Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Three Misconceptions of Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Stephen Johnson

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

Stephen Johnson

Every school in every district wants to meet students where they are and allow them to show what they have learned. As good as this sounds, schools have different ways of getting there. We find that school leaders use many of the same words and phrases but those phrases imply something different. Definitions of models like competency-based education (CBE), student-centered learning, and a number of other learner-centered models affect the way in which the strategies are implemented, leading to scattered, inconsistent results in student achievement. Recently, national efforts have been led to connect entities in the CBE space to share ideas and to establish a common language. This common language would help to ensure that the words spoken carry the same universal meaning, regardless of locale.

There are three basic concepts to all CBE programs: pace, ownership, and mastery. Depending on the definitions used to describe these concepts, we tend to get very different results. Just saying these words does not translate into any kind of results in the classroom. Additionally, knowing what these concepts look like in action is just as important. Three misconceptions are:

  1. Students working at their own pace means that they work for an infinite amount of time.
  2. Students will automatically own their learning.
  3. Students can show mastery by paper and pencil assignments.

Students working at their own pace means that they work for an infinite amount of time. Pace does not mean that students can stay on a learning target for as long as they choose. It means that they continue to receive instruction and have time to practice and revisit until they have mastered the concept. In a traditional classroom setting, all learning is dictated by a district-issued pacing guide that says how long teachers should spend on a lesson before moving on. Some guides anticipate each lesson will last about a day before moving to the next. There is little to no system in place to address those who may not “get” the concept in that timeframe. The class moves on regardless. This pace is not about mastery but is about covering material within the 180 day school year. This guide is the law in too many schools and districts. It shackles creativity as well as student learning to accommodate the misconception that covering material is synonymous with teaching and learning.

The caveat is that the teacher should be intervening with the student to ensure mastery or to clear up misunderstandings. A well-organized (often referred to as a well-managed) classroom will allow the teacher opportunity to work more intimately with the student that appears to struggle. A station rotation model creates the time needed for teachers to work in small groups with students to eliminate learning blocks and scaffold back to a prerequisite skill. Data from a progress monitor or other sources help to pinpoint areas of need.

Students will automatically own their learning. Students will not own any learning without a relevant “why.” Gone are the days where children arrive and are forced to learn just because. Test scores and accountability models might motivate children labeled high performing or gifted but not the rest of the population. With careers as app developers, Instagram models, and YouTube movie stars, connecting learning standards and objectives to the real world is more important than ever. At the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Conference on Personalized Learning in Baltimore, author Eric Scheninger asked a pointed question to the audience that has stuck with me to this day, “Whose learning is it?” In other words, should students be motivated to learn what WE want them to learn or should students be motivated to learn what THEY want to learn? At first, it sounds rather tongue in cheek. But the reality is we get upset with children for not being motivated to learn topics that have no connection to them, and many times we as teachers cannot connect those state standards to the real world either. Ownership comes when teachers learn who the students are, share relevant data with them, and provide actionable, bite-sized feedback that leads to mastery.

Conference time is the occasion when students receive feedback that helps them understand who they are and what they have the ability to accomplish. There is no growth in telling students what is right or wrong without telling them why it is right or wrong. Modeling think-alouds for students in small groups develops the metacognitive self-regulation skills needed to work independently. They hear what questions to ask themselves and how to make connections to previous lessons. The stage is now set to cultivate a growth mindset, where a student begins to understand their work, their reason for learning, and who they are as a learner. Additionally, we have now planted the seeds for meaningful student-led conferencing, another powerful avenue for students to demonstrate ownership of their learning.

Students can show mastery by paper and pencil assignments. Traditional pencil/paper worksheet type of assignments do not show mastery, as has been the thought for many years. The expectations for children are different today. Merely regurgitating information does not prove that they have actually learned the material: it just means that they have a pretty good memory.

Evidence is an opportunity for the student to show how the learning has been ingrained into their being, hence encouraging them to own their learning. Most teachers are familiar with the theory of multiple intelligences that suggests offering students opportunities to learn in different ways. More often than not lesson plans and assessments neglect to include the use of these ideas that promote personalization. This is also the point where teachers must know the difference between assessing of learning and assessing for learning. Drama reenactments, songs, and iMovies are great non-traditional ways to engage students, develop creativity, and possibly expose the hidden talents of the students. If the highest form of learning is the ability to teach others, then our task as teachers is to provide that space and opportunity.

Choice and agency play major roles at this stage of instruction and assessment. Even small choices give students a sense of control over their learning that can help to engage and motivate. In the beginning, the teacher will provide a few choices in how students learn or assess. As the school year progresses and students become more comfortable with this approach, they will begin to offer their own choices to best display their learning as they understand who they are as a learner. Evidence can range from a cartoon made with ScratchJr or ToonBoom to creating a quiz with Quizlet. The choice belongs to the student.

In the end, these three concepts are not perfected overnight. They take time, practice and, most importantly, planning. Teachers have to be comfortable releasing control of the learning to the students and students have to become comfortable with having some level of control of what and how they learn. Even if the school does not fully adopt a competency-based program, implementing these strategies will change the classroom experience for both adults and children.

See also:

Stephen Johnson is the former Data Analyst and Student-Centered Learning Coach for the McComb School District in McComb, Mississippi where he led the district-wide implementation of a competency-based, personalized learning model. He helped teachers use data to improve daily instruction and integrate technology into the classroom. Stephen recently joined the Highlander Institute of Rhode Island as an Educational Strategies Specialist. He resides in Detroit, Michigan with his wife and one daughter. Twitter: @Sporty313