Competency-Based Learning During a Pandemic

Martin Moran, Director of Upper School at Bennett Day School, explains how our competency-based system allowed for a seamless transition to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This article was originally published on Martin Moran’s LinkedIn on March 31, 2020.

One of the great advantages of working at a competency-based school is the personalized nature of the assessment process. Students can continually work on skills in a manner that isn’t time-bound and hemmed in by 18-week semesters. Students can get real, actionable feedback that gives them work to do to improve as individuals and learners, not as simply a means to a better score. When we created the Bennett Day Upper School, this was one of the core tenets, along with Project-Based Learning and a robust advisory program, that we considered a “non-negotiable,” no matter how challenging it might be within a system that rewards everything with points and letter grades.

Over the last three weeks, though, the value of competency-based learning took on a whole new meaning. When schools across the nation closed, many schools had to have deep discussions about what to do with their grading policies: pass/fail? Freeze grades in place? Continue to expect students to maintain their scores regardless of the changing environment? These were conversations that took valuable time and brain space that could have otherwise been spent on how to best accommodate each student as they navigated what was a fraught and scary time.

Our competency-based system made it so we didn’t have to have a single conversation about grading policies. Students could continue to develop their skills. They did not have to get anxious about how the new environment would impact their grades; they simply continued on as we had throughout all their time here, submitting work and getting evaluated on the specific skills that were associated with each piece of work. Teachers didn’t have to argue over what the scoring policies should be; they could focus on meeting with every one of our students from the first day we were out of school and providing every student with support and mentorship as they dealt with the change in the world. And our parents didn’t have to worry about how this new world would impact their student’s transcripts or be worried that teachers wouldn’t be available for their children because we were busy having meetings about how to grade their children. Our competency-based system, already designed to be student-centric and adaptive, not only made it easier for us to move to remote learning, but also saved us time so we could focus on what matters most: the health and safety of our students.

Ultimately, this was an incredible reminder of how much of “school” exists to perpetuate the sorting system and not to support the learner as they grow and build capacity as citizens. The competency-based system we employ is one way in which we’ve created space for us to focus on student needs; it is essential for schools to spend time during this tragic moment in our history to re-evaluate the systems they’ve created, because as we’re finding out right now, when the world is thrown for a loop, it is those systems that are rooted in essential human needs that must be prioritized over all else. We must cast aside systems that, for whatever reason, have ceased to be in line with the true mission of schools: to support every learner, every day.

Learn more about Bennett Day Upper School’s progressive, project-based approach at our next Virtual Open House.