinking, and collaboration to address the needs of diverse learners in different contexts.

Canada consistently outperforms the United States on PISA exams in math, science, and reading.


Finland has consistently scored near the top of PISA rankings with unparalleled equity in performance amongst its students. The country’s education system is designed to foster student agency, responsibility, and growth through self-directed, autonomous learning, especially in the later high school grades.

Finland’s national curriculum framework provides general learning objectives and goals, but local schools decide on standards, learning objectives, teaching methods, and detailed outcomes. There are clear rubrics for what it looks like when a student masters the standards at a high level. The national curriculum framework includes common assessment criteria, but teachers and students have a tremendous amount of freedom in how they teach and learn.

Teachers assess student learning through ongoing performance-based, formative assessments. Finnish schools provide significant supports for students in need and who are struggling. Performance tasks require students to demonstrate what they know and can do. Teachers work with students to ensure they are mastering the material. Students understand their progress and help to co-design their own learning experiences. The system is designed to foster academic skills and dispositions to prepare them for future success.

In the tenth through twelfth grades, students engage in self-directed, self-paced learning. During these years, students build their own personalized learning schedules. They complete courses at a pace appropriate to their abilities and unique circumstances. Most complete the prescribed courses in three years, though some students progress more rapidly or more slowly.

Clear learning objectives, assessments that are meaningful to students, timely supports and interventions, and a focus on important skills and dispositions are all elements of competency-based education. Finland’s system ensures students master skills at a high level and can demonstrate these skills through performance-based assessments.


While Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, it sets its own education policies. In 2012, the country scored well above average on PISA.

Scotland gives schools explicit flexibility to provide a range of progression pathways appropriate to students’ needs and local circumstances.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which launched in SY 2010-2011, embraces certain important elements of competency education. It focuses on formative assessments in the classroom, a “show what you know” crosscutting pedagogical strategy, learning goals that students clearly articulate, and the needs of the holistic well being of the child. The Curriculum for Excellence website offers examples of experiences, outcomes, assessments, and success criteria, modeling for teachers the multilayered, multifaceted nature of high-quality competency education.

While no country is implementing a full-blown competency-based education system, some countries provide strong elements of competency-based education as part of their foundational frameworks. School systems internationally are seeking guidance on how to design learning environments with competency-based progressions to foster personalized learning in the future.

iNACOL and CompetencyWorks will continue to highlight promising practices and developments in personalized, competency-based education.

Learn More at and

The CompetencyWorks report, An International Study in Competency Education: Postcards from Abroad, provides more detail on the approaches of Canada, China, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom and how they are implementing design elements of competency-based education.