Moving from Standards-based Learning to Competency-based Learning using Cognitive Measures

Since 1983, the standards movement purported to:

  • provide a common body of knowledge and skills for students
  • provide educators with a comprehensive view of what students need to know and be able to do
  • provide public schools with a common focus
  • provide parents and the community with accountability

The standards movement not only completed its list of deliverables, but it created a culture of importunate testing and reactive ways for addressing achievement gaps. It not only taught educators how to measure teaching and knowledge acquisition, but it shifted the attention of educators from authentic student learning to contrived instructional techniques for isolated content-based knowledge and skills.

Most educators argue that “alignment of instruction to appropriate standards remains enormously important” (Rickabaugh, 2016). I, however, argue that the standards movement will impede educators from being global and systemic in their efforts with implementing personalized learning. In fact, I argue that educators should go higher on the grain floret and move to competency-based learning.  Schaef (2016) submitted, “the most important difference of all between standards-based learning and competency-based learning is the commitment to the student” (para. 8).


Prior to the standards-based movement of 1983, there was the competency-based education (CBE) movement that was already underway in institutions of higher education. Markedly, CBE was not a popular approach because it “lack[ed] conformity around standards and a theoretical backing thus making it difficult to clearly define and implement consistently across programs” (Gervais, 2016). As a result, the standards movement gained in popularity over CBE, and it is has been implemented at a large scale.

Still, in light of the current web-enhanced educational practices, educators should re-examine CBE using the lens of instructional technology. This student-centered learning approach especially meshes well with personalized learning because competencies “emphasize the application of skills, knowledge, and dispositions rather than content knowledge” (Schaef, 2016, para. 15). CBE has the potential to shift our current commitment from the standards-based movement towards a new commitment to student skill sets, knowledge, aptitudes, and/or capacities.


Gervais, J. (2016). The operational definition of competency-based education. The Journal of Competency-Based Education, 1(2), 98106. doi: 10.1002/cbe2.1011

Rickabaugh, J. (2016). Tapping the power of personalized learning: A roadmap for school leaders.

Schaef, S. (2016, October 09). ReDesign. ReDesign Blog. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

Taking Advice from Einstein on the Achievement Gap

There has been a gap in student achievement since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Students of color, students with disabilities, students acquiring English as a second language, and students of low socioeconomic status continue to display a significant disparity in their academic performance. Many institutions of higher education and organizations of policy studies have conducted research on the achievement gap and suggested solutions for closing the gap (i.e., better teacher preparation, active parental participation, and a rigorous curriculum). Furthermore, the “myriad [of] changes to our education system over the years – increased accountability, calendar and schedule changes, school choice, merit pay, ability grouping, smaller schools, increased testing, higher standards – few have resulted in improved outcomes for all learners” (Rickabaugh, 2016).

This perpetual phenomenon of the achievement gap continues to exist regardless of the time and resources devoted to this problem. Perhaps it is time for educators to take a little advice from Einstein.

Einstein submitted, in order to solve a problem, one will have to think higher than the thoughts that created the problem. Hence, the problem of the achievement gap can not be solved using the same thinking that created it.

Schools of the industrial age were founded on curriculum-theory models, which are inclined to be descriptive and results-oriented (Reigeluth, 2009). Approaches that utilize curriculum-theory models focus on “what to teach” thus producing a linear, continuous learning progression that ultimately leads to satisfying standards. Furthermore, the focus on “what to teach” places standards and results at the center of teaching and learning rather than the student. Subsequently, the effects of curriculum-theory models has crystalized and created a space for achievement gaps.

To dissolve the achievement gap, 21st century learning requires educators to think about teaching and learning in a new way. To truly solve the achievement gap problem, thinking must be on a higher level than curriculum-theory models. For this reason, educators must stop being results-oriented, and start being goal-oriented. Perhaps, instructional-design theories are the next best option for examining teaching and learning. Instructional-design theories are probabilistic. In other words, these models place the learner at the center and creates instructional conditions, desired outcomes, and instructional components based on the learner’s personal learning goals and learning profile. Instructional-design theories focus on “How to teach.” In other words, by focusing on “how to teach“, students are placed at the center of teaching and learning rather than standards and results. Conceivably, instructional-design theories will form non-linear discontinuous learning progressions that leaves no space for achievement gaps.

