Competency Education: The Next Great Disruptor in Education

kia-sorentoAt a summit hosted by the Bainbridge Consulting firm in San Diego last week, research fellow Thomas Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation talked about the power of disruptors in shaping our future world. Borrowing an example from the auto industry, Arnett talked about the rise to power of the Korean-born Kia Corporation. Introduced to the American market in the 1970’s, Kia cars quickly developed an undesirable reputation as being cheap and poorly fabricated. Fast forward some twenty five years later and Kia has stayed focused on building high quality cars at affordable prices. Over the years their products have gotten better, and as we move into 2015 it is expected that Kia car sales will be one of the highest of any auto manufacturers in the American market. Similar to the Lexus Corporation that recently overtook Mercedes in the luxury-car class industry, the Kia Corporation has been a disruptor in its industry because it has found a way to produce a better product more efficiently and at a lower cost to the consumer.

Bainbridge organized last week’s Disruptors in Education Summit in an effort to engage some of the industry’s most visionary entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, policy experts, and practitioners in meaningful dialog around key disruptive trends impacting K-12 and higher education in 2014 and in the future. The summit focused on the future of post-secondary education, blended learning, gaming in learning and assessment, MOOCs and badges, and the rise of competency-based learning. It was the last topic on competency education, however, that drew some of the biggest interest and excitement among those in attendance.

Competency education is born out of the idea that secondary and higher education schools cannot be confined by the limitations of “seat time” and the Carnegie Unit (credit hours) when organizing how students will progress through their learning. In a competency education model learning is organized by competencies – a student’s ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas. Students are given the opportunity to hone their skills through formative assessment and then, when they are ready, demonstrate their understanding through thoughtfully-developed quality performance summative assessment tasks.

Competency education is considered a disruptor because of its divergence from the traditional “one size fits all” approach to learning that secondary and higher education schools have traditionally used. In the best examples of competency education models in schools today, students are given multiple opportunities and multiple pathways to demonstrate that they have reached competency. They are able to progress through their learning at their own pace. Their teachers are there to provide both individualized instruction as well as coach them through their learning progression. Teachers work together to develop the quality performance assessments that will measure how well students have performed. The result is a model that increases rigor and more closely identifies exactly what it is students know and are able to do and to what degree.

Although competency education is starting to alter the landscape of K-12 school systems across the country, it is the potential for what the model will do for higher education that has groups like Bainbridge most excited. At the summit in San Diego, I and Dr. Sandra Dop, consultant for the Iowa Department of Education shared our views on how competency education is disrupting secondary education in both New Hampshire and Iowa. We were joined by panelists from three higher education institutions that are also using competency education to disrupt higher education. Those other panelists were Gary Brahm, Chancellor of Brandman University; Shannon Hughes, Senior Marketing Director of Udemy; and Becky Klein-Collins, Senior Director of Research and Policy Development for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

During our panel discussion, we fielded introductory questions that gave us the opportunity to define what competency education is and what some of the barriers have been for us as we have implemented the model in our respective fields. The conversation then turned to one of explaining the power of competency education’s ability to increase equity and accessibility for learners of all ages and abilities. Those in attendance agreed that competency education has the power to significantly disrupt our system which will play an integral role in shaping the future of secondary and higher education in the coming years.


  1. Thanks for the summary of this event. I, like many others, have drunk the Kool-Aid so no need to argue the merits of performance/competency-based assessment. I am left with one big question, perhaps best asked of Arnett et al. Wasn’t technology supposed to be the big disruptor upon which Christensen based his application of disruptive innovation in the classroom? I completely agree with the merits of disruptive innovation, but I, along with others, I think, am questioning what magnitude of disruption will qualify as true innovation in education. Technology has, IMHO, failed so far, at least across the board. While there are learning settings that have leveraged tech in truly innovative ways, even more use technology as a blackboard or book that has a plug.

    Measured against this, is performance-based assessment a true disruption? Might it be? Or are we missing some key steps between what SHOULD or MIGHT be a real disruption (much needed), and what WILL be…and those key steps involve how a school or school system reimagines itself in a very different form.

    July 2, 2014
    • David said:

      Good points. I share your doubt that we have reached the disruptor in education — online courses, and even MOOCs are variants of traditional learning — a kind of horseless carriage, rather than an automobile. There are indeed missing steps, and they require far more thought than simply digitalising current content and assessment models.

      What is sure is that we are living in interesting times!

      April 9, 2015

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