Friday, April 1, 2016

Defining Competency Based Education

Hiding amongst the many pages of the Competency Works website is a wiki where some folks are nibbling away at a definition of competency based education. This website has been a clearing house for all things CBE for a while, so I'm going to go ahead and consider them both fans of and conversant in the CBE biz, which makes their five-point picture of the increasingly controversial educational-- what do we call it? Policy? Approach? Gee-gaw? Doo-dad?

At any rate, let's see what the CBE folks think they're onto. And not onto. Because one of the problems I'm seeing with this whatsahoozy is that it's actually several gizmos soldered together (with some of the soldering work on a par with what I did in my seventh grade shop class).

So these folks start out with their definition, which is

...a systems model in which (1) teaching and learning are designed to ensure students are becoming proficient by advancing on demonstrated mastery and (2) schools are organized to provide timely and differentiated support to ensure equity. 

Yeah, I'm not sure "systems model" is really any clearer that "dinglefutzer," but the rest of the definition is useful, particularly in what it doesn't include. And the writers get even clearer about that non-inclusion in their exclusionary paragraph:

The term competency-based and mastery-based have also recently been used by vendors to describe adaptive software. We take the position that competency-based education empowers teachers to draw upon their professional knowledge in teaching and reaching every student. Digital tools to personalize instruction should be used appropriately based on the overall pedagogical philosophy of the school and the needs of the students. A classroom cannot be deemed competency-based or personalized simply because students are learning with digital content, are using adaptive software, or have flexible pacing. (Emphasis mine)

In other words, we've got some people out there selling something they're calling "competency based education" that isn't actually competency based education, according to some experts. This is perhaps not a shock, as it has happened with every single educational idea ever promoted in the history of ever.

But the wiki goes on to list five "design principles" that may further clarify the issues for us. Let's check them out.

Design Principle 1: Students Advance upon Demonstrated Mastery

Students work at a level that is an appropriate amount of challenge. When they master a skill or area of knowledge, they move on. Their movement through the curriculum is based on when they master the material, not on spending a certain amount of time in the class. That means that students will move through school at different speeds. It also means that teachers have to "gather evidence" of proficiency.

As I've said before, this is one of the Huge Problems of CBE. Defining "mastery" is way harder than it first seems, particularly if we define it as an absolute level separate from the student in question. If we have one set level of mastery, we either end up with students finishing high school in a month or students who never get out of ninth grade. And just how proficient must one be to be a master, anyway? And can all skills be demonstrated in one clear mastery activity?

Saying, "Hey, we left her sitting in a crochet class for nine months, so she should be able to build a sweater now," is problematic, but a strictly mastery-based approach is too far on the other end of the pendulum.

Design Principle 2: Explicit and Measurable Learning Objectives Empower Students

I disagree. One of the biggest challenges I face, particularly with my high function students, is that they would like to be told exactly what hoop to jump through in exactly what way so that they can quickly and easily go through the motions without having to actually engage.

Likewise, the mark of an educated person is that they have their own internal compass, their own ability to mark and measure success, linked to an intrinsic reward system. "Explicit, measurable" objectives almost always boil down to extrinsic rewards based on externally designed and deployed goals. Sometimes real learning means figuring out how to find your way through the fog, not simply learning to follow directions and meet someone else's expectations. Is this same issue a problem in traditional non-CBE classrooms? Absolutely. But it's a problem that CBE isn