Why Competency-Based Learning Works

Competency-Based Learning helps students build skills
"Competency-based learning is all about breaking big targets down into individual goals and ensuring a learner can meet every one of those goals before expecting them to hit the big target. If that sounds like a common sense approach, that’s because competency-based learning is built on best practices from professional and even military training."

Everybody agrees that K-12 education is designed to prepare young learners for the world of career and adulthood. However, many classrooms around the country still employ didactic, outmoded approaches that keep students busy (and frustrated) but leave them without any usable tools or sense of authenticity. The competency-based learning movement seeks to eliminate this problem by focusing on transferrable skills and “big idea” takeaways rather than the memorization of content-based facts.

Here are three reasons why competency-based learning has the potential to transform our young learners and our country:

Competency-based learning eliminates the “Why do we need to know this?” question

In traditional classrooms, the primary (and often only) source of authority is the teacher, who delivers content and encourages students to commit that content to memory as fast and efficiently as possible. As so many students and parents understand, this often leaves learners feeling unmotivated and questioning the value of school itself. Where is that material coming from? Who decided it was important? How is knowing or not knowing it possibly going to affect their lives?

Competency-based education obliterates those old questions about the purpose and authenticity of the curriculum by prioritizing skill building over content mastery. Rather than putting each subject area in a separate box and saying there are 10 ideas to memorize about each, competency-based approaches encourage students to see the cognitive, verbal and tactile skills that connect the work they do. Unlike random facts, skills are transparently transferrable, encouraging students to dream about ways what they’re learning in school might help them in the future and building agency and authenticity.

Competency-based learning transforms the student-teacher relationship

As we’ve established, traditional education is built on a foundation of “us versus them” thinking between teachers and students. Teachers are conditioned to see students as over-energized obstacles they must “control” and “manage,” while the same system encourages students to see teachers as deliverers of boring content and spiteful enforcers of the rules. Competency-based learning topples this self-defeating system by shifting teachers from the role of content delivery experts to student coaching experts.

Competency-based learning’s emphasis on skill building and overarching concepts invites both teachers and students to appreciate the learning process rather than simply focusing on the end goal. While traditional approaches encourage teachers to ask “Why isn’t Billy getting this?” as they write an F on his paper, competency-based learning encourages those same teachers to break down a student’s lack of success and view it through the lens of skills and tools. Once that skill gap has been identified, it’s easy for teachers to create differentiated assignments or targeted interventions to shore up that weakness and help the student continue to move forward.

Competency-based learning mirrors best practices in professional training

Competency-based learning is all about breaking big targets down into individual goals and ensuring a learner can meet every one of those goals before expecting them to hit the big target. If that sounds like a common sense approach, that’s because competency-based learning is built on best practices from professional and even military training.

In the workplace and the military, each individual is held to extremely high standards, but because they’ve been trained in a way that ensures they have every necessary skill mastered before they start the job, they’re set up for success. Sure, there might be an adjustment curve involved in putting all those skills together, but a person with mastery of the pieces is far more likely to make sense of the whole than someone who’s simply handed an instruction manual and expected to understand how things work all at once.

Competency-based education has tremendous potential to transform our classrooms, our learners and our country. To learn more, download our free eBook “Maximizing Goal-Drive, Learner-Centered Competency Education” from the Resource Library.