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Aurora Institute

Teaching Differently in Competency-Based Schools

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bob Sornson

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Bob Sornson
Bob Sornson

In December, Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools by Bob Sornson will be released by Routledge. Bob has shared an excerpt of the book from the chapter on Teaching Differently.

“It’s my job to deliver the content. It’s the students’ job to keep up,” a high school social studies teacher once explained to me. As a beginning high school special education teacher, it told me all I needed to know, that I should never place another of our handicapped learners in his class, and that many other students would suffer under his instruction. While this view is incredibly insensitive to the needs of students, it is also consistent with the structure of most curriculum driven instructional systems. Teachers are given a lot to cover, told that they should be able to use their time well, cover every chapter and content expectation, manage behavior, and somehow motivate kids to try harder so they achieve higher test scores.

Imagine a school bus driver given a route to drive that is longer than could be reasonable managed in the time allowed. In this metaphor, drivers who race through the bus route and get to school on time are given kudos. And if you arrive at school with only a handful of kids, nobody complains.

When covering content is the prime objective, other behaviors suffer: Taking time to build relationships, teaching and practicing classroom routines, helping kids get to know and trust each other, exploring each student’s special interests, creating projects and activities which bring learning to life, developing intrinsic motivation to learn, developing values and character.


Many new teachers have been trained to efficiently deliver content and lessons. When they reach the classroom they confront the reality of behavior management, absenteeism, different learning skills, interests, and rates of learning, and the futility of “covering content” when students are not learning. These issues, along with complex school bureaucracies, and a lack of professionalism in many school cultures, drives some of our best young educators away from teaching.

For those educators who have chosen to stay, the pressure to cover and the pressure to achieve better test scores has increased year by year. Because Cover Test and Sort is such a pervasive model, many educators don’t even consider the alternatives. As we transition to competency based learning, the basic training we provide to teachers will change, on-going professional development will be important, and we will bring a much needed love of learning back into the schools and into our lives as professionals.

Learning to become a competency based educator is and will be a challenge. Instead of having one set of lessons to cover, the teacher will understand and respond to the diverse learning needs of her students. Instead of keeping all students on the same page at the same time, students work at their level of readiness. Instead of assuming all students learn in the same way, we recognize the many different ways in which competency might be achieved.


The rubric for high-quality instruction will change. No longer will the standard include:

  • lesson plans are consistent with the pacing guide and the prescribed GLCEs for each day
  • all students are receiving the prescribed and scripted lesson
  • complete lessons are delivered in the 55 minute period

Instead the rubric for high-quality instruction may include:

  • students are working toward essential outcomes at their own instructional level
  • each student can identify the learning outcomes toward which he/she is working
  • students understand what competency for each essential outcomes will look like, and how it can be demonstrated
  • students seek help and support from each other as well as from the teacher
  • the classroom is calm, and the students have developed a trusting relationship with teacher and classmates
  • the teacher effectively uses formative assessment to adjust instructional plans for each student
  • the teacher ensures that each student achieves true competency in every essential skill or step in a learning sequence

At the secondary level, competency based learning can take many forms. Within a course-based competency framework, specific competencies for the completion of each course would be clearly defined. Students might test out of some of the specific competencies for each course, use blended learning options, gain experience or skill on the job, or show demonstrations of competency based on summer learning or work experiences.

A competency framework could be based on major areas of study rather than specific courses. These might include science, math, language arts, social science, technology, physical development, and the arts. In some schools character development could be included as an expected aspect of development. Minimum standards for graduation/completion would be established, much like the New Hampshire K-12 Science Competencies (2014). Schools, working with students and families, might use varied options for learning to help students meet and exceed these standards.

To work within these competency based learning frameworks, the concept of high school itself may shift away from the identification of a place of learning to the experience of learning, wherever it may occur. Learning may shift away from curriculum silos (English, social studies, science, math), and will certainly shift away from the time-limited systems we currently use.


A competency based elementary program will focus on building all the important learning skills and habits which build the foundation of learning for life. New paradigms require different teaching methodologies and skills. Rather than using rigid one-size-fits-all pacing guides, for essential learning outcomes students are given instruction at their level. Group work is still appropriate for exploration and enrichment, and for projects and activities. Blended learning structures will develop combining digital and in-person learning, but the importance of using high quality educators to design instructional plans and to deliver crucial learning experiences will be preserved.

Using a competency based elementary learning system will open up new possibilities for parent involvement in the progress of their children. Parents and teachers working together can give children the practice time needed for proper skill development and accelerate progress on the pathways to high level skill development.

