What does competency-based instruction look like, anyway?

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

As a teacher and principal, I always struggled when students came to me at cognitively different places. Whether as a long term kindergarten substitute teacher, a middle school English teacher, or as a high school teacher, it was a challenge. Where they were academically, their life experiences, the depth of their background knowledge, their culture, language, etc., were all widely varied. So, how do we provide a learning environment and the structures necessary to support the needs of every child?

At KnowledgeWorks, our focus on instruction is two-fold: it has to be personalized, and it has to be strongly vetted by clear cut competencies for teachers and students. Both teachers and learners need to understand what it takes to advance and progress on the learning continuum. Note I didn’t say grade levels – learning is a continuum, and our instruction, assessment, and advancement needs to reflect that.

Here are the essentials:

  • Progression on the learning continuum happens only when a student demonstrates mastery. Not at the end of a semester or at the end of the year, but when it happens. Not strictly in middle school or high school, but throughout the entire system. That’s not a classroom or even a school reform; that’s a system reform.
  • Learners have the opportunity, and are encouraged, to engage with content in ways that are meaningful for them. If a student is playing a sport, how can she apply what she needs to demonstrate mastery in math, science, and any applicable content standards? If a student is learning at an afterschool job, how can he bring proof back to the classroom?
  • Instructional supports and resources are provided that address the appropriate depth of knowledge for all learners and with all competencies. We need to look at what students are learning, to what depth of knowledge they have proven their competency, and what they’re ready for next. More importantly, all learners should be able to identify those key learning concepts as well.

Imagine this: you’re a teacher in a classroom where each and every one of your students is ready to tackle the rigor of the content, they’re engaged and ready to apply academic content  in meaningful ways throughout  their lives. That only happens if there’s a systemic practice of advancing students based on mastery in a highly personalized learning environment.

Students should be empowered to drive their own learning, and this classroom doesn’t have to be imaginary. It’s being done now, and the drive for personalized, competency-based education is only growing.