How Competency-Based Learning Builds 21st-Century Skills

Competencies, future-ready skills, and 21st-century skills all involve students doing something. For the students, these ideas represent the “how” to do something or the skills needed to navigate a situation. For the teacher, these ideas represent the “why” we teach students using certain strategies. And for the curriculum, it is the application of “what” we teach.

In order for students to develop the skills that will make them successful in life beyond school, they need to have a deep understanding of the what, how, and why. Content alone is not enough – students must demonstrate understanding and mastery of important skills that will better prepare them for life. More and more educators have identified this importance and are incorporating a competency-based learning model into their curriculum.

Competency Works provides a reference to a working definition of high-quality competency-based education which can help guide educators and educational leaders:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.


Competency-Based vs Standards-Based Learning

From a curricular standpoint, it is critical to remember that standards are based on content and skills. A standards-based curriculum and a competency-based curriculum are not opponents but are complementary. As educators, it is important to work together to promote both ideas. Content educators often communicate in conversation that they do not have time to have students do extensive projects because they must cover the curriculum. This typically means covering the content, the “what”, in the curriculum. It is important to remember that the “how” is just as important, other than perhaps on standardized tests (but that is another conversation). When scope and sequence are constructed, the constructors often identify the critical content and how long a topic will take to cover. The teaching of the “how” takes time, which can be a deterrent to teaching the “how” because we must move on to the next topic in the scope and sequence.


Incorporating the What and Why into Curriculum

This leads us to the “why”. Teachers are responsible for implementing the curriculum and are measured based on the assessments identified by school leaders and/or governmental regulations and community expectations. Educational leaders must determine the critical aspects of the “what” and the “how” and be sure that the curriculum and the identified assessments provide a representation of this vision. The teachers need to understand this vision and be led to work together to implement this vision through the curriculum and the classroom. In many instances, this is where systemic communication fails. If we can work together across grades, subjects, and grade levels then the “how” is not only a manageable part of the curriculum, but students will become competent and often exceptional in developing their own competencies, future-ready skills, and 21st-century skills (or whatever title we choose).


Bridging the ideas of academic content, skills, and competencies together with 21st-century skills and workplace competencies can enhance a school system’s ability to create successful students who succeed in whatever endeavor they choose.


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