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What do personalized, competency-based learning and arts education have in common?

Date: 02 March 2022

A powerful arts education, as defined by the Hewlett Foundation, inspires students to bring their full selves and their communities to the learning space and invites students to make choices about the kinds of art they create and the stories they tell, as well as to shape the world around them. This connection is highly personalized to each student and has inspired Arts Education Partnership staff to consider the intersections with the field of personalized, competency-based learning. 

KnowledgeWorks is one organization  that works to advance personalized and competency-based education in K-12 settings. While many states and stakeholders use different terms to describe these approaches (e.g. student-centered learning, proficiency-based learning, mastery-based learning), KnowledgeWorks generally refers to these education models as personalized, competency-based learning. 

What is Personalized, Competency-Based Learning?

Personalized, competency-based learning, as KnowledgeWorks defines it,  centers each students’ strengths, needs and interests and provides differentiated supports and ways to demonstrate what they know and know how to do, ensuring each learner graduates ready for what’s next. It differs from traditional, time based education in several ways. 

A chart with concentric circles. At the center, it reads "Personalized, Competency-Based Learning." Several points on the outermost circle read (clockwise): Flexible Learning Paths; Strategies and Systems Ensure Equity; Rigorous Academic and Social-Emotional Learning Targets; Progression upon Mastery; Customized Learner Supports; Timely, Actionable Assessments; Learner Agency

Source: Adapted from Aurora Institute by KnowledgeWorks

In a personalized, competency-based learning environment, student progression is based upon mastery of academic content, rather than time spent sitting in class. If a student doesn’t master something the first time, they have the opportunity to continue working until they do. Students can also participate in a range of learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom, which are developed in collaboration with community partners to meet the needs of each student. The process of learning is ultimately as important as the product of learning; in this spirit, assessments are used to help guide instruction along the way and students are offered opportunities to re-take these assessments as needed. 

As part of personalized, competency-based learning models, learners have agency over their education plans and receive customized support, which includes a focus on whole-child development to promote equitable outcomes. Equity is a key component of this kind of learning, which is actualized through student agency and decision-making in their education plans, customized support and a focus on whole child development.

Arts education leverages many of the same learning strategies and goals used in personalized, competency-based learning. In examining the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), KnowledgeWorks and AEP found that many of the philosophical foundations and lifelong learning goals align with the values and goals of personalized, competency-based learning. We outline four of these foundations, goals and values in this blog.

Shared Values and Goals

Creative Personal Realization

The NCAS highlight the importance of creative personal realization, the way that students learn about themselves, connect art to the world around them and build lifelong creative passions. One of the leading drivers in personalized, competency-based learning is a student’s interest. Having open, receptive and validating learning spaces, such as those created by personalized learning, can provide students with the motivation to bring their full selves and heartfelt interests into the classroom. By letting a student develop skills through engaging with content that interests them, students develop a love and appreciation for learning. With both personalized learning and the arts, students are able to see firsthand how the skills and proficiencies that they develop in school will enable them to pursue their interests and passions outside of the classroom. 


Both core arts standards and personalized, competency-based learning models emphasize the importance of meeting the needs of the whole child. Research demonstrates the benefits of arts education for students’ mental, physical and emotional wellbeing and that arts education can be a key part of the ecosystem of support for student wellness. These three types of wellbeing are critical for students to be successful. Personalized, competency-based learning emphasizes the use of whole-child supports to ensure that student needs are met.

Community Engagement

Community involvement is a key component of personalized, competency-based learning because this education model leverages the knowledge, skills and resources of a community to best serve students. These community partnerships are critical for the growth and sustainability of personalized, competency-based learning programs; in parallel, the NCAS center the importance of drawing on the experience and support of local, state, national and global communities. The arts are an authentic way to bridge classrooms and communities through teaching artists’ residencies, arts integrated curriculum and arts experiences outside of the classroom. 


Both the NCAS and key principles of personalized, competency-based learning emphasize the necessity for students to be connected to what they are learning in the classroom. Learners should engage with each other, their teachers and members of their school community in ways that help them develop the interpersonal skills necessary to successfully navigate through the world and to connect what they are learning to their environments. These connections can be strengthened by finding mentors who are culturally responsive and empathetic to learners’ backgrounds and situations. 

Continuing the Conversation

KnowledgeWorks has several policy guides to help state and district leaders understand, support and grow personalized, competency-based learning strategies. These guides demonstrate the systemic conditions and changes that help foster personalized, competency-based learning in classrooms. Many of these same strategies — including a student-centered vision, a culture of innovation and a balanced system of assessment — can support both arts education and personalized, competency-based learning. We welcome the opportunity to learn how arts education and personalized, competency-based learning work together in your classrooms and communities. We hope you consider this blog an invitation to a much larger conversation about our shared values, strategies and vision for education!

Title: 2280 Pasos Bajo un Cielo Nublado | Artist: Hernán Jourdan | Medium: Film

When I was asked to create a work of art exploring literacy, I wanted to create a dance but I had no dancers or a studio, so I chose to use my own body in the space I had, my yard. Fluent Nature is video of micro-choreography that explores what cannot be expressed with words, how nature has its own language, and how placing the human body in nature changes the story.

Title: What Is Me and What Is Not Me | Artist: Alex Chadwell | Medium: Music

My thinking on arts and literacy centers around the concept of literacies and artmaking as both sense-making and meaning-making processes that organically and inevitably overlap, intersect, and reciprocate. Compositionally, What is me and what is not me is a sound collage of sorts (there is no notation for the piece, and I'd be hard pressed to recreate it accurately) that abstractly and aurally represents the relationships between literacies and artmaking.

Title: A Curious Honeybee | Artist: Gideon Young | Medium: Film

Offering welcome through traditional and digital elements of literacy, A Curious Honeybee provides an experiential learning environment by activating visual, musical, natural, and emotional literacies.

Title: Tercera Llamada | Artist: Karilú Forshee | Medium: Audio

La Carpa Theatre is a project that I am currently directing in the Detroit Latinx community. The project aims to strengthen and uplift youth voices through devised theatre, in the style of the Mexican Carpas. This audio was created in the theatrical environment envisioned for our project. The ways in which literacies are re-defined are at the heart of La Carpa Theatre's mission.

Title: Literaseas | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite and ink on paper with digital edits

Title: A Riddle | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits

Title: False Binaries | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits