The Argument for (more) Competency Based Education

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Apr 16, 2016

A few weeks ago I finished a book by Todd Rose called The End of Average, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.


For more than 25 years I have worked in education, initially in college textbook publishing and then in consumer publishing at Harper Collins, where my focus on reference and serious non-fiction titles led me to the dot.com world and eventually back to education. Whereas textbook publishing in those days was more of a commodity/one-size-fits-all type sale, consumer publishing was more compelling: how to promote individual authors with all their fascinating idiosyncrasies–world leaders who bathed in tea at night while on book tours and celebrities who sent publicists to do their personal shopping.  

For the past nine years, I’ve been with  O’Donnell Learn, where I started out as VP of Business Development and Marketing and am now the president. In this time, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in education, especially in regards to content development and delivery, as I’m sure you have too. As with the move from print to digital, there have been many “disruptions” to the way educators, thought leaders and higher ed institutions have begun to look at how learners learn.


One of the most inspiring developments in education is the focus on personalized learning and individual learning pathways. A subset of personalized learning that has started to gain traction is competency-based education (CBE). In his book, Todd Rose addresses how our 21st-century workforce is desperate for workers who’ve had a 21st-century education and can graduate with the competencies that make them ready to work. Before he lays out this thesis with sound examples, he explains where we are today, and how we got here.


Rose begins his book (a very quick, informative, and easy read) with a tangible example of how there is no such thing as an average person. He details the history of the development of the seat for fighter pilot planes and how they were designed for the average body of fighter pilots. He explains how every part of the average body was taken from data of a selection of pilots, but how none of those pilots embodied every average measurement. Another example is one about the ideal woman and how her measurements were determined. Surprise, no woman met all of those measurements (thus the torture of shopping for jeans). Rose explains the history of how the “science” of creating averages came to be accepted as an application for measuring and determining value, achievement, and success in almost all aspects of our business and education systems.


The book has no lack of understanding of the detriment caused by the continued attachment to the “averegarian” approach. Rose chronicles his personal struggle with not meeting the standards set before him. He was tracked early as not being up to snuff because he didn’t test well or grasp some concepts and drills as quickly as he should have. Against all odds and despite standardized tests, he got into college.  As an adult learner with family and work responsibilities, he used his unique approach to college completion: He enrolled in classes he knew he would enjoy and succeed in first, so he could feel a sense of satisfaction and work on mastering his study skills. He’s now the director of the “Mind, Brain, and Education” program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


CBE is one approach to higher education curriculum that Rose champions. CBE and stacked or scaffolded CBE makes a lot of sense for many modern students. Now, I’m not knocking a traditional university experience where students live and learn in environments in which they can discover their purpose and calling. But that’s a luxurious experience not every student can take advantage of these days. Also, most 21st-century businesses need graduates that can demonstrate skill mastery on the first day of work.  Institutions that employ CBE (and they are a diverse lot such as Western Governors University, University of  Texas, or College for America) offer curricula in which students gain proficiency because they promote the following:

  • Allow students to self-pace their learning, which is usually based not on a fixed semester (Carnegie units or seat time) but on demonstration of mastery
  • Provide different ways for students to tackle a curriculum, choosing which competencies they want to master first, how they want to approach the learning–whether through first reading the content or checking out the assessment and rubric, or another sequence
  • Typically incorporate employer input into the design of the competencies, skills, and assessments so that students get real-life learning
  • Enable students to show what they’ve learned by completing a credential or project that is often scenario-based and placed within an authentic context
  • Encourage students to work with mentors and coaches as well as faculty or subject matter experts (based on the understanding that learning is not just about gaining skills or understanding but also about motivation, support, and teamwork–all good relationship skills to bring to the work environment)
  • Often connect students with employers, so they graduate not only workforce-ready but with employment opportunities
  • Offer a flexible approach for adult learners who are juggling families and jobs while they try to gain more skills and knowledge
  • Though CBE  has become more popular, growing from about 20 programs in 2012 to close to 600 in 2016, it’s only used by a small percentage of higher ed institutions overall. Its nascent state is in part due to the challenges that it faces. These include the startup costs of creating CBE programs, adjusting back-office systems, accommodating accreditor and financial aid requirements, finding the right platform fit, and much more. But the situation is improving, and the K-12 world is beginning to look seriously at CBE too.  

So does this mean by 2017 we could be nearing a CBE tipping point? That would be good news as CBE is one of the most tangible and workforce-aligned curriculum approaches to materialize in quite some time. It might not be for everyone, but it fosters an experience where truly individualized learning can take place and students can learn 21st Century skills.


Finally, if you’ve read The End of Average, please let me know your take-away thoughts. 

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