Ideas, Influence, Impact

Competency-based education (CBE) is a transformative educational approach for classrooms and systems that is emerging across the country. It has its deepest roots—and greatest success—in the state of New Hampshire, as its legislature and state department of education have worked to significantly change how education occurs in the state. CBE also has strong roots in Iowa and Kentucky; it is growing in numerous other states through the work of the CCSSO’s Innovation Learning Network (ILN) and several organizations, such as iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks.

At its core, competency-based education can be defined by five major shifts in how an educational system operates:

  • Learner agency
  • Learner experience (commonly known as curriculum)
  • Learner facilitation/support (teacher instruction)
  • Learner evidence (assessment)
  • Learner environment (both the culture and the physical space).

Please note that I intentionally reworded some common educational terms, such as using learner experience instead of curriculum. The reason is that a CBE system is built on the learner. It is not just learner-centered; it is learner-driven. A CBE system is built to fully support the passion, purpose and needs of each and every learner. The learner works to reach his or her potential in all aspects of life, college, and career readiness. Therefore, I have chosen to rebrand some common educational terms to make sure the “learner” is always at the forefront of the work we need to do.

If you are interested in adopting CBE in your school or district, these are the five shifts you will need to make in order to truly transform your educational system. You cannot change your educational system merely by changing the terms you use to describe it. There are a myriad of details that need to be addressed in overhauling a system. These shifts provide a conceptual framework to address those details.

Learner agency focuses on making sure the student has a voice and choice in his/her educational journey. They are involved in setting their goals, setting their learning objectives, setting their assessment levels and setting the pace of their progress.

Learner experience means that a curriculum is not just the content standards given to the students; it is also the context that a student brings to the content.

Learner facilitation and support flips the model of teacher as sage on the stage and cements the role of guide on the side.

Learner evidence revamps the entire notion of assessment of learning to assessment for learning.

And learner environment refocuses the culture to ensure that students have a significant presence in the ownership and direction of their learning.

This framework is designed to focus on the learner foremost, and to build an educational system that supports the learner completely. It was developed based on my experiences implementing competency-based education in my school district, as well as several publications from iNACOL and KnowledgeWorks. I curated the information and attempted to conceptualize it into a framework that can be easily understood by educators and community stakeholders so there can be action taken instead of confusion and inertia.

You can use this general overview of the five shifts to begin formulating a framework for transformation in your school or district. In future blog posts, I will address each shift in greater detail.

* This blog post first appeared on the Educause/NGLC blog site on May 2, 2017.



Last week, I had the opportunity to join my son’s third grade class on a field trip to a conservation park. It was a wonderful day out side with gorgeous weather. More importantly, it was a great day for me to reflect on the “transferability” of competency-based education.

Competency-based education, or “CBE,” is a systems shift in what and how education is done in our schools.  And there are teachers, administrators, and parents across the country working to implement this new model of learning for students.  A lot of the concerns with CBE is how it gets implemented in the classrooms, buildings, and districts.  This field trip reminded me that CBE happens “any time, any place, any pathway, any pace.”  (Keep practicing that rhyme!)

First, I was reminded of the powerful potential of CBE when our naturalist gave our students some general guidelines about what insects to find in a prairie and how to best capture them.  Then, the students were let loose to explore the prairie and find their insects.  Imagine 60 third graders bounding through prairie grasses as tall as them searching for a large variety of insects.  To some, it may seem like chaos, but it’s not.  It’s CBE.

Students had the general focus of the lesson (objectives, standards) provided, yet the opportunity to learn on their own.  Some used the insect nets, others their hands, and still others had more creative ways of capturing the insects for identification.  Further, some caught only grasshoppers, while others searched for as many insects as possible, and some, even, were determined to capture as many yellow jackets as possible.  CBE allows for students to expand on the what and how of the curriculum, while still maintaining the necessary requirements for learning.

Later, students were following the naturalist on a trail searching for insects and various plant types.  Again, the naturalist gave some general directions, then students were allowed to explore the woods on their own.  It was wonderful to see the curiosity of the students, as well as various “soft skills”.  Some students were quick to take charge of their exploration, while others followed.  Some asked questions of the naturalist, while others just got started on their own.  Some stayed close to the group, while others explored the edges of the woods.  What was exciting was how everyone learned from the experience.

