Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Couple Points on "Competency-Based Education"

Here are a few things I've gleaned from reading up on the latest buzz for "competency-based education."

The most important word in "competency-based education" is not "competency," but "-based." That is, the reason we need to switch to the current system using standards to "competency-based" is not that "competencies" are better than "standards," in part because neither are defined precisely or consistently enough to draw an important distinction, and in part because the real concern is that the whole standards movement has not actually changed the foundation of the educational process. Standards are grafted onto the school system, instead of the system being built from the ground up to be "based on" standards. Of course, what they're saying about breaking down structures regarding time and course credit is not new at all, it is just a re-boot/re-branding of the most ambitious standards, outcome and mastery-based concepts.

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding the differences between standards and competencies, which I'm going to give names to:

  • fine-grained/high-tech: These people think competencies are more specific than standards. This comes from the use of competencies in job training, where the whole point is to break down a job into clearly defined tasks and sub-tasks so you are sure someone with a particular certification knows all the steps in, say, TIG welding. These people also tend to favor high-tech approaches to the process because these systems is difficult for humans to manage.
  • coarse-grained/humanist: These people tend to think of "competency" with a the positive and expansive connotation, where "competency" means flexibility and fluency beyond merely meeting a standard, focusing on application and transference.

    I don't have a problem with those things, but it is pretty clearly a post hoc attempt to hijack the original jargon. To me, and I think most people, saying someone is "competent" at something indicates that they can deal with routine cases fine, but they are not someone you want for a difficult, surprising case. You're probably fine if your vasectomy surgeon is just "competent" as long as he's done a few thousand before, but if you need an oncologist or trauma surgeon, "competent" is not what you're looking for.

    This is not a niche perspective, by the way. New Hampshire breaks the 29 Common Core ELA/Literacy standards down into nine overall "competencies."

    These competencies can be readily evaluated and tracked by humans.

The problem is that I haven't seen this distinction clearly articulated, although I can't be the only one who has noticed. So it is certainly confusing to the reader, especially insofar as one is likely to gravitate to the version one is more comfortable with and pretend the other doesn't exist.

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