I was a teacher for many years (elementary, middle, secondary) and while I loved working with my students, I sometimes felt as though I was constantly walking around in a darkened room looking for the light switch. I was completely committed to helping my students learn and to achieve their goals—I just wasn’t completely sure how to go about it. I found myself trying all sorts of methods with mixed levels of success, and what made it even harder was that there was never another teacher or principal in my building who could mentor and guide me to a better way of teaching. I knew creating a single lesson plan and teaching to the middle wasn’t effective—even though it was the way I was taught, and it was the way I was trained in my teaching prep program. Under that approach, I felt as though I was throwing spaghetti on the wall hoping something would stick, at least for those students in the middle of the bulls eye. Unless I got really lucky with my aim, those learning at the lowest and highest ends of the continuum rarely had their needs met. It’s not easy to admit, but it’s the truth. I experimented with my own version of individualized learning, but it was so limited in scope that I saw only limited results. However, despite the additional work and time required on my part, I felt excited and encouraged because I could see the impact those efforts were having on my students.
Later I tried project-based learning, and liked it. I enjoyed the notion of students being able to select their own topics of personal interest and to a certain extent driving their own learning. I used this primarily with gifted students but after three years concluded that individualized, project-based learning should be provided to students of all ability levels. It was only in the past few years that I was able to put a name with the approach I came to believe in and adopt as my personal teaching philosophy—it was competency-based education (CBE), which I’ve learned is also frequently referred to as: personalized learning, proficiency learning, performance-based learning, mastery learning, outcomes-based learning, or authentic learning.
CBE in a Classroom Setting
While it may be implemented in a variety of ways, there are some common characteristics of every competency-based classroom:
- Students demonstrate what they know and are able to do through a variety of high-quality formative and summative assessments.
- Expectations are measurable & clearly defined. In other words, learners know what target they must reach in order to demonstrate competency or proficiency of specific standards-based key concepts or skills.
- What students learn is more important than seat time.
- Teachers serve as mentors or learning coaches to support student learning, thereby empowering learners to work at their own pace and in their own way.
- Instructional decisions are data-driven.