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Aurora Institute

Reimagine Education: Leading Competency-based Learning Redesign

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Aurora Institute Symposium, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

In this blog, Susan Patrick examines how the pandemic has challenged us to realize learning can happen inside and outside of schools, and how we can and must embrace redesigning our education systems to provide more flexible, competency-based learning to meet the needs of all learners. She invites readers to attend the Aurora Institute Symposium on October 25-27, 2021 focused on “leading competency-based education redesign”.

Below are excerpts from Susie An’s Interview with Susan Patrick, CEO Aurora Institute, on WBEZ Reimagine Chicago Ideas Forum on Education (on YouTube starting at 20:44)

What Is Competency-based Education?

The concept behind competency-based education is simple: learning is best measured by students demonstrating mastery of learning, rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom.

K-12 competency-based education (CBE) is also called mastery-based education and proficiency-based education. Aurora Institute’s CompetencyWorks published a definition of competency-based education with seven elements needed for high-quality implementation. The definition emphasizes “strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the structure, culture, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.”

The Aurora Institute definition of competency-based education is a system where:

  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.

A competency-based district should implement all seven elements of the definition. CBE is founded on principles of equity for all learners and a belief that all students can learn and meet high expectations.

Launching CBE in schools involves a design process with leadership from the ground up. This is not a top-down reform. It is educators leading the work, connected to communities, parents, and students calling for new designs that support every student building the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need. If we begin to design our schools based on needs and how students learn best – and design for outcomes that include academic knowledge and the skills they need for lifelong learning – we can transform how everyday teaching and learning happens.

By using the research on how kids learn best, we can advance breakthrough models to provide flexibility and simultaneously improve teaching and learning through competency-based education.

CBE is built to support teachers personalizing learning for each student, and tailors education to each students’ needs, strengths and interests, involving student voice and choice with flexibility and varied pacing.

Susie An: How Common is Competency-Based Education?

Susan Patrick: It is happening around the world and growing across the United States.

The rate of CBE adoption is accelerating quickly. We estimate 49 states in the US are planning or implementing competency-based education. From Idaho to South Carolina to North Dakota, Maine and New Hampshire, Georgia and California, school districts are turning to competency-based education to redesign and provide more student-centered options to parents.

A Hart research survey from May 2021 showed 91% of parents agree that learning needs to be more personalized and “this is an opportunity to reimagine public education to meet children’s academic, social, and emotional needs and ensure that all children can thrive.”

Why the increasing adoption of personalized, competency-based learning? In traditional schools, students advance regardless of the gaps they might have. It’s time to redesign our schools to personalize learning and ensure that there’s a promise to every learner to achieve mastery of the knowledge and skills they need over a lifetime. The future will demand that young people experience learning that happens inside and outside of school, in person, online, and in blended contexts, involves contributing to their communities, navigating the future of work, and adapting to rapid changes requiring lifelong learning and success skills.

Susie An: What is the goal of competency-based education?

Susan Patrick: We know that traditional, one-size fits all system is not producing the desired outcomes. We need to examine why it’s not working. We need to stop tweaking the old industrial education system and transform.

There’s a need to focus on re-examining the purpose of K-12 education. Are we designing for excellence and human flourishing?

We know that the traditional, one-size-fits-all system of education was never designed for all students to reach the highest levels of learning. Nor is it producing the outcomes we desire. We need to examine why it’s not working.

In a competency-based education system, failure may be part of a student’s learning process, but it isn’t an outcome. Success is the only outcome. With a competency-based education system, we can begin to support teachers in personalizing learning for each student by tailoring education to each students’ needs.

To achieve the goals of competency-based education, it helps to understand the flaws of the traditional education system. In leading the redesign to competency-based learning, let’s take a look at what needs to change:

  • The traditional system has very narrow outcomes. Literacy and numeracy are essential, but no longer sufficient.
  • The traditional education system is inflexible and time-based which results in variable amounts of learning in a single bell period. Is derived from an industrial “factory” model, batching kids and potentially leaving huge gaps in learning. Even a “B” grade of 80% means there is a gap of 20% missing in the knowledge assessed.
  • Grading practices themselves can have major variability in how student learning on assignments is communicated to parents with mixed messages from different teachers without some calibration process. Competency-based assessments are calibrated against a common criterion on what a student must show and demonstrate to meet the learning goals with evidence of student work at a level of mastery.
  • Traditional education models are built on deficit models, ranking and sorting kids, boiling an entire K-12 experience down to a single GPA. CBE models collect student work and provide a portfolio of evidence of learning over time; there are mastery transcripts which are far more valuable in showing students abilities, skills, knowledge and assets.
  • Traditional systems are focused on intrinsic motivation and passive learning. CBE builds and develops student ownership and agency in setting goals and is built on extrinsic motivation. Competency-based learning is shifting the active role of learning on students who develop greater ownership as they progress in age and stage.
  • Finally, traditional schools operate from a fixed mindset creating winners and losers. CBE schools are focused on growth mindset and recognize all students can learn with supportive conditions focused on learning and well-being – getting all kids to mastery with support.

The current traditional education system was built on a factory model, and never designed for all students to reach the highest levels of learning. The results are predictable by income level and student outcomes have changed very little over the past 50 years. We can change that. We just need to set a vision and engage communities in redefining student success with an eye for a higher purpose for our education systems – one designed for all students to flourish, build knowledge and skills, have demonstrated competence, and regularly experience success.

By redesigning the education system around actual student learning, we will prepare each student more effectively for their futures in an increasingly global and competitive economy.

How can a traditional school start advancing these breakthrough models?

Here are three ways to get started:

  1. Start increasing student agency, voice, and choice. Engage students in co-design of their learning so it is personalized, culturally responsive, and inclusive. Students have flexibility and can move on when they demonstrate mastery at their own pace, with supports to keep them on track to graduate on time. Learning happens anytime, anywhere.
  2. Make assessments more meaningful to students with performance assessments, or authentic assessments, creating evidence of student work to demonstrate their learning.
  3. Assess equity strategies. Engage students, families, communities holistically to answer the questions: how should we define success differently? What are your needs in redesigning toward student-centered learning? How can we ensure transparency and accountability in serving all students anywhere, anytime in our communities? 

We can open our school walls so that our next generation of students are primed to lead in our society and contribute to their communities – strengthening democracy, ensuring a just, open, and prosperous society. It starts with rethinking school and the purpose of education.

Learn More About CBE . . . an Invitation to Register for the Aurora Symposium 

Interested in learning more about competency-based education redesign? Please join us and register for our annual Symposium. The theme is “Leading Competency-Based Education Redesign” and will feature dozens of informative sessions.

Our annual Aurora Institute Symposium will be held virtually on October 25-27. The Symposium is the field’s largest gathering of education innovators who are working in schools, districts, and statehouses to transform the future of teaching and learning in K-12 education. We will specifically explore how to lead the shift to competency-based education and drive systems change, address challenges, and explore next-generation learning.

If you are interested in learning more about competency-based education, be sure to register for the Aurora Institute Symposium.

Susan Patrick is the President & CEO of the Aurora Institute and the Co-founder of the CompetencyWorks initiative studying the latest trends and research on K-12 competency-based education policies and practice in the United States.