Bill Simmalavong founded this blog to explore technology in Education.

A Journey Towards Competency Based Learning

Educators everywhere have dreamed of classrooms where students are on differentiated tasks, working at their own pace to meet outcomes. This dream would not be possible in the paper and pen world of yesterday, at least not if you want to have time to see your friends or family. With the aid of technology, it is becoming more and more possible to create an Individual Learning Program for each student. One that differentiates in real time, and one that allows the teacher to track the progress of all students.

Technology has given us the tools to think differently about how we deliver curriculum and has opened new methodologies that were once unattainable and unsustainable. Competency Based Education (CBE), where students work towards competence in content at their own pace, is one such model.

What is Competency Based Education?

The crux of CBE is that it offers learners the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of learning, rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom. It refocuses the system to be student centric, what can a student do and where do we need to intervene to help them gain competence.

Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis, founders of Competency Works, define it is as follows (Patrick & Sturgis, 2015):

  • 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.

This means that students will advance once mastery is demonstrated. Therefore, the teacher in a CBE environment must be willing to differentiating support and interventions to target the student's Zone of Proximal Development. This system provides the foundation for an interventionist approach to be the preferred way of teaching and learning. One that hinges on data, prompt feedback, and differentiated instruction. One that targets teaching and learning based on data generated by the student.


Too Much Focus on Skills?

Of course. Focusing solely on skills loses plenty of the interdisciplinary and 21st-century skills that are necessary for success in the changing labour market. However, competency of domain content opens more diverse types of assessment. These assessments can target higher order thinking skills, where the student is able to apply their knowledge and skills to a new context. Technology frees up the time necessary for teachers to plan, resource, and execute on more complex programs. Without having to worry too much about the planning and delivery of lower order skills, it frees teachers up to plan scenarios that mimic the real world.


Why Do We Even Need a New Model?

CBE and the various versions of mastery based learning are easy and low-cost ways to improve learning progress in schools. Evidence for Learning Toolkit indicates that the evidence points to about 5 additional months of progress per year (visible learning; d = 0.58) (Hattie, 2012). This model is even more effective when students are placed into groups where they can learn collaboratively. Furthermore, it seems to boost lower attaining students more than high attaining students, thus having the potential to shrink the gap. Ideally, CBE will not work alone. Gains in the way we approach feedback (+8 months – visible learning; d = 0.73) and improvements in teaching students how to self-regulate (+8 months – visible learning; d = 0.69) are also considered and implemented into the program (Hattie, 2012; Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

CBE and the various versions of mastery based learning are easy and low-cost ways to improve learning progress in schools... evidence points to about 5 additional months of progress per year.

The New(ish) Model

This new model is only one way to approach CBE. It provides the student with differentiated learning at a skill based level that leads to more complex projects that target interdisciplinary and 21st-century thinking. By providing these stop gaps, it prompts teachers to assess student knowledge before allowing them to progress. Thus, the way the system is designed pushes teachers to think about the data they are being presented with, assess this data, determine if an intervention is necessary, and allow the students to access the projects and higher order assessment tasks. Below is a flow chart of the model.

How the Model Works

What Teachers/Teaching Teams will do:

  1. Monitor student progress in technology platform (Mathletics, Khan Academy, Maths Pathways, etc)

  2. If competency of all skills is shown then teacher ‘unlocks’ the project
    • In our LMS (Moodle) this will:
      • Add to the student competency framework that the student can meet the outcomes of the skills shown This will be used to create a student profile from year to year about what outcomes they have met in the curriculum
      • Unlock the online content that is required for the project and the project brief
    • If the student is above standard extend them OR move them on the continuum
  3. If competency is not shown teacher/teaching team will intervene  
    • Interventions will vary and Professional Learning Teams (PLT) discussions will center around the nature and effectiveness of interventions
  4. Student is re-assessed for competency
    • Re-assessment can be through the online program, alternative assignments, activities, teacher judgement or other forms
      • If competency is not shown go to step 3 OR move the student on the continuum.
      • If competency is shown go to step 2.

This new model complements the technology. The teacher’s role shifts from content deliverer to supplementing the lower order thinking questions and practice that the technology provides. This means that the teacher can spend more time on skills that humans are better at than computers like: setting up collaborative opportunities; providing a platform for creativity; bringing in interdisciplinary resources; and using their pedagogical knowledge to intervene when a student is struggling.


The Role of Feedback

Throughout this process, feedback about what a student has done well and where they need to go are being relayed. As teachers become more familiar with the sequence of learning that was designed, they will be able to better inform where a student must go next. Furthermore, the feedback on how the student went on a skill is instantaneous through the online system. This is supplemented with feedback from the teacher throughout the process and when interventions have taken place.


What is Next?

This change would put the entire Year 7 to 10 mathematics program completely gradeless and focuses on progress along a continuum. Currently, the model has been proposed and a development is underway to create the projects and technology infrastructure that will allow this model to be implemented in this way.

The next posts will follow on from this, as we work to build teacher trust, capacity, and competency in executing this ‘new’ style of teaching and learning.

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Additional Links:



Hattie. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning (6th ed.). London: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Patrick, S., & Sturgis, C. (2015). Maximizing competency education and blended learning: Insights from experts. International Association for K–12 Online Learning.

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