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Answers For & Lessons From Critics of Competency-Based Learning

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I'm trying to square two things that happened last week. The Nellie Mae Foundation issued a great report called Making Mastery Work: A Close Up View of Competency Education (MMW), a visit to 11 cool schools. The other event was a Facebook dialog with unschoolers that think competency-based schemes are more testing in a fancy package.

Salvos from critics come in three rounds:

1. Too much testing. This "all-assessment-all-the-time" argument may be true in some systems. With more game-based and adaptive learning, lots of assessment is getting pushed into the background. In the near future there should be most data gathering with less tasks that feel like testing.

MMW says competency-based approaches have two distinguishing characteristics: 1) a clear, measurable definition of mastery along with procedures and tools for tracking that mastery and 2) the flexible use of time. That's a pretty broad definition that doesn't require "all-assessment-all-the-time."

A slightly different version of this is critique is: "There is no such thing as assessment for learning...assessment in any form always interrupts learning." I just don't buy that because I think any form of production is assessment. A writing portfolio is probably the best form of assessment available.

Here's the money quote from a Dylan Wiliam ASCD article: "In a classroom that uses assessment to support learning, the divide between instruction and assessment blurs. Everything students do -- such as conversing in groups, completing seatwork, answering and asking questions, working on projects, handing in homework assignments, even sitting silently and looking confused -- is a potential source of information about how much they understand."

Another critic said, "Not only does testing not help it is a miserable and demeaning experience." This guy obviously had a bad experience with a bubble sheet. Last week I reviewed a new generation of science simulations that are a great way to learn and multi-modal form of assessment. Simulations are widely used in certification systems. As a testing expert has noted, there's no excuse for sucky items.

2. Little steps. Critics say competency-based learning "assumes that one-step-at-a-time learning is always best regardless of the learner and the subject area." That's an interesting critique and may be true in some systems, but it's not the case in Big Picture, Edvisions, or Expeditionary Learning schools in my experience.

MMW said, "Many students find competency education more motivating and engaging than traditional approaches. The chance to progress at one's own pace is particularly important to struggling students."

A critic asked, "Does the Common Core and proficiency-based system impose order and progression at the...expense of meaningful, exciting learning?" The answer is, it may but it doesn't need to. I agree with the discussion moderator Lisa Nielsen who said she would support a show-what-you-know system "as long as 1) the individual has choice in what and how they show and 2) the opportunity for it to be authentic and occur outside of school also exists."

It's quite possible to build achievement recognition systems that in creative ways
combine big challenges with progressions through micro-standards. My idea of a great blend is " When Glee Meets FIRST for Coffee and Leaves With an AA."

MMV acknowledged that, "There is no single blueprint or well-established menu of instructional products geared for competency education initiatives, so teachers often face the benefits and the drawbacks of designing their curriculum and instruction from scratch." Next gen platforms will make it easier to manage a competency-based matriculation.

3. Lower expectations. Another group of critics worries that "personalized learning may lead to personalized expectations." That's a well intentioned concern but should be impossible in a sound assessment system.

MMV acknowledged, "The biggest logistical challenge to creating competency-based initiatives is the lack of high-quality data and technological tools to assess and monitor student progress that are tailored to each initiative's specific approach."

A couple weeks ago Digital Learning Now! issued " Data Backpacks: Portable Records and Learner Profiles ." My co-authors and I believe that if a thick gradebook of data follows students that teachers will be able to personalize instruction from day one and will hold high expectations for all students.

Chris Sturgis who runs the CompetencyWorks site recently visited the MMV schools in Maine and noted "an incredibly powerful commitment to student-centered proficiency-based instruction has taken root." Sturgis consistently saw:

  • High level of transparency about learning targets and rubrics between students and teachers.
  • Customized learning with students working at their own pace within a band of what it means to be "teacher-paced" with choices about how they will pursue their learning and build evidence of their learning.
  • Teachers organizing themselves to enable students to get what they need, working at their own achievement levels so that they can experience success.
  • Teacher collaboration and professional development driven by proficiency.


That's a pretty good outline of the charter for Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. It's also what you'd see at schools that promote deeper learning (more on that in a December white paper).

It's important to listen to critics -- they point out dumb stuff to be avoided. Join the conversation at CompetencyWorks to see what good looks like.

Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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