In a competency based elementary classroom, there could be a small but clear set of crucial learning outcomes for each grade/age level. The importance of building a safe learning environment, teaching social skills and self-regulation through clear classroom and school procedures, and building a community of learners will be a priority.

Some portion of learning time may be filled with whole group instruction, activities, or projects. Using on-going assessment of progress, teachers will know exactly which children have achieved proficiency in the continuum of essential oral language, literacy, social skills, motor skills, numeracy, behavior and self-regulation skills.

Some children may still be working on skills from the previous grade level. Others will be working at grade-level, and still others will be working on skills from a more advanced level. Proficiency in a skill will only be noted when a student has demonstrated deep understanding of a skill or concept on several occasions, over a period of time, and using several different types of learning materials to ensure both understanding and application.

Blended learning options will continue to increase and improve, as technology systems and learning programs are further improved. A deeper understanding of the content and skills which require social interaction, human language interaction, and/or the use of manipulatives will be developed, as content learning options are digitized.

Simpson County School District in rural Mississippi began implementation of a competency based early learning structure in 2008-09. Using the Essential Skill Inventories (Sornson, 2012) in Kindergarten, First, and Second Grade, staff learned to:

  • Clearly identify essential learning outcomes in all the domains of early childhood
  • Use systematic assessment to determine the readiness levels of students in relation to essential outcomes
  • Offer informed instruction and carefully monitor progress until these skills/objectives are deeply understood (competency)
  • Allow students to move on to more advanced learning as soon as they are ready

The district aligned report cards with the Essential Skill Inventories, which encouraged staff to help parents understand the concept of crucial learning outcomes and to understand the competencies students were being asked to develop.

As part of an evaluation of improved teacher behaviors based on the use of this competency based learning model, teachers reported significant improvements in their teaching skills and behaviors associated with early learning success (Sornson, 2015). They reported improvement in systematic formative assessment, with the largest gain reported in their ability to embed assessment into the design of instruction. They described significant improvements in their skills for instructional design, with the largest gains reported in giving some students more time to learn essential skills and re-teaching essential skills until students reach deep understanding. Teachers described significant improvements in their skills and behaviors supporting differentiated instruction, and also significant improvements in their ability to understand the learning needs of the whole child.

Teacher perception of changes in their skills and behaviors is supported by changes in student outcomes at Simpson Central School, the pilot school which was the first Mississippi school to begin implementation. Both math and language arts scores have improved significantly on state assessments and this school has risen from low performing to an A rated school of excellence.

Competency based instruction is different than Cover Test and Sort. It offers a different contextual framework for planning and delivering instruction, which will require a different set of teaching skills.


University and technical competency based learning options are already beginning to proliferate. Employers are clamoring for applicants with the skills need for success on the job, and higher education is responding. On-line and blended options are widely available. The availability of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other digital learning options add energy to this change. Around the world, nations have begun the transformation to a more efficient and personalized system of adult learning.

School to work programs, technical certificate programs, and degree programs recognize the need to have outcomes that matter, and are reshaping their learning options. Competency based learning could be designed within a course-based framework, in which specific competencies for the completion of each course would be clearly defined. Or a degree program might define exit outcomes, assess student needs and design a learning plan that helps students develop the required competencies. Students might test out of some of the specific competencies for each course or program, use blended learning options, gain experience or skill on the job, or show demonstrations of competency based on summer learning or work experiences. The pace of learning can vary, with some students more quickly moving along the skill pathways that lead to crucial exit outcomes.

High quality CBL teachers will:

  • use formative and summative assessment to understand the learning skills and needs of each student
  • work unrushed within a viable curriculum
  • teach crucial skills at the student’s level of readiness
  • differentiate instruction based on student learning needs
  • use systematic formative assessment to monitor progress
  • refine instruction as students show progress,
  • consider blended learning options
  • develop working relationships with students and parents
  • support instruction/learning until crucial skills and content are fully proficient


No amount of tweaking to the assembly line CTS model will adequately meet the learning needs of our future. The competency based teacher will be a well-trained and highly skilled professional educator, able to identify crucial outcomes, assess student learning needs, and differentiate instruction towards the development of competency. We are stepping into a new age, in which educators will be valued professionals, helping lead our students to the learning skills needed to be successful men and women in the modern world.

You can find Over-Tested and Under-Prepared at the following sites:

Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. His implementation of programs and strategies for early learning success, the Early Learning Success Initiative, serves as a model for districts around the country. He is committed to the belief that practically every child can have a successful early learning experience. Dr. Sornson can be contacted at [email protected].