What is Competency-Based Learning?

Competency-based learning is an approach to education that rethinks assessment, curriculum and learning.
"Competency-based learning understands that young learners are unique and work in their own ways at their own pace. Rather than telling students what they need to learn now (i.e. by the end of this week, by the end of this term, by the end of this year, etc.), CBL invites learners to think about where they need to be at graduation."

Competency-based learning (CBL) is an approach to education that rethinks the way curriculum, instruction and assessment are done to create a more positive, transparent, concrete learning experience for students. As its name implies, CBL focuses on competencies, which is to say that learning targets are worded and presented in terms of functional skill or ability to do something. This differs from the traditional curriculum for most classes or subject areas, in which factual content knowledge is generally what’s taught and measured.

Thinking in this way allows educators and students alike to view school through a fresh lens. For students, CBL helps them understand exactly what they need to know and be able to do to navigate the adult world they will one day function in. For educators, competency-based learning reimagines the classroom as a place where it’s easy to assess where each student is in his or her academic journey and provide targeted support accordingly.

What makes CBL different?

Our traditional school model compartmentalizes the acquisition of skills and knowledge into little boxes known as “grade levels.” Essentially, the theory is that, through mindful curriculum design, repetition and instructional spiraling, students should have certain concepts or skills down pat by the end of a particular academic year. This approach is good for creating a general pacing guide for educators, but it’s lousy when it comes to teaching individual students.

Competency-based learning understands that young learners are unique and work in their own ways at their own pace. Rather than telling students what they need to learn now (i.e. by the end of this week, by the end of this term, by the end of this year, etc.), CBL invites learners to think about where they need to be at graduation.

Instead of teaching a seemingly random or arbitrary collection of skills and concepts over a twelve-year span and then asking learners to construct meaning from them at the end of the process, competency-based approaches begin by presenting students with a vision of what their abilities need to look like before they enter the adult world and encouraging learners to work towards those targets in meaningful ways each day.

Essentially, the goal of competency-based learning is to get each student to the finish line in a way that ensures they are prepared to survive and thrive in the real world. Unlike the traditional model, though, CBL doesn’t treat school as a race. There’s no pressure to be at any certain milestone at any particular time, as long as the course is completed competently by graduation.

Why does CBL work for students?

Students love CBL because it demystifies school and makes the classroom their workshop rather than the teacher’s kingdom. Our traditional model is extremely effective at making learners feel insecure because it invites direct comparison between scores and grades while forgetting to account for the very real differences in the manner and pace at which different students learn. Competency-based approaches, on the other hand, invite learners to spend each day focusing on where they are as individuals. In this way, it’s easier for learners to feel like everybody is doing good, important work at a pace that works for them; unlike the traditional model, which implicitly says, “Only students who know this concept this well right now are being academically successful.”

In addition to creating more optimistic, growth-minded students, CBL also empowers teachers to work more closely than ever with learners to drive learning and engagement. When individual learning targets aren’t tied to arbitrary, high-stakes timeframes, it creates opportunities for teachers and students to dive deep into topics together and create lessons, materials or projects that truly reflect a learner’s individualized needs and talents, while leveraging what they already do well with an eye towards shoring up areas in need of growth or improvement. In this way, competency-based learning goes hand-in-hand with principles of personalized learning.

How does CBL align with best practices for 21st century learners?

Competency-based learning is an ideal approach for the 21st century because it invites all students to see themselves as works in progress who are the masters of their own future. CBL helps learners build intrinsic motivation and develop self-monitoring skills that set them up to continue to grow and succeed beyond the walls of the schoolhouse or the time constraints of their academic careers.

CBL also partners perfectly with the internet technology that young learners are so skilled with and hungry to use. By pairing a competency-based approach with an online learning management system (LMS), educators can extend the time and space of the classroom to help students continue to reflect, strategize and learn regardless of their physical location or the time of day.

To truly prepare young learners for the increasingly complex and global world, we must focus on competencies: What do students need to know? What do students need to be able to do? How can we grow as educators to support them? Rather than shying away, CBL tackles these complex questions head-on, which makes the competency-based mindset a truly crucial tool for the continued development of education.