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Empower Generations Incorporates Competency-Based Approaches for Greater Skill Mastery and Personalization


Since formal education has existed, we have often wrestled with what the goals or outcomes are supposed to be and how we know if our learners have successfully reached them. For generations, the dominant goal seemed to be to acquire knowledge, information or facts. It didn’t matter what subject or level: the aim was for the learner to acquire content knowledge. 

But in an era when information i.e. the content, or knowledge is readily available through the digital revolution, many are asking what the outcome of learning should be. Project-based learning practitioners, such as iLEAD Schools, have always known that the acquisition of information wasn’t enough. What mattered most was how the learner applied the information. 

Well, with a growing interest in deeper learning, there is a conscious move to focus more on outcomes, skills or competencies. Enter competency-based learning, or competency-based education.

Competency-Based Approaches Defined

Competency-based education (CBE), or competency-based learning (CBL), is a system of instruction, assessment, grading and reporting on learning based on the learners’ demonstration of both the knowledge and the skills they’re expected to learn. 

It’s also personalized. It is primarily concerned with a student’s progression through curriculum at their own pace, depth and level. As competencies are demonstrated, learners continue to progress. 

Empower Generations Director Malaka Donovan is leading the effort to define and implement competency-based education. According to Donovan, this is a multilayered approach to education that involves learners progressing based on not only what they know but what they can do. 

“It provides learners with the necessary support and opportunities to build skills, not just content knowledge,” said Donovan. “This might seem obvious, but it represents quite a large shift.”

The Characteristics of Competency-Based Learning

At Empower Generations (a school founded on meeting the educational needs of learners who are also teen parents), Donovan and her team are instituting a system that really spells out the implications of competency-based practices:

  • sustained learning experiences that have an arc and duration (not just small discrete lesson plans and disparate activities) 
  • learner ownership of learning and an understanding of what’s needed to advance/achieve/improve
  • evidence of learners working at different paces
  • instances of individual and small-group feedback being offered by the guide 
  • meaningful learner demonstrations and applications of learning
  • opportunities and expectations for revision and reflection 

At its foundation, competency-based learning is focused on mastery. Traditionally, schools have exposed students to content over time and success has been measured summatively. However, Donovan points out that the shift in a CBE-based system is that learners work at their own pace and progress only when they’ve demonstrated mastery of the identified competencies.

This approach is not entirely new. In many occupations and educational settings, the emphasis has always been on the mastery of skills. Think about anything from medical school to auto mechanics and hundreds of occupations in between. To be certified and legally allowed to formally call oneself a doctor or mechanic, one had to complete programs and then demonstrate skill mastery.

“I’ve always used a competency-based approach when it comes to teaching and learning,” said Donovan. “Even in my own life as a parent, it has informed how I operate. It’s the same process, but we may not refer to it by the same name.”

Experts are now identifying many advantages of implementing more competency-based approaches, including the following: 

  • Learners work at their own pace
  • Flexibility
  • Experience mirrors the real world
  • Personalized learning and teaching
  • Timely support
  • Purpose-driven
  • Transforming assessing and grading
  • Communicates progress, learning differently
  • Focuses on skills, mastery and growth

How It Works

According to Donovan, a more competency-based pedagogy capitalizes, or at least recognizes, that learners are curious by nature. Donovan says that when you allow kids to be curious, they will be engaged and be interested in learning.

“When I taught third grade, I had a tidepool in my classroom. At home, my kids had a sandbox where they did a dinosaur dig,” said Donovan.

Like many things related to relevant learning, CBE takes advantage of natural curiosity and inquiry while allowing learners to pace themselves accordingly and look for more information on their own.

“It’s a beautiful process to watch the experience unfold on the learners’ own terms,” said Donovan. “When they begin to own the learning, they get to own their own successes and failures, which is where growth happens.”

The traditional way of teaching focused on report cards based on outcomes of assignments, tests, and performance. Teachers used their own way of grading and provided very little opportunity for learners to revise (an absolute essential of the authentic learning process). The traditional system might have reflected knowing, but it did not reflect authentic learning.

