Competency-based learning vs. traditional models

Can a competencies-based approach to learning fulfil the dual purpose of better preparing students for the world of work while inspiring students to enjoy learning? Jo Ruddock finds out

Exploring competency-based learning

For some years, the state of education in the UK and how it prepares students for the world of work has been a hot topic among politicians, employers and the general public. Skills shortages in sectors such as engineering and technology, combined with a rapidly changing job market, have raised the question of whether current teaching methods are the best way to educate and inspire students while equipping them with the knowledge they need to thrive in the modern world.

One-to-many, knowledge-rich teaching is still the norm for many, however, a skills- or competencies-based approach has been advocated as a more effective option by some, encouraging students to develop transferable skills while reducing inefficiencies in teaching by enabling teachers to move away from traditional subject silos and instead implement cross-curriculum learning. 

In this approach, desired learning outcomes are agreed and students are encouraged to work at their own pace to achieve these outcomes. Technology plays a key role, whether enabling collaboration between groups or ensuring students have access to all the content they need to support their learning. 

In many ways this means making the shift from a teacher-centred classroom, where the focus is mainly on teaching the curriculum to a set timeframe regardless of a student’s interests, to a student-centred classroom where the teacher’s role is to harness the interests and needs of individual students, guiding them towards achieving those pre-determined goals. 

The aims and benefits of a skills-based approach to learning

Research suggests that compared with a curriculum learned by rote and focused on exam results, a skills-based approach that combines subjects to teach competencies that can be used across subjects encourages students to develop attributes such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration; all skills that are increasingly in demand among employers.

The main aim is to make learning an experience and engage children rather than have teachers teach to a passive audience.
– Primary school headteacher

As one headteacher of a large three-form entry primary school explains: “The main aim is to make learning an experience and engage children rather than have teachers teach to a passive audience.

“This is driven by a belief that learning should be fun and that if children come to school ready to learn, as our children do, then the diet of learning should be exciting and promote a lifelong love of learning. Academic success is at the core of the decision to make these changes, but also a desire to develop children as inquisitive, knowledgeable and happy people.”

While siloing subjects can make it easier for schools to map out the curriculum and ensure sufficient time is given to each topic, it doesn’t represent how knowledge is used in the real world. Skills-based lessons can take a number of forms and are an incredibly flexible way to teach. For example, whereas a traditional English lesson may involve reading a novel, remembering the plot and writing an essay about it, in a skills-based approach the focus would be less on recall and understanding and more on questioning, collaborating and delving deeper into core issues raised. This often involves additional resources such as videos, graphics and research to engage students in the topic. 

By encouraging them to work together and allowing them the independence to explore the areas that interest them, students gain the confidence to question, analyse and problem-solve that they’ll take with them to other lessons and beyond into the world of work.

Colin Messenger, senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting, gives the example of a school he visited recently which had implemented this approach.

“The school chose a different topic for each six-week period and based teaching of many subjects around this. The topic I saw was a trip the Reception year children went on to Windsor Castle, this provided a wow factor and interest and impetus for the topic for the half-term and covered many different subjects. 

“As an example, I saw the children learning about angles which was the maths all around designing a crown, and learning about sides, measurement – they could all relate to this as they had seen a crown at Windsor Castle.”

As an example, I saw the children learning about angles which was the maths all around designing a crown, and learning about sides, measurement – they could all relate to this as they had seen a crown at Windsor Castle.
– Colin Messenger, Futuresource Consulting

Andrew Hampton, headteacher at Thorpe Hall School in Essex, is another advocate of this method of learning: “At Thorpe Hall School we place a great deal of emphasis on meta-cognition – learning how to be the most effective learner you can be. Teachers are encouraged to look for the deeper learning strategies that lie beneath the surface of their day-to-day curriculum content.”

The school promotes a set of six learning competencies which underpin each lesson – communication, independent learning, reasoning, consideration for others, personal organisation and emotional awareness. In addition to that, knowledge, and how to learn and acquire knowledge, has been deconstructed for the pupils in short video called Learning 1,2,3. 

Hampton adds: “In the video, pupils are taught that knowledge can be seen as either facts, processes (facts joined together and understood) or skills (mental and physical). To learn these different types of knowledge, pupils need to revisit, to use and to practise. These embedded strategies produce young people with the flexible mindsets they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

How can a competencies-based approach help students develop essential skills for today’s world?

Katie Haigh, director of education at online tutoring platform Simply Learning Tuition, explains that there are four key 21st-century skills – creativity, critical thinking skills, communication and collaboration – and these are central to their online lessons.

“Building creativity and critical thinking skills with an expert tutor and communicating through online platforms with screen sharing, multi-webcam set ups and the option to record and replay lessons, our tutees build three of the four key 21st-century skills in every one of their online lessons,” she says. 

“Creativity, critical thinking skills and communication are developed by expert tutors who use the 1-1 learning environment to tailor each session in a way that classroom teachers are unable. With older students, often a relationship closer to mentoring is developed, providing the additional opportunity to build collaboration skills – the important fourth 21st-century skill.”

We were reviewing our teaching and learning, and we very much wanted to develop the aspect of independent thinking, creative thinking, and students being risk takers. The Explore Floor creates this opportunity for self-enquiry.
Claire Raines, Kensington Prep

To successfully develop this approach, technology is crucial. As well as iPads and desktop computers that enable students to access the video content that often forms a key part of these strategies, interactive displays form the core of many competency-based lessons, encouraging students to work in small groups to develop their ideas before sharing them with the class. 

In 2017, Kensington Prep embarked on the £2.7m Growing Minds project to change its teaching in line with its pedagogical ideals. The desire was to encourage students to be creative thinkers, risk takers and to enable them to collaborate on projects to develop their self-enquiry and independent learning skills. A key element of this project was the creation of the Explore Floor. 

Here iPads and Promethean multi-touchscreens are utilised alongside a floor projection system to enable independent, group and collaborative learning. A full HD projector was installed in the ceiling to enable the floor projection, creating a central space where students gather to share their thoughts and findings. Often large questions are posed at the start of a lesson which students then research independently or in groups before sharing their opinions and how they may have changed over the course of the lesson.

Claire Raines, deputy head at the school, explains: “We came to the stage where we were reviewing our teaching and learning, and we very much wanted to develop the aspect of independent thinking, creative thinking and students being risk takers. The Explore Floor creates this opportunity for self-enquiry and independent learning.”

Director of finance Gareth Atkinson expands: “The Explore Floor gave us the space we needed to allow ideas that are beyond the traditional classroom remit. We wanted something that the teachers couldn’t do in the classroom; we wanted to be able to expand the limits of what could be done with the school. It was important to us to have multi-screen, multi-touch technology to allow students to collaborate but also work in small groups.”

Feedback from both teachers and students at Kensington Prep has been overwhelmingly positive, with teachers continuously finding new ways to utilise the technology now available to them, and students almost forgetting that they’re learning due to being so immersed in the space.

It’s this opportunity for free thinking, analysis and enjoyment, perhaps missed by traditional curriculums, that highlights the real value of a skills-based approach. Students are empowered to feel in control of their learning while benefiting from an environment that is more embedded in the real world. While the traditional curriculum will always have its place, expanding and adapting this to harness the nature of enquiry and discovery that is present in almost every child will not only help to bridge the skills gap, it will also build a generation of people who can once again find enjoyment in learning. 

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