What is Competency-Based Education?

Hi, my name is Justin Reich,
and I’m a professor at MIT, and I’m the director of
the Teaching Systems Lab where we design,
implement, and research the future of teacher learning. We’re interested in how
schools grow and change and how teachers learn
throughout their careers. When school systems get
excited about approaches to school change like
competency-based education, or CBE, we think it’s
a great opportunity to engage with educators and to
learn more about their beliefs about teaching and
learning and what they think the future of
schools should look like. Across the US and
around the world, schools are
experimenting with CBE. For example, our lab is
located in the New England region of the United
States where several state legislatures have passed
competency-based education legislation and policy,
with mixed results. Some districts have
found these policies to be catalysts for rethinking
teaching and learning in powerful,
student-centered ways, and others have found the
demands for change too difficult or found that adopting
competency-based strategies doesn’t address the
underlying problems that CBE has the potential to address. What exactly is
competency-based education? There is no single
agreed-upon definition, but we see some common
elements in programs that call themselves competency based. Most school curricula
today are organized around how much time students
spend in different courses. The amount of time that
students spend, say, in math class is fixed– 52 minutes for
factoring polynomials, 180 days for algebra, four
years of high school math. But the learning is variable. Some students master the
material, and many don’t. Competency-based education
tries to shift the emphasis from how time is allotted
to whether or not students can demonstrate
well-defined competencies. Here, the competencies
are fixed, a commitment that every student
will master the fundamentals, but the time invested
and the learning pathways vary from student to student. To master competencies,
students need to know what the
competencies are. Teachers and schools make
competencies explicit and help students track their progress
towards those competencies. Students use the competencies as
a map to the content and skills that they need to
learn in school. Assessment of these competencies
is an ongoing process rather than a single summative event. In schools today if a
student fails a test, the class often keeps moving
forward through new material. In competency-based
environments, students are often given
more than one opportunity to demonstrate competency
and extra support as needed. If a student fails a test
or a section of a test, it means that they
need more support there so those shortcomings don’t keep
compounding as the concepts get more complicated. In the very best
implementations of CBE, these elements together mean
that students and teachers know what they need
to teach and learn. Students have some choice
and agency in how they learn and how they demonstrate
their learning. When students struggle,
teachers and students work together to
address the problem rather than continuing along
and hoping that students will figure it out later. One challenge in understanding
competency-based education is a proliferation of
terms and definitions. We use the term
competency-based education, but people referring to
proficiency-based learning or mastery-based
learning are often talking about similar things. Some learning
competencies look very similar to learning
objectives that you might see for an individual
subject or class– for example, list the
different parts of a plant cell and describe functions
of major organelles– while other things
called competencies are much larger in scope and
less tied to particular subject matter– for example, present
ideas concisely and clearly using
visual material to illustrate key points. Educators and others
are still trying to figure out the right size
and scope for competencies and competency-based education. For some schools,
competency-based education is a way of refining
traditional aspects of teaching and learning. My own kids go to
an elementary school that uses a competency-based
report card which lists competencies
in math and reading and art and social behavior. However, most of the instruction
is pretty traditional, meaning lots of small group
work and instruction directed at the whole class, but
quite good instruction. Thank you Ms. Perry. Thanks Ms. Case. For other schools,
competency-based education is a way for the schools to
dramatically rethink time in and out of the classroom,
schedules, assessments, projects, instructions, and to
rethink the skills graduates need to succeed. In many of the best
implementations, a key focus is on
issues of equity. How do we build systems where,
when kids are struggling and not mastering foundational
skills, we as educators can identify what
supports they need to be ready for the
challenges of the future? We know that any
institutional change is hard. It requires strategic thinking
and a commitment of resources, time, and energy, and
it involves frustration, resistance, and challenges. We wanted to make these issues
part of the conversation and to give you the
tools to consider not only the nature
of CBE in general, but what it can mean for your
own thinking about teaching, learning, and school change. Our goal is to give you a taste
of the range of approaches to competency-based education
that schools are exploring. We want to help
you understand what problems competency-based
education is trying to solve, how different schools
are implementing competency-based education in
response to those problems, and the opportunities these
different implementations present. We want to empower you to
think critically about all of this experimentation
and to identify what approaches might be worth
trying in your own contexts.

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