Connecting to Personalized, Project-Based Learning

Donovan, who has formed partnerships with many CBE proponents and collaborators, has realized there is a whole new world out there trying to implement these principles. Along with Eagle Rock Professional Center in Colorado, Donovan has been developing project benchmarks, performance tasks and other forms of assessment to target competencies and competency mastery. 

“We put learner performance in the forefront of every learning experience. The majority of our assignments are formative assessments, or ‘the practice before the game,’” she said. “Mastery is developed through the process of creating projects.”

Donovan says this final product of the project the summative assessment can be thought of in terms of a game metaphor.

“All the practice has led up to this point, and it is here where skills are judged,” she said. “Much as an athlete refines their skills during practice, our learners work and rework their ideas and projects until they show true mastery of the skill.” 

iLEADing the Way

There is more and more research than ever before, according to Donovan. She believes the work iLEAD is doing along with partners across the country could be one of the most transformational things taking place in education. 

Donovan cites the fact that the facilitators and support staff at her programs Empower Generations and Innovation Studios are all trained in competency-based practices and are excited about the transition. She said that she and her team develop personalized learning plans that are designed to meet the unique needs and interests of the learners. 

“We offer flexible academic approaches through project-based workshops and independent online classes that blend educational concepts with real-life application,” said Donovan. “Our staff’s diverse educational and personal backgrounds allow for greater flexibility, expertise in instruction, as well as in-depth performance assessments.”

She emphasizes that this diversity provides opportunities to strengthen relationships and build common understandings of the competencies necessary to lead the learners along their path to graduation and personal success.

“Additionally, through advisory, there is a set of competencies where we can address our learners’ social-emotional needs, as well as their own parenting journey,” she said. “This is really the hub of our program.  We know that learners are more accessible when they feel emotionally safe in their environment.”

In addition to Eagle Rock Professional Center, with whom Empower Generations collaborates, Donovan says great resources are The Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL), Competency Work and CBE pioneering practitioners like the Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska.

Learners’ Reality

Many examples demonstrate that CBE is aligned with how learners naturally prefer to engage. Donovan likes to cite gaming as one of them. 

“Kids demonstrate so much grit playing games for hours upon hours because they just want to master that level! The gaming system is set up so that once kids master a level, they move up,” said Donovan. “Their turn may be over after three tries and they need to start again, but they know they cannot move on until they master all the necessary skills.”  

Donovan suggests that learning should be the same way. She cites the contrasting example often on display in traditional grading systems.

“Our current grading system perpetuates learning gaps,” she said. “Earning an 85% on a test gives us the information that a learner mastered only 85% of the material and perhaps they still don’t understand 15% of the content.” 

Donovan is very concerned with the long-term impact of not becoming more competency-based.

“How can we then expect learners to move on and do better with more challenging material if they don’t have a 100% understanding of the skills?” she asks. “If this learning gap cycle begins in elementary school or even middle school, how are we setting our kids up for success in high school?”

Going Forward

It seems that more competency-based approaches are in line with the future of learning and work. Educators, employers, leaders and futurists are beginning to align both their thinking and approaches. They’ll need to continue to come to agreement on what the most important skills or competencies are, as well as how to assess and support the learners. 

Traditionally, we’ve defined both learning and success in very narrow terms. But this traditional mind-set has really started to become disconnected from the real world of learning, teaching and work. With the advent of competency-based education, we are on the precipice of a transformational shift in teaching and learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about competency-based approaches or how Empower Generations is implementing them, please contact Director Malaka Donovan at malaka.donovan@empowergenerations.org or 661-306-4361.

Some samples from the current work at Empower Generations / Innovation Studios:

Posted on February 18, 2020 in iLEAD Digest

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About the Author

Michael Niehoff is a teacher, leader, blogger, learner advocate, and the Education Content Coordinator at iLEAD Schools.
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