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Aurora Institute

Keep the Vision in Your Sights

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bill Zima

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

aloOne cannot deny the energy that has grown in support of competency-based learning. While it is still not the practice of the majority of educators, it increases by more believers every day. At its core, it is a great conversation about how to make the shift from a time-based system to one focused on learners demonstrating understanding of learning competencies. For me, the true power of competency-based education can be actualized when connected with a true learner-centered approach to learning. One that customizes the learning experience and drives our students into the realm of deeper learning. It can be more than a linear checklist for students to complete. The competencies can be used to support learners in becoming critical thinkers and effective communicators. We need to keep both together when visioning with our stakeholders.

I do not mean to say that having a well defined progression of competencies – increasing from the simple to the more complex and making sure students are proficient before moving to the next target – is not an important step forward for learning. Thanks to John Hattie, we know that two of the best strategies a teacher can use to improve learning is to have clear targets and then provide feedback on how students are doing at meeting those targets.

But I believe the competencies can help educators go further. Help us reach the ever-elusive four-leaf clover of education, the deeper learning experience. This is when students are asked to apply their knowledge and not simply be tested for its existence. While it is not a new concept, and is certainly being realized in pockets of classrooms around the world, we can do more to make it common practice.

In order for all students to have the motivation to expend the extra energy required to think deeper and reason with knowledge at a higher cognitive level, a sentiment usually expressed during the visioning phase of system change, the learning opportunities we create need to be more relevant with clear expectations to the students. That is why learner-centered, competency-based systems need to be connected if we are to reach the vision. To stop improving our educational systems once we have the competencies will limit the full potential for all students.

The vision created at Mt. Ararat Middle School was “Fueling Hope Through Learning.” As educators, we wanted the learning in our school to be active. We wanted students to not simply know things, we wanted them to understand. To do so, they would need to do something with the knowledge. We wanted to create learning opportunities that would have learners take the knowledge gained during the unit and then solve a problem. We also wanted this to be done anywhere and at any time. We came to call this Applied Learning.

I theorize that in order for a teacher to be comfortable at certifying a student’s performance as proficient in an Applied Learning Opportunity, they need to build their own understanding of how competencies work. So we created a progression of learning for teachers.

Step One – Understand how to instruct, assess to build evidence, and then provide feedback to the students on how they are doing at meeting a specific learning target. While some teachers already set goals or desired outcomes for students as they begin a unit, step one is about making it transparent to the learner. We agreed all learners should know the answer to three questions: what are you learning, when do you know you understand, and what do you need to do next. The last question is not about the student knowing the next step on the progression of learning. It is about confirming that the student understood the feedback they received from the teacher and is prepared to use it effectively. In other words, are they clear on what needs to be done to improve their chance of hitting or exceeding the target?

Step Two – Begin creating learning opportunities that ask students to apply their knowledge and not simply pass a test. We want to see proof of understanding. Teachers build units of study combining learning targets from a single content. To keep the units manageable for students, it is best to limit the number of targets to two or three per a three week unit. Teachers then tie the targets together by creating a driving question the students will answer to demonstrate their understanding of the targets. The teacher, through the use of ongoing formative assessment, then guides the students through the process of acquiring the foundational knowledge, processing it to create an understanding, and then outputting the understanding into their chosen mode of presentation.

Step Three – Teachers create integrated Applied Learning Opportunities. These involve several content areas and several teachers working collaboratively. The targets are still tied together with a driving question. Learners are taught how to generate sub-questions and then seek their answer. Teachers facilitate the learning through ongoing formative assessment as they guide the students to answer their own sub-questions.

Once a teacher understands how to create and assess an Integrated Applied Learning Opportunity, they will become more comfortable in certifying learning experiences that students create either with their teacher, in the case of an independent project or a class co-taught with the teacher, or as a completely external exercise, such as an internship.

Stopping after only one step toward our vision, creating the progression of competencies, will cause shifts in our instruction and improve the support our learners receive. But to truly realize the full potential of a learner-centered, proficiency-based education, we need to keep on the journey of continuous improvement to better engage students in deeper learning opportunities.

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Nina Lopez is an independent consultant, based in Boulder, CO. Nina provides facilitation, strategy and innovation design services to private foundations, non-profit and government entities in Colorado and throughout the country to help them incubate new initiatives, develop a shared vision and a clear strategy for achieving individual and collective goals.