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Aurora Institute

Going International: A Report from Mexico on Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Natalie Abel

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

EduTrends ReportIn case you missed it and want some end-of-summer reading . . . Mexico’s Observatory of Educational Innovation, Tecnologico de Monterrey, released an EduTrends report in February 2015 titled Competency Based Education, which focuses on higher education, yet many of its concepts apply more globally to K-12 models as well. The publication provides an overview of competency education, describes the changing role of the educator, illustrates international case studies, and analyzes the future of competency education as a learning architecture.

As the graphic below depicts, there is tremendous simplicity in the report’s description of competency-based education as a model that is: 1) centered on the student; 2) focused on mastery of competencies; and 3) based on learning outcomes. The learning outcomes are central to the model and essential to each student’s learning, and time for achieving each learning outcome is variable. This model of education portrays the acquisition of knowledge as the most important attribute of the learning process, not rote memorization nor hours invested.

CBE Model

In addition, the report utilizes the iNACOL/CCSSO/CompetencyWorks five-part definition of competency-based education, demonstrating our widespread reach and global impact on the field. In March 2011, iNACOL and CCSSO brought together 100 leaders in education to establish the following key design principles of competency education:

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

(Click here for an in-depth review of this working definition.)

This report’s findings build on many of the aforementioned principles and illuminate the various intricacies of competency education models transforming education and ensuring high-quality, personalized learning options for all students. Below, we highlight key findings illustrated in this report.

Meeting Market Needs and Developing Employable Learners

In 2014, the Lumina Foundation found that there is a “large gap between what the labor market requires and what traditional education is providing” with only 11 percent of business leaders confirming that graduates have the skills and competencies that their business requires. Unlike the traditional education system where students progress in age-based cohorts regardless of knowledge acquisition, competency education is an infrastructure that aligns with the needs of today’s workforce, is flexible and accessible, where students manage their own learning. There is greater transparency in the true capabilities of students to potential employers, and this system facilitates both comprehensive, transversal training as well as more specific, curricular competencies—to develop students capable of excelling in careers.

Competency-based education is a broad, holistic approach to education, where students master curricular competencies as well as soft skills, such as logical thinking, self-learning, empathy, and non-verbal communication—a combination which results in greater employability in today’s global, information-based economy.

Shifting the Teacher Role and Pedagogy

Competency education creates an infrastructure that powers personalized learning. For personalized learning to be truly realized through competency education, students must receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs along flexible learning continuums toward mastery, maximizing and optimizing each student’s learning potential.

Thus, this model requires a pedagogical or instructional shift on behalf of the educator. The role of the educator must transform to one of empowerment—toward a role as facilitator and mediator, fostering the student to discover herself as a responsible human being, with ethical values and reasoning capabilities. Here, students take greater control of their education through more enriching learning experiences that can happen anytime, anywhere.

The report also suggests that system designers should personalize professional development by developing competencies for teachers—including competencies in teamwork, communication, planning, learning assessments, mediation of learning, curricular management, content development, information and communication technologies (ICTs), and management of the quality of learning. Professional development should be designed with competency-based approaches in mind—including how to manage a personalized classroom and the flow of students working on various activities. (Lindsay Unified is developing adult learner competencies to support staff in creating personalized professional development plans.)

Assessing Prior Learning and Creating Lifelong Learners

Competency-based education infrastructures must be designed in a way that fosters a means to assess prior learning—or, where a student is on their learning trajectory when they enter the classroom. In order for educators to meet each student where she is and truly personalize learning experiences, the teacher must pinpoint every student’s current level of understanding of a variety of competencies and learning outcomes through the utilization of multiple and various assessment methods. Competency education nurtures the idea that learning happens outside the confines of the classroom and extends beyond the hours of a school day. Prior learning can include a variety of life experiences, including jobs and internships, corporate training, independent study, courses without accreditation, personal travel, and more.

Through this universal approach to education, students will seek learning opportunities in their everyday lives, fostering the idea that learning is a permanent lifelong activity. Students will pursue excellence and the development of additional competencies throughout their lives—which, in the report, leads to a brief discussion on microcredentialing and digital badging for accrediting this “permanent learning” through MOOCs, CEUs, and other opportunities.

Developing Assessment Tools and Evidence of Learning

Traditional education focuses assessment on rote memorization, storage of information, and regurgitation of curricular material. In contrast, competency-based education models design assessment around demonstrating what students are effectively capable of doing—centered on the process and outcomes—which align with the needs of today’s workforce. Assessment tools include tests, portfolios, projects, observations, focused interviews, field journals, execution tests, and others, which allow the student to demonstrate their performance and obtain significant feedback to improve their understanding for deeper learning.

Also, the report emphasizes that educators can use the rubric itself as a personalized learning map. Each student should be able to examine a class rubric to pinpoint achievements, challenges, and where they need to improve in their individual learning process.

Communicating, Implementing, and Improving

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to implementing competency education successfully, and each institution or district must develop its own model with inherent flexibility to build the system around localized needs. Leaders and educators must adapt the model to the specific mission, vision, values, and culture of the localized organization to create an integrated system where educators empower students to have voice and choice in their learning.

In the early stages of designing this new system, report authors urge leaders to create a multidisciplinary team to construct and implement the model, including parents, students, businessmen, government officials, teachers, experts in education, and both former and prospective students. Success and sustainability of competency-based systems require deep champions at the center of implementation and a team of dedicated, well-informed community stakeholders as project champions. Weaving the community into the early phases of design and implementation is also important for pinpointing challenges and overcoming obstacles. Creating feedback loops that involve these stakeholders can prevent pitfalls early and ensure adherence to the pillar of continuous improvement.

The shift to competency education requires transformation in policy, systems design, professional development, culture, funding, assessment, and grading, as well as shifts in the mindsets of parents, students, educators, administrators, and the wider community. This EduTrends report depicts the international groundswell of support for this new learning infrastructure and reiterates our international impact on the field. Through collaborative spirit and sharing of promising practices and lessons learned, together we can overcome barriers and reshape the future of education for all students, where there are no gaps in learning and all students achieve mastery.

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Natalie Abel is a Program Associate at iNACOL, where she specializes in communications and content. She also manages the operation of the CompetencyWorks brand, which provides information and knowledge regarding competency education in the K-12 educational system.