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Aurora Institute

Enjoying Learning or Completing Tasks? How Do You Explain Competency-Based Education?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

What is competency-based education? It seems that it is harder to explain than it should be. Or perhaps we haven’t put enough energy into trying to make it easily understood. The problem is if we don’t become better able to explain it, then communities across the country will think it is just about a self-paced curriculum, a jazzed up outcome-based model, or a new system of grading. They’ll only implement a sliver of what is, in fact, a major rehaul so that the education system is designed to support and sustain effective teaching and powerful learning.

The problem is further complicated in that the reporters at local newspapers are highly influential in how competency-based education is described. Take this article in the Courier Express for example. Competency-based education is described as:

This method and type of training takes a different approach to teaching by using concrete skills rather than abstract learning. Students are assigned “tasks” to complete, and the tasks they do well or poorly on are evaluated by the teacher, which is how they are graded.

There are several problems here. First why can’t it be both concrete skills and abstract or conceptual learning? Both are important. Second, how did performance tasks get reduced to something one completes rather than as opportunities to learn and demonstrate learning? Don’t get me wrong. The article gets a lot of things right. For example, it raises the benefit of teachers getting feedback on their instructional effectiveness as well as students getting more time to learn and multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency. The problem is that once problematic ideas are introduced, they may end up shaping the dialogue.

Another example of how competency-based education is problematically described comes from Vermont:

It’s all about measuring a child based on a standard, and it’s all about collecting evidence.

Hmm. It’s true that competency-based education requires a transparent architecture of what we want students to know and be able to do. And, yes, it is true that we want to develop evidence of learning so teachers are making informed decisions about how to best support students and determine that they are truly mastering the skills and knowledge. However, learning is so much more than “measuring a child.”

Superintendents, principals, and teachers play a critical role in how competency-based education is introduced and how community members and parents react to it. Compare the examples above to an article from New Hampshire highlighting a new principal:

Lucas feels strongly about empowering children to take an active role in their education, to reflect on and revise their learning. “To feel proud of their work,” she said. The goal is for students to become self-aware, have fun and even joyful as they approach their education. “I think I believe in much more of a CBE (Competency Based Education) approach,” she said. “To take kids where they’re at.”

Wouldn’t everyone want their children to feel proud and enjoy their learning?

I’m just wondering – should we prepare a guide for local newspapers about how to write about competency education? Should we all share our best lines or approaches that we use to explain competency-based education? Should we all share the missteps we took in talking about competency-based education so we can learn from each other’s experiences? What if we set a month for as many communities as we can to organize meetings with their local newspapers to make sure the reporters have a chance to learn more about competency education?

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