TG2+: Competency Based Learning

Editors: Most TG2 teachers find ways of grading less in traditional, mainstream settings. There are, however, many teachers in our midst who work in nontraditional environments, ones that have moved away from grades on a building- or system-wide basis. Our intention with these TG2+ posts is not to advocate for one or another of these approaches, but, rather, to help the rest of us better understand how some schools have gone gradeless on a larger scale. We hope this will allow us to take a more active role in imagining, clarifying, and articulating what a gradeless future might look like.

Educators everywhere dream 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 wanted to have time to see your friends or family. Technology has now opened doors towards full differentiation. With the aid of technology, it is now possible to create an individualized 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 helped us think differently about how we deliver curriculum and has opened new techniques that were once unattainable and unsustainable. Competency Based Education (CBE), where students work towards competence in content at their own pace and at their own level, is one such model and one that values growth and progress over grades.

The Context

I work at a virtual school. This means that I teach students online and that presents different challenges than a brick-and-mortar school. One such challenge is that we are not able to directly see what our students are doing. This is a huge disadvantage, as you can imagine. To remedy this, data are where we can fill part of this void. As I wrote in another piece, the data do not lie. As a school, we are trying to figure out how to make this useful. The challenges we currently face are challenges that all schools will face in the future. Big data—and ways to manage and visualize this data—is creeping up on schools and, as a whole, we are not ready.

This new teaching model provides the first iteration of how this enormous set of data can be useful to teachers and students to improve student outcomes. If executed properly, it can lead to sustainable changes in practice.

What is Competency Based Education?

Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis, founders of Competency Works, define Competency Based Education 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.

Competency Based Education (CBE) offers learners the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes, 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 we need to intervene to help them gain competence.

This means that students will advance once mastery is demonstrated. Therefore, the teacher in a CBE environment must be willing to differentiate support and interventions to target the student’s Zone of Proximal Development. This system establishes intervention as the preferred approach in the teaching and learning cycle, one that mirrors the University of Melbourne’s clinical teaching model. One that hinges on data, prompt feedback, and differentiated instruction. The goal is to target teaching and learning based on data generated by the student.

Too Much Focus on Skills?

Focusing solely on skills loses plenty of the interdisciplinary and 21st-century skills that are necessary for success. However, skill competency allows for diverse types of assessment. These assessments can target higher-order thinking skills, where the student is able to apply knowledge and skills to a new context. Technology frees up the time necessary for teachers to plan, resource, and execute richer, more complex opportunities for students. Not having to worry about the planning and delivery of lower-order skills frees us up to spend more time designing real-world scenarios and inquiry projects.

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 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 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).

The New Model

This new model is only one way to approach CBE. It provides the student with differentiated learning at a skill-based level. This, in turn, provides the foundation for more complex projects that target interdisciplinary and 21st-century skills. Competency Based Education prompts teachers to assess student knowledge before allowing them to progress. The system is designed to help teachers determine if an intervention is necessary, and gives students access to higher-order assessment tasks. Below is a flow chart of the model.


How the Model Works

Teachers/Teaching Teams:

  1. Monitor student progress on the technology platform (Mathletics, Math Pathways, Hotmaths, etc)
  2. If competency of all skills are shown then the teacher ‘unlocks’ the project in our Learning Management System (Moodle)
    • If the student is above the standard outcomes, enrichment is given OR the student is moved further on the continuum (to the next level or content)
  3. If competency is not shown teacher/teaching team intervenes
    • Interventions vary and Professional Learning Team (PLT) discussions center around the nature and effectiveness of interventions
    • Teaching teams add interventions that work to the ‘Central Bank of Interventions’ so they can be reused in future years
  4. Student is re-assessed for competency through the online program, alternative assignments, activities, teacher judgment, or other forms
    • Repeat step 3 if competency is still not shown
    • Go to step 2 if competency is shown

This new model complements the technology. The teacher’s role shifts from content deliverer to enriching the lower-order 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: setting up opportunities for collaboration and creativity; seeking out interdisciplinary resources; and using pedagogical knowledge to intervene when students are struggling.

Gradeless and the Role of Feedback

This model puts feedback as its central point of communication and does not provide grades but markers of competence. The learning is made clear through learning intentions, success criteria, and rubrics (assessment matrices) that map out the continuum. Student do not receive a letter grade. They receive support and enrichment based on where they are at and based on what our data tells us about their learning.

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. To assist teachers, the courses have been mapped with a clear scope and sequence for their reference on where to guide students next and what skills are relevant for them to master.

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.

Central Bank of Interventions

This area is a place that is populated by teachers for usage with students who have similar needs in the same or future years. Planning interventions takes time and reducing the amount of planning one needs to do with tested methods is an effective way to free up teacher time. The role of this area is to help teachers pool their resources and reuse methods from previous years that have worked, iterate on interventions, or create new interventions for addition to the bank.

“I’d like one intervention please”

giphy (23).gif

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. This model is set to go live in 2018 and the current challenge is to upskill the staff to help them prepare for this new way of teaching and learning.

Bill Simmalavong is a teacher in Australia in the state of Victoria. He completed his degree in Canada and moved to Australia in 2013. He is currently completing his Masters of Education from the University of Melbourne with a focus on Technology and Leadership.


4 thoughts on “TG2+: Competency Based Learning

  1. I love the model. It is precisely what I have looked for and what I have attempted to accomplish this first quarter. Here is my dilemma and I need help: I do not have enough time to learn new technology. It seems that I am always behind the learning curve. I believe this has a twofold genesis. The first is that I am 56 and nearing the end of my career. I like technology but, then again I still have a flip phone! So, while I am ready and willing to utilize technology to help the kids, I never know what to use to get the best from them. It comes as a blitz and eventually I tend to give up and sneak back to what I know. I don’t want to be THAT teacher, but it seems that new technology comes too fast for me to absorb, integrate and foster. Suggestions?


    • I’d suggest you take one step at a time. This isn’t a race and Rome wasn’t built in a day.

      It appears you’re taking steps in a positive direction. Get your assessment practices settled first and then start implementing technology. Work with some younger teachers on campus and have them help you get the technology pieces in place or get a student teacher in your class. They usually have a firm grasp on how to integrate technology.

      Most importantly, take a deep breath and keep challenging yourself as a learner so you can model to your students what it means to challenge yourself personally.


  2. I love this and it basically addresses what I am trying to accomplish this year. Here is my dilemma: I am 56 and in the twilight of my career. I am very willing to do things in a new way to help get better results from my students. Competency-based education is it! But…using technology to assist me in this time-consuming endeavor is overwhelming for me. I am willing to use technology, but for me the learning curve is rather steep. I mean…I still have a flip phone! That said, I use some technology but it comes so fast and what is fun gets old fast. What is interesting soon turns to boredom. I’m using a single point rubric, but it still takes a long time to assess 125 pieces of work. The kids are buying into this and I am seeing nearly immediate results. I don’t want to lose the momentum. Suggestions?


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