CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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Multiple Pathways to Competency-Based Education?

October 26, 2015 by

ClassroomLast summer we published Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders based on interviews with ten districts across the country. There were strong similarities about the major steps these districts used in converting their systems from time-based to success-based. What was interesting was that most of the districts had converted without a big investment of education technology or use of blended learning.

There are more and more districts interested in competency education, but they have different starting points. Many of them have already made the transition to blended learning and are more comfortable with students working on different units or skills. I’ve also visited one district, Eminence, which started with design thinking. (University of Kentucky dLAB, led by John Nash, is bringing design thinking into the schools in the Bluegrass State.) This has raised a bunch of questions for me about how these districts might find their way to competency education. Will they follow the same implementation process or will they forge a different way to a competency-based system? And if they do forge a different way, will this lead to different understandings of competency education and new designs? Or will these districts miss important steps and encounter new challenges?

Technical or Transformational?

A few people, all of whom I have the utmost respect for, have suggested that we need to document the different models of competency education in the same way we talk about the models of blended learning. I see the value of modelizing (Is that a word? If not, it should be. ), but I also see a huge risk in that it allows people to see competency education as a technical reform.

And we at CompetencyWorks don’t think it is. (more…)

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Five Ways Learner Profiles Can Promote Competency-Based Education

October 22, 2015 by

Powering PersonalizationThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on October 16, 2015.

Imagine a parent and student have access to and control of information about the student and could choose when and how to share that information with other stakeholders. Imagine that it is not only available 24 hours a day but stays with the family regardless of school transfer. An expanded learner profile could make this vision a reality by building on the current “official transcript” with an expanded electronic student record highlighting learner strengths, needs, interests, preferences and more. A learner profile could simultaneously drive personalization and safeguard privacy.

A student’s data backpack could be populated by a common set of data elements for all students and the components of each student’s learner profile could be further customized based on student needs, family decisions and data requirements.

Learner profiles have the potential to power personalized learning through better data that can inform learning in new and meaningful ways as well as facilitate a transition to a competency-based education system. Competency-based environments encourage ownership over learning and allow students to have flexibility in how they learn, how they demonstrate learning and advancing at a flexible pace and according to their own needs. For students with high mobility, competency-based education allows students to pick up right where they leave off. Learner profiles can play an important role in supporting competency-based learning.

Here are 5 ways learner profiles promote competency-based learning

1.Learner profiles encourage student ownership.

Chris Sturgis, co-founder of Competency Works, said, “Learner profiles should support student ownership of learning.” If a student can update his or her learner profile with information, including a collection of personal best work, the student can share his or her own work and even permit and control sharing capabilities.

Assessment of learning. Learner profiles can be used as part of a mechanism educators use to ensure mastery before moving to the next level. Expeditionary Learning schools require a year end Passages presentations, “an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and their readiness to move on to the next phase of their education.”

A portfolio as part of a comprehensive profile provides an a structure for organizing a collection of personal bests linked to learning goals. A digital portfolio facilitates easy sharing with multiple stakeholder groups–parents, community members, prospective employers, and colleges. (more…)

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Phase In or Overnight Your Implementation?

October 20, 2015 by

Guinea Pig Reading a BookWhen implementing a Proficiency Based Learning system, many schools need to choose between a “phased in” approach or an “overnight” approach. Typically, a phased in approach identifies a specific group of students for which change happens over a prolonged period of time. Conversely, an overnight approach involves developing a program from philosophy through logistics (such as scheduling, assessments, reporting, transcripts, etc.) and making the transition for an entire school or district to happen at the same time.

Having experienced both, I offer a discussion of unintended consequences to one of these choices. In one school, implementation was scheduled for a freshman class with a four-year phase in process through which the entire school would transition to a new system. In another, a decision was made to transition an entire school together at one time, given the thinking that ultimately “we’re going that way” anyway, why not do it together approach.

We’re the Guinea Pigs

Stakeholders may or may not embrace a change to a proficiency-based system. When deciding to implement this change, a single group of students (in this case, a freshman class) and their families experience the change over a period of multiple years. While it is a fact of life that schools are “building the plane while flying it,” it has a dramatic effect upon the “guinea pig” class. Not having answers is natural when transitioning to a whole new philosophy and approach to educating our youth. It is natural not to anticipate some of the issues that arise within transition; however, the guinea pig class certainly had their fill of “I don’t know” responses from teachers and administrators. (more…)

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True Voice and Choice at Kettle Moraine Perform

October 19, 2015 by

KMPerformCan you envision a high school without courses, semesters, or trimesters? A school where students build their schedules every four to six weeks, choosing seminars, workshops, internships, projects, and the like that are interesting to them?

A school where students are not moving through a schedule created for them nine months before the academic year even begins?

What if instead you take the competencies from math, science, reading, writing, and the like, and then put them together into interdisciplinary learning opportunities that students can choose?

What if students were so knowledgeable about their learning that they could add competencies to existing seminars so they were meeting their learning goals, or creating seminars to co-teach with school faculty so their fellow students can meet their learning goals?

Well, I have not only envisioned it but I finally got to see it in action last week when I visited Kettle Moraine Perform in Wales, Wisconsin, a 170 student performing arts high school inside the larger 1400 student legacy high school. (Click here for more on the model.)

Abby, our student tour guide, was a senior with enough credits gathered to graduate. But instead of leaving high school, she decided to stay to make herself more competitive for the college of her choice. This is a wonderful model of true voice and choice.

I look forward to going back.

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About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at

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Engagement Templates: 6 Ways to Structure Learning Experiences

October 15, 2015 by

Students in lecture

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 11, 2015.

How to engage learners? It’s a perpetual question for teachers and trainers. If it’s human development you’re after, engagement isn’t the goal but it is the engine. You won’t achieve your aims without it, especially if the desired learning requires hard sustained work.

We’ve been studying engagement and cataloging templates drawing from traditional research and new technology-enhanced approaches to user experience (UX) and learner experience (LX).

Many instructional designers use Terry Anderson’s interaction framework: learner to content, learner to instructor, and learner to peer learner interaction. These are important constructs but they don’t tell you how to structure a learning experience.

David Merrill provides a bit more guidance in his five principles of instructional design:

  • learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems;
  • learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge;
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner;
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner; and
  • learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.

A designer admitted that “Designing an effective and efficient “instructional transaction” is the great mystery.”

While there are many variations, there appear to be six basic strategies for capturing engagement and initiating a learning cycle: (more…)

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Competency-Based and Blended Learning: Friends or Foes?

October 14, 2015 by
Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on October 6, 2015. 

Last week, I presented a webinar for the Michigan-based EdTech Specialists’ webinar series on blended learning and competency-based education. The presentation provided me with a chance to revisit a blog post I wrote two years ago on the overlap—or lack thereof—between competency-based and blended approaches to teaching and learning. Early on, as many in the field do, the overlap of blended and competency-based learning felt obvious to me. What better way to allow for flexible pacing than to use technology in classrooms? But over the years, I’ve come to realize that competency-based education advocates are calling for a vision of education that goes far beyond pacing reforms, and that online and blended learning are on a rapid growth trajectory that only sometimes appear to be moving in a competency-based direction. The two may be converging as the call for personalized learning grows louder, but just how much do we understand about how the two interact?

At the start of the presentation, I decided to sketch out my latest thinking on how these two aspects of education reform work for and against one another and why. Check out my quick explanation below:

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