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Creating Competencies for Mastery-Based Learning

Developing broad and specific learning goals that are easy to understand and act on

Overview

Bronx Arena began building its competency-based system using Common Core State Standards (CCSS) but quickly discovered that they needed something different. The language of the Common Core standards was too complex for students to understand, and it was written at the wrong level of specificity to be helpful in their competency-based system. For example, the standards were too specific to create organizing principles that could be used across disciplines. They were also too vague to identify specific skills and content that should be taught. As a result, teachers ended up “drilling down” to create curriculum, and often did so at different levels of specificity. This resulted in curriculum variations based on educators’ interpretations of the standards, which proved frustrating to teachers, students, and school leaders. To create more consistency, Bronx Arena crafted their own competencies.

Bronx Arena created competencies that were both broad and specific. The highest level of competencies exist at the organizing principle level, which provide single-word, student-friendly concepts that students can use across subjects (e.g. “Evaluate”). Competencies are also broken down into sub-skills, which Bronx Arena defines as something that could be taught and assessed within a given day. Educators at Bronx Arena are able to organize these sub-skills to create project-based units called “challenges.” For a given challenge, students have specific indicators that form a checklist, demonstrating – in clear language – what they need to do to demonstrate mastery for sub-skills. Sub-skills can also be interdisciplinary, such as “using supporting evidence to support a position across multiple content areas.”

The new competencies benefit both educators and students. The high-level competencies create more alignment among staff members about focus areas for teaching and learning. The sub-skills also create consistency for educators and students and reduce the prior burden on staff that involved translating abstract standards into actionable curriculum. Students also have a clearer understanding of what they need to do to demonstrate mastery for sub-skills, projects, and earning credits.