A bonus of the day was a student who found a variety of insect that the naturalist was unfamiliar with.  The students took time sharing information about what they had learned so far to try to determine this new insect.  Finally, a parent searched online with their phone to share more information about the insect.

CBE has the power to transform our educational system – to maintain the curiosity of students through graduation, to use the unique interests and talents of the students fully, and to have teachers work collaboratively with students to be learners as well.  It is a shift with much work, and much rewards.  For students, teachers, and parents on the field trip, the rewards were evident clearly in that prairie.

As leaders in classrooms, buildings and districts return to a new school year, we are faced with the same daily demands from students, parents, and stakeholders.  We are expected to give our best every day, to be innovative, to be responsive and more.  And we meet those standards on most days.  And yet, with any innovative, responsive, and thoughtful leader, we make mistakes.

As reflective leaders, we can obsess on those mistakes.  And many times, our stakeholders obsess on them as well.  The truth is – we must remember – we tried.  We are flawed human beings, and we can grow every day from our mistakes.  In fact, we SHOULD grow from our mistakes.

As the pressure may grow and people focus on your mistakes, make sure you focus on what you can learn from those mistakes.  Let the noise of our errors remain outside of you, and let the growth happen within.

We are not perfect.  We are flawed – and we are forgiven.

Every Day

Every day we have the power to make our day what we want it and need it to be.

Every day we have the power and the potential for greatness.

We have an opportunity every morning when we rise to give back to our world, to give something to our family, to give joy out into the universe.

We have the power and the potential and the promise to do more today and be more today than we were yesterday.

We have the promise of greatness within us, and yet so many of us on so many days choose to ignore it or hide it.  We can be more today than we were yesterday.  We should be more today than we were yesterday

We should live our lives to be tired by the end of the day because we spent it in service to grow ourselves, to grow our families, to grow our communities and to grow our world.

Let today be the day we start recognizing our power and our potential and make the promise for growth, for betterment, for joy, for service.

Calibrate to Capacity

You have so much to give to the world. And to yourself. You have the light, the power, and the passion to be the best you possible. The only you possible! And so we must spend each and every day doing a little bit more, getting a little bit closer to our true self, our full self. We must spend the time it takes to look within us and lead outside of us. We must venture deep into our souls.

So often we make the mistake of taking on the burdens of the world, and in the process of carrying those burdens or baggage, we begin to lose sight of who we really are. It’s time, today, to be your better self.  It is time to grow, to challenge our notions of who we are, and to truly truly see ourselves in the full light of the day.

We are amazing, extraordinary beings. Most importantly we are unique.  It is time to calibrate our daily lives to our capacity.

Thought is the Sculptor

“Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be.” – Henry David Thoreau

Who is it you want to be?  Are you aware that your thoughts determine who you are – and who you can become?  We live our lives based on our thoughts and perceptions of people, of situations, of the world.  We all hold a viewpoint of how we see ourselves, know ourselves.  Within the ‘knowledge’ of ourselves may be variations of truth.  We may think we are a good person, yet gossip about people.  We may think we are a trusting friend, yet never share about ourselves.  We think we are a good communicator, yet few seem to know what we are saying.

The intent of this blog is not to get down on ourselves.  Rather, it is to help us recognize that our thoughts guide our actions.  We are who we think we are.  More importantly, we can become who we think we can be.  The power of the mind is a great force for change.  Think about yourself – who you are, who you wish to become, and how you will grow to be that person.

Thoughts lead to actions that lead to habits.  Trust yourself to have the thoughts to become who you need – and want – to be.  Think about it.  Now, become it!

#Connect  #Challenge  #Create  #Linchpin

How do you wish your colleagues would treat you?  What do you have within you that others need to see?

As you reflect on your self and the goals you may have for yourself, ask yourself – “what am I trying to become?”  Also, challenge yourself to reflect on whether you are being true to yourself and to others. Challenge yourself to look deeply within and question whether you are making the choices necessary to become who you want to be.  You need to know yourself to know what you want to change.  You also need to know what you want to become so you can make disciplined decisions to get there.  You need to ‘explore your core’ and be prepared to address what you find.  Once you know your current reality, you can set the plan in place to get to your desired reality.  You can know clearly what is missing and what must be addressed.

When you know you, you can change you.  And others can be witness to you – improved.  Share more of yourselves and others will treat you as you ought to be treated.

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