Competency-based learning: Why it’s not all about the answers

Competency-based education offers “extended learning opportunities”
By: | March 12, 2020
Competency-based educators in New Hampshire's Sanborn Regional School District constantly develop new performance tasks that allow students to show mastery. (Photo: Reaching Higher NH)Competency-based educators in New Hampshire's Sanborn Regional School District constantly develop new performance tasks that allow students to show mastery. (Photo: Reaching Higher NH)

Competency-based education has been the learning model at Sanborn Regional High School and the Sanborn Regional School District for about 10 years.

The district’s teachers are constantly developing new performance tasks that allow students to show mastery.

In a fourth-grade science class, for example, students built a solar cooker to demonstrate skills that would’ve been tested by a state assessment.

In high school math, teachers designed a performance task around cell phone plans. Students had to research cost and other factors to make a pitch to their parents about the best data plan.


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“It’s not about getting the answers. It’s all about process and students being able to defend their thinking,” says Brian M. Stack, principal of Sanborn Regional High School.

Designing these tasks and assessments requires constant collaboration by teachers because, as Stack has seen, they’ll come up with more powerful ideas together than they will working alone.

The competency-based learning system also allows Sanborn High School students to engage in one or more “extended learning opportunities.”

These begin sophomore year with a “student interest” course that allows them to explore topics they’re passionate about.

Students then complete three to four months of research that culminates with a defense of learning in the form of a presentation, video or another project.

In junior and senior years, the experience becomes a year-long project that takes up multiple periods of the school day.


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One student, for example, started a production company while others have interned in doctor’s offices, elementary schools and on archaeological digs.

Some of these students, including one who studied fungus in a University of New Hampshire lab, got additional course credits for this work.

“Learning doesn’t just have to take place inside classroom walls,” Stack says. “Our educators can help quantify, manage and focus the learning opportunities that happen outside school walls, which some would argue is the more authentic, relevant learning.”


Read our more stories in our competency-based education series.