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Estimated time to complete Competency-Based Learning, Level 1: 8 – 10 hours

Terms like standards, competency, proficiency, and mastery, are all ones which are being used with increased frequency in education. Why have these terms, and the ideas and pedagogy behind them, come to the forefront at this time, and how can they help students to take a more involved and critical role in their own education?

According to neuroscientist Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, learning is neurobiologically impossible without emotion. Much of my work with competencies in my classroom was spurred by an increase in student disengagement. If I weren’t engaging students emotions intrinsically, it had to happen because of fear. This led to compliance, but not engagement. With the move to project-based learning, coupled with feedback and assessment through competencies, it freed me up to work alongside my students, now intrinsically motivated and curious, to provide feedback and support. It no longer felt punitive or arbitrary to assess my students. 

“People don’t engage by being managed. They don’t engage by being controlled. The way that people engage is if they get there under their own steam, and that requires sometimes enormous amounts of autonomy over people’s time (when they do what they do),
over their technique (how they do it),
over their team (who they do it with) and over their task.”

Daniel Pink

At the same time, there are countless articles, studies, and anecdotal evidence which talk about the mental health crisis amongst today’s students and young adults. While many experts and health professionals have posited causes and reasons for this growing increase in anxiety, stress, and even suicidal thoughts, it is clear that we need to do more to help our students to feel in control and empowered when it comes to their lives, their education, and their future. Humans in general experience more life satisfaction when we have purpose and autonomy. Without these, intrinsic motivation is lost, leading to diminished fulfillment and increased stress as our work and life become a chore. Students’ educational lives have primarily become about a relentless pursuit of achievement in order to attain entry to highly-selective colleges and universities. This lack of significant or meaningful purpose leads to a disconnect between their heart and mind, and subsequently stress. 

The development and implementation of a set of cross-curricular competencies as the focus of teaching and learning lead to student experiences that are more about agency and engagement than compliance and completion.  Daniel Pink has talked about how intrinsic motivation is driven by the confluence of mastery, autonomy, and purpose. We need to provide our students with more of all three of these, and Competency-Based Learning allows teachers to do just that.

With CBL, students can take varied paths and reach the same goal, students can take charge of the process as well as the final products they create. While the goal is still to prepare students for rigorous and demanding educational experiences, it allows students to see the purpose, to have autonomy in their path and pace, and to feel the gratifying sense of achievement when they achieve competency of a standard or skill. 

This course, the Introduction to Competency-Based Learning, will provide you with research-informed and experience-based background information about it and its implementation. After you have completed this Level 1: Introduction course, you will be ready to begin the development of a unit with Level 2.  The course is organized into a series of six modules which begin below, each ending with a submission.