In sum, to genuinely close the achievement gap, Einstein’s advice must be followed. Educators will have to think higher than the thoughts that created the problem.


Reigeluth, C. M. (2009). Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory. New York: Routledge.

Rickabaugh, J. (2016). Tapping the power of personalized learning: A roadmap for school leaders.

Empowering Learners with Non-linear Learning Progressions

Most curriculum theory models use linear learning progressions that create continuous linear pathways of knowledge and skills for students to achieve within a fixed period of time. Students must know and be able to do several predetermined behaviors that are a direct result of a meaningful learning experience in order to achieve mastery. But are linear continuous learning progressions conducive to personalized learning?


Curriculum Theory Models use prearranged learning criteria that fails to include the students’ voice or offer the students choice in what, how, when, and where they learn. Whereas design-oriented models, use a prescribed set of learning criteria that begins with the students’ voice while offering the students choice in what, how, when, and where they will learn.

Thanks to technology and adaptive learning platforms, the linear path of learning progressions that currently exist for many students can now be rearranged into a constellation map of knowledge and skills. This constellation map of knowledge and skills is also known as a learning skills map. With the learning skills map, students are no longer limited to a linear scope and sequence of knowledge and skills of content acquisition, and they can progress through their learning with more flexibility and enrichment.  The learning skills map links many interconnected concepts that students opt to pass through on their learning journey, in any order they wish. The learning skills map also allows students to craft their own learning playlist. Thus, students choose which concepts and skills they would like to study and the sequence they would like to study in.

In sum, personalized learning is far from being a continuous and neat linear learning progression. It’s a messy discontinuous non-linear learning progression that is different for every student.  Much like gaming, personalized learning allows students to be immersed in a rich learning experience that yields multiple outcomes of learning, thus generating a constellation of knowledge and skills.


Achieve, (2015). Retrieved from

Teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy

“Literacy is about learning, and learning is about unlearning and relearning” (Spencer & Juliani, 2017, p. 19). Spencer and Juliani, authors of Empower: What happens when students own their learning, devised six truths that support a principle for empowering our learners. Truth numbers one and five from their book, focus on learning. Learning is how we perceive experiences that we are in, and how we process those experiences (McCarthy, 2000). Hence, “Truth #1: Every child deserves to own their learning. Teachers can empower student ownership of lifelong learning.”


Students are born natural learners. Their sense of perception (how they take in the things they learn) and their processing ability (what they do with what they take in) enable students to naturally be self-directed learners (McCarthy, 2000).  Hence, from birth, students once owned their learning; but something happened along the way that caused many students to lose ownership of their learning.  Providing students with choices is the first step teachers can take to support students with reclaiming their learning territory.

Spencer and Juliani’s fifth truth about learning calls into question, our current definition of literacy. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearned, and relearn” (p. 19). Thus, teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy.

In the US, there are currently four ideologies that define literacy instruction in significantly contrasting ways. They are: Functional Literacy, Cultural Literacy, Progressive Literacy, and Critical Literacy. Functional Literacy defines literacy as a tool needed to function in school and in the workforce. Cultural Literacy defines literacy as a mechanism for instilling morals, values, and a common background of knowledge. Progressive Literacy defines literacy as “personal discovery”(Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p.376). Finally, Critical Literacy defines literacy as an approach to “social transformation” (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p. 377). Of the four, functional literacy is the most stagnant and limiting. Perhaps because it is linked with the social mores of the industrial age. However, progressive literacy is the most active and free flowing of all the literacy ideologies, which meshes well with the principles of personalized learning and learning itself, because it is linked to progressive education, a byproduct of industrialization.

Children’s interests, needs, and inclinations are natural sources of self-directed learning and self-regulated learning. They are also natural sources for empowering learning. As students are taught concepts, facts, procedures, processes, and principles, they should not only be learning, but unlearning and relearning from the experience. Moreover, true learning includes failure. Failure is necessary for learning, unlearning, and relearning. Hence, if failure is not an option, then neither is literacy.


Cadiero-Kaplan, Karen (2002). Literacy Ideologies: Critically Engaging the Language Arts Curriculum. Language Arts, v79 n5 p372-81

McCarthy, B. (2000). About learning. Wauconda, Ill: About Learning.

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning.