Competency Based Learning and the Age of Information, Ideas, and Innovation


What a time to be alive, if you are a good learner who loves to learn. We live in the age of information, ideas and innovation. Knowledge is doubling every 12 months. We have artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and virtual reality. Your cell phone has more capacity for computing than the entire NASA in 1969 when a rocket carried astronauts to the moon.

If you are a good learner, who is willing to work, this is an age of astonishing opportunities.

But now consider Jonathan. He’s in fourth grade, and he’s a really nice kid. Every day he tries hard, but lately his eagerness to learn is gone.

Jonathan hasn’t had all the advantages. His mom works two jobs. He did not go to a fancy preschool. By the time he went to Kindergarten, Jonathan was behind in his oral language development, in the development of his motor skills, and behavior skills. By fourth grade, Jonathan has been struggling for a long time.

There are a lot of kids like Jonathan for a very good reason. Most schools use a standardized grade level instructional model. There are grade level content standards that need to be covered and pacing guides to keep teachers on track. Coverage of all the standards is the first priority in most schools.

There is just one problem with that. Not all kids are ready for the same content and the same lesson on the same day. And by 4th grade, more than 2/3 of our students are not proficient grade level readers. For poor kids the numbers are worse, with 80% non-proficient readers. And the numbers get worse as students get older.

Imagine a student in the Detroit Public Schools, in which only 5% of fourth grade students can read at grade level. The curriculum for fourth grade is designed to “cover” all the fourth grade common core state standards. The instructional materials cover are designed for fourth grade curriculum and content, which assumes that students already have the third grade level skills and content, and the second grade level skills and content, etc. We are racing through the delivery of content with kids who could not possibly find success. We are failing to address the learning needs of individual students. We don’t even make a serious attempt to understand the individual learning needs of each student.

Does any of that make sense? Delivering content to kids who can’t possibly be successful learning that content drives vulnerable students into frustration and disengagement from the learning process.

When kids stop believing in themselves as learners. When kids associate reading and math with frustration and failure. When schools drive students to disengage from learning, they have harmed children in a way that will affect their entire lives. The age of information, ideas, and innovation rewards people with good learning skills, a love of learning, and the desire to learn throughout life. Today and in the foreseeable future, poor learners will find only low-skill and low-pay employment and lifestyles. All the best opportunities are reserved for learners.

For the past few decades there has been enormous pressure to improve American learning outcomes. But here’s the dirty little secret. Adding pressure to one-size-fits-all instruction has not produced any improvements on 12th grade learning outcomes since we first started collecting data in the early 1970s. Some districts are better than others, but taken as a whole, American students are performing at exactly the same level as in 1971.

Fortunately there is another way, one that every person who reads this article already understands. Have you ever taught a kid to ride a bike, play an instrument, or throw and catch? If you have, you understand the basics of competency based learning. You identify what a child can do. You practice a skill at her level with lots of success. You give her all the time needed for any essential skill to develop before you move on to a more challenging level. This model of instruction has been widely in technology learning, medical training, pilot training, and more recently in community colleges, universities, and finally, a small but growing number of PK to Grade 12 institutions.

What a time to be alive, if you are a good learner. But one-size-fits-all instruction eats vulnerable kids like Jonathan for lunch. It denies them access to opportunity during the most amazing period in human history, the age of information, ideas and innovation. But change is coming, and I hope you’re ready to find out how to make that happen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter whose work focuses on competency based learning, self-regulation and empathy, and parent learning. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations.

His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), The Juice Box Bully (Early Learning Foundation), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press).


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