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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #8: Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the ninth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #8 Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills on page 63. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.

There are many different reasons to turn to competency-based education: creating a more equitable system; creating a more personalized system that allows students to soar; creating a continuously improving system; and creating a system to support the development of higher-level skills. In fact, competency-based education can be designed to do all four of these with high quality implementation.

Let’s look at how it can support the development of higher-level skills. The traditional education system has tended to focus on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy: memorization and comprehension. These are important aspects of learning and should not be undervalued. Memorization, recall, and fluency are tremendously important as students venture into more complex studies and problems. If students haven’t memorized or are not fluent they are drawing on their working memory to access the prerequisite knowledge with less available to use for understanding the more advanced concepts.

The concept of competency means to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to different and challenging contexts. The process of transfer or application requires students to use the higher end of Bloom’s: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In addition, real-world problem-solving requires students to use a range of skills that are sometimes called transferable skills or 21st century skills. These include communication skills, collaboration, and creativity. These sets of higher order skills are the ones that students will use in the workplace and in addressing challenges they encounter in their lives.

Sometimes you will hear people try to create either/or comparisons of academic knowledge with higher order skills. Often, people trying to undermine competency education will say it only values soft skills and doesn’t teach students academic knowledge. Don’t let this happen! Always communicate that competency-based education is about academic knowledge and the skills to apply it.

As districts and schools create transparent frameworks of their learning targets organized around competencies, standards, or both, teachers will eventually begin to discuss the alignment between the depth of knowledge of the learning target, the assessments, and the instructional strategies they are using. Teachers usually find that there are a few or maybe extensive situations in which the instruction and/or the assessment are aligned at lower depth of knowledge than called for by the learning target. This is a natural opportunity for professional learning as teachers build their knowledge and skills in aligning instruction and assessment.

One way to build capacity in your school to offer opportunity for students to develop higher order skills is through performance tasks and performance-based assessment. Rather than homework, quizzes, and tests, consider offering opportunities for students to take on challenging tasks where they both learn and demonstrate their learning. This means your school will need to invest in developing the capacity for performance-based assessment if it hasn’t done so yet.

Another way to offer learning experiences for students to use academic knowledge and skills is through project-based learning or real-world application. Remember, not all projects are high quality project-based learning. Try to offer two high quality project-based learning experiences a year. (See interview with Bob Lenz of the Buck Institute.)

However, as your school begins to organize more learning experiences for students that are opportunities for developing and demonstrating higher level skills, you will find that you will need to challenge some of the conventions of the traditional school. It’s likely that your calendar or schedule will need to change to offer opportunity for students to engage in robust projects or internships. Some students may need more time to revise their products for performance tasks or assessments as they continue to learn and practice until they reach proficiency. Teachers will certainly need time and opportunity to moderate their understanding of proficiency of higher order skills.

There isn’t one right way to organize your district or school for developing higher order skills. States and statewide organizations can play a key role in developing this capacity. There is much to be learned from the PACE initiative in New Hampshire how to build moderated capacity for performance-based assessment.

Read the Entire Series:

  1. Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
  2. Purpose-Driven
  3. Commit to Equity
  4. Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
  5. Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
  6. Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
  7. Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
  8. Activate Student Agency and Ownership
  9. Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
  10. Ensure Responsiveness
  11. Seek Intentionality and Alignment
  12. Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
  13. Maximize Transparency
  14. Invest in Educators as Learners
  15. Increase Organizational Flexibility
  16. Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
  17. Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery