A Fresh Look at an Old Way of Teaching: Competency-Based Education Encourages Students to 'Show What You Know'

By Goral, Tim | District Administration, February 2018 | Go to article overview

A Fresh Look at an Old Way of Teaching: Competency-Based Education Encourages Students to 'Show What You Know'


Goral, Tim, District Administration


You were a principal at one time. At what point did you think that competency-based learning would be a better way to teach and learn?

It was an evolution. We've been developing competency-based systems for more than 10 years. I was president of the New Hampshire state principals association, and was involved with the writing of the 2005 standards for minimum school approvals for the state.

The language in those standards addressed real-world learning--that's the way it was phrased at the time. Fortunately, the state board of education was very forward in their thinking about it. The original language in the 2005 minimum standards addressed high schools only. It said that students could gain credit for high school courses only if they demonstrated mastery of course competencies. It doesn't make any difference how long it takes you to learn something, you just have to show the competency to demonstrate that you mastered it in order to get credit.

That was the beginning of the work. Since then, it has really evolved and grown more deeply in terms of systems design. What the state never did, however, was to define what a competency was. So teachers just essentially wrote down all the content from their courses and said, "Kids have to know this."

We had to move the needle on that, so teachers really understood the difference between content standards and skills versus what a competency truly is in the rest of the world.

The whole competency-based education mindset is really a return to an earlier form of teaching and learning.

Yes, it is. There was a lot of good performance assessment work done back in the 1980s and early 90s. We were headed in that direction.

And then No Child Left Behind came along and it became the era of high-stakes testing. I say it sucked the joy out of teaching and learning. We need to get back to what we did before.

But even earlier than that, doctor, lawyers, people in the arts--they were assessed by their competencies, not by filling in the blanks on a test.

Right. I love working with a staff of teachers and pulling career tech people and arts people into the conversation with regular content teachers, because they really get it. You don't grade a kid on their practicing. You grade on what they've learned and how they apply it.

Some people, and I'm one of them, feel that it will take a generation to move public education in this direction. There are systems that are more nimble, like some of the charter schools for example. They're not dealing with teachers unions. They're not dealing with institutional practices that get in the way. That's where we see a lot of pioneering work in competency-based education.

How about parental support for this "radical idea"?

I think parents understand personalized learning better than they understand competency-based education.

And that's OK, because I think it's breaking down that notion that all kids sit and get the same thing each day, and then take the same test.

We need to just ratchet up the understanding that it is the performance pieces that we're moving toward.

You wrote, "If we ask the right questions and engage parents and other community members to elicit their opinions before we discuss any transformation, moving forward may be easier." What kind of questions should be asked?

When I talk to school boards and parents, I always ask, "What does it take to get a handshake at graduation?"

That's really my mantra, because that's the one thing that parents are in this game for, right? They want their kids to graduate and be successful young adults, either going to college or in a career of their choice.

Then we ask, "If this is truly what you want, then how do we contract with you to do this? How can you inform us about what they need to be taught?"

The dirty secret is that the parents think their kids have been taught and have been assessed on those personal success skills, and they really haven't. …

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