Finding Your Path Toward Competency-Based Learning

Guest post by Brian M. Stack

Imagine trying to go somewhere for the first time without having access to a map. Worse yet, imagine being the great explorers Lewis and Clark who crossed the western part of our country for the first time in 1804 with no map, no roads, and little knowledge of what it was going to take to get to their destination. In education, early adopters often feel like trailblazers too, using research, trends, and sometimes their guts to forge new ways of thinking and doing. If you are a school leader looking to move your school to competency-based learning today, you may feel a daunting sense of helplessness as you embark on your journey. The good news is that many have come before you and contributed to the maps that you can use to guide your own journey.

Nearly a decade ago, I, as well as other educational leaders, embarked on journeys to transform our schools with systems that would later come to be known as competency-based learning. Armed with research on the promise of standards-based assessment and grade reporting from greats like Thomas R. Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Douglas Reeves, and Rick Wormeli, along with our guts which were telling us there had to be a better way to organize our schools, we started our journeys not even knowing each other existed, let alone where we were going to end up.

Sometime later, as we all began to write about our work and the movement began to pick up steam in states around us, the educational field came together to provide some context, scope, and definition for the work. Competency-based learning—sometimes referred to as mastery learning, proficiency-based learning, and to a lesser degree, standards-based learning—received its first official definition from Chris Sturgis, who identified five tenets for competency-based learning in schools today:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions

As an early adopter of the model, I have had the opportunity to share my experiences with other educators who are on similar journeys or looking to start one. The biggest question I get is, “Where do I start?” To help answer this question, a colleague and I created a competency-based learning school design rubric as a tool for educators to use as their roadmap. In it, we break down each of Sturgis’ five tenets into indicators and describe what these would look like at an initiating, developing, and performing level in schools. The rubric can be downloaded as a free resource here and is part of our latest book, Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work.

You can start by using the tool to perform a self-assessment, taking note which indicators and tenets your school may already be doing beyond the initiating level. These can serve as your leverage points to build momentum for your work. You can then use the tool to develop a 3–5 year strategic plan for your work, identifying where you want to be and what it will take to get your school community there. Recognize that you can’t accomplish everything in one year and you may not finish in five years either. The reality is, your journey may never end and you may find yourself in uncharted territory. That’s OK. It just means that there are new maps to be written, and you’ll have your opportunity to contribute to a movement that is transforming schools from coast to coast. You’ll feel like Lewis and Clark, blazing trails that others will use to guide their own journeys.

Do you have a roadmap for competency-based learning in your school? What lessons can you share in this regard?

Brian M. Stack was the 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, and also serves as a member of the Nellie Mae Speakers Bureau and as an expert for Understood.org. You can follow him on Twitter @bstackbu or learn more about him by visiting his blog.

1 Comment

  • Dennis M. Holt, Ph.D. says:

    You have captured the essence of the matter.
    Best wishes for continued success. Having given competence-based education 42 years in teacher education I am proud to say it works!
    Sincerely,
    Dr. Dennis M. Holt (Google)
    Professor Emeritus
    University of North Florida

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