FAQ: What countries are implementing competency-based education?

by Chris Sturgis

What countries are implementing competency-based education? Is there any insight into the cultures that are more aligned with it?

This question isn’t easy to answer in that the term “competency education” has slightly different meanings around the world. If the question is, how many countries are advancing towards personalized, competency-based education in the same way districts and schools in the US are, it’s probably a handful. Of course there are always pockets of innovation regardless of the policies (and I don’t think we would say as a country, the US is moving towards competency-based education. We’ve created innovation space at the state level and a handful of states are moving in this direction. Certainly, current federal US policy is still stuck in privatization and governance issues.)

The place to start with understanding global understanding of competency education is with the efforts by the OECD. They have established a set of 3 clusters of competencies that are needed in the work place and that all students should develop. (This article gives you insight into how they developed the competencies.) Many countries have embraced this idea of the key competencies but how they have implemented them varies. They may say that they are competency-based. But embracing a core set of competencies isn’t necessarily aligning the entire school system around the research on learning. Some, like New Zealand, include it in national policy, but schools make sense of it in a variety of ways. I think examining the assessment systems provides insight into how tightly countries have really embraced the competencies.

However, it isn’t always easy to translate between systems of assessment and credentialing learning. In the US, we want everyone to get a diploma, but the diploma has little actual meaning in terms of what a student can do. In comparison, in New Zealand, there are highly calibrated systems of credentialing learning, although students leave school with different levels of learning.

Where might you look for other countries moving in this direction? Finland is certainly aligned with the research on learning. New Zealand has a strong national policy for school autonomy. Thus, the schools that are personalized are going the same direction that our personalized, competency-based schools are. iNACOL, now the Aurora Institute, prepared a paper several years ago to document CBE in other countries and only found pieces of it in different places. I think this is still the best way to go about it — clarify the features of personalized, competency-based education and then compare it across countries.

I don’t know of any research about the culture that drives towards a personalized, competency-based system. However, as a starting point I’d look for cultures that value creativity, equity and a can-do spirit. The change to competency-based education requires leadership that believes in itself and its people to figure it out. It believes in our shared humanity and that we haven’t even begun to tap into the potential talent that we can bring to bear on the challenges that face us.

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