Competency-Based Education: An Opportunity for Real-World Relevance and Community-Building
Updated: Nov 20
In more than two decades of experience at the middle and high school level, the most common complaint I heard from students was this: “How does this matter in the real world?” Students understandably feel trapped in school, often literally.
My sixth-grade son, who will likely be six feet tall soon, spends most of his day sitting in a too-small desk inside a classroom inside a brick building with very little sense of how this learning ultimately benefits him. About four times a year, I get phone calls from teachers who are exasperated. He is making gestures at a friend across the room. He is talking too much. He isn’t paying attention. I get it. I had those kids in my own classrooms, and often “acting out” was its own attempt at saying, “I don’t understand why I should care about this.”
I recently attended Mastery Transcript Consortium’s conference in Cambridge, MA as well as Aurora Institute’s symposium in Palm Springs, CA, where I heard from practitioners across the country who are utilizing competencies in and outside of classrooms. Here are a few of the key takeaways.
Competency-based learning in some of its better iterations helps students to see the relevance of what they are doing. Take for example this competency-design from Building 21, a non-profit organization and network with two innovative lab schools in Allentown and Philadelphia, around networking:
The competency of “Building Networks” feels relevant. It creates an opportunity for students to take charge of their own learning and to build a series of transferable skills that will serve them well into adulthood.
All on its own though, a competency doesn’t equal student success – it requires work on the teacher’s part to help students see the importance, for example, of social capital, and to do it gently within the confines of a social and cultural expectation.
For example, as a first-generation college student myself, I found that shaking hands at galas or pinging someone on LinkedIn often felt like a transactional violation of my blue-collar roots, where we so often took pride in liking people for who they were instead of what they could be worth to us. How do we, when using these competencies, honor the person in front of us – their history, their family, their culture and story?
Real personalized education requires the hard work (especially as a white educator working with students of color) of creating an atmosphere of belonging where students feel known – really known, and seen. In this way, competencies are a movement towards appreciating students, towards respecting their voices and interests, and making the real-world value of their efforts known, especially when applied in conjunction with other anti-racist practices and acts of belonging.
Competencies can ultimately become a tool for democratic education, building students’ skills and capacities to shape their lives and shape the world according to their own values and aspirations.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROXIMITY: IT REALLY DOES TAKE A VILLAGE
One of the highlights of the Aurora Symposium was hearing from reDesign about their “Future-Ready Competencies.” The language around these competencies feels fresh and innovative - a student needs to be able, for example, to “Design for Solutions” – defining and exploring a problem, and to “Read the World” – learning from the past and finding sources for inspiration.
However, if we don’t pair these competencies with the kind of real-world experiences that students crave, we risk competencies falling right back into an industrial-age ideal of one-size-fits-all.
Competencies in their best iterations have the opportunity to create more connected communities, which is what is really missing in education.
The organization I work with, WPS Institute, is in the second year of a pilot program in partnership with Salem Public Schools in Salem, Massachusetts. Students in the pilot frequently participate in “Learning Immersions,” going out into the community, exploring the rich history, seeing art exhibits, visiting the library, and understanding their own neighborhoods better.
For example, if you’ve ever been in Salem close to Halloween, you know that the place is packed with people for what Salem calls “Haunted Happenings.” Students in the Middle School Learning pilot went out into town to interview residents and store owners, and to explore the related data in order to understand the impacts of Haunted Happenings for everyone involved. Moreover, students were able to make connections between the very tangible Haunted Happenings traffic congestion and their projects in Design Studio block, where they are working on a "Transitopia" unit to design transit solutions.
All of this real-world, hands-on learning about students’ communities paves the way for both better overall critical thinking and better long-term civic engagement. And the kids are more engaged and actually enjoy school.
Last week, I sat across from four middle school students to hear about their experiences. One kid, whom I’ll call Benny, is not a kid who says what you want to hear. I know this because, well – twenty years in the classroom. There were parts of him that reminded me of my own son. He described how his experience in the Middle School pilot program had changed his entire attitude towards school; how he used to feel “mad” and now feels “mellow” and actually “likes school.”
These learning immersions aren’t easy to pull off – the teachers, too, have to experience the energy that comes alongside feeling a strong sense of belonging themselves. When done well, not just as one-off field trips, learning immersions begin to give middle school students a sense of freedom and agency at a time when developmentally they are ready to move and learn outside of the home, outside of the building of school, past the houses in their immediate neighborhoods and into the community.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRANSCRIPT? HOW DO WE "MEASURE" COMPETENCIES?
Often by the time students reach the latter years of high school, they are ready to participate in their broader communities by leading acts of service and organizing problem-solving initiatives, but the goal of college can derail that opportunity for authentic participation, largely because the identity of students in the post-secondary world is measured in terms of a GPA or an SAT score.
At a critical time in adolescent development – the precipice of adulthood – students are told not to authentically contribute to their communities, but to pit themselves individualistically against each other in a survivor-esque attempt to stand out from the pack. I’ve seen the anxiety this produces in students, as the vast majority of students hold stronger ideals than that – ideals rooted in community building, in mentoring younger peers in important values, and in elevating opportunities for equity – and those students are conflicted to the core.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium offers a glimmer of hope for more authentic post-secondary evaluation of students. They are working with schools and higher-ed institutions to move away from “Legacy Transcripts,” largely based on GPAs, and instead to measure what matters in the real world, even to employers, via competency-based transcripts.
With changes to the structure of evaluation itself comes the opportunity to change the nature of what we are evaluating. These competencies have to be paired with programs that allow students to engage more productively in their communities.
Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, talks about the importance of proximity. He says, “You cannot be an effective problem-solver from a distance. There are details and nuances to problems that you will miss unless you are close enough to observe those details.” How are we allowing students to see things up close, to be involved and critical members of their respective communities? And how can this be the kind of personalized, real-world learning that makes students excited about education?
I had a conversation last week with Sonn Sam, National Director of Partnerships, from Big Picture Learning, an organization that has fellowships, outside of school learning opportunities, and healthy living and learning partnerships. He was very wise to the ways traditional schooling often fails our students. Sam said, “Adults in communities generally care about young people and if they can contribute, they want to.” How can we foster a community experience in which the proverbial village is participating in educating our children, both for students who enter the workforce right out of high school and for those who are headed to college. How can we make at least part of education be a real-world, community-based experience that cherishes students’ individual voices, values and dreams?
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR TRADITIONAL SCHOOLING?
In terms of traditional schooling, there is a place and time to read a poem, to solve an equation, to complete a science lab or a history test, and competencies used in the classroom can make those moments have more relevance, too. But it doesn’t have to be all competencies or nothing. I am wary of systems of competencies that grow too complex, that look more like a product for sale rather than a framework for educators who understand that good teaching, too, requires everything in moderation.
Competencies are not a solution all on their own, but as part of a structure that promotes both belonging and authentic community engagement, can help inspire a better educational experience for students. By providing real-world relevance, competencies can inspire and create pathways for students and schools to participate in more authentic and connected communities.
Carrie Wihbey is the Director of the Community Learning Lab at WPS Institute. As the beneficiary of many incredible school communities, she believes wholeheartedly that every child deserves access to engaging, inspired and life-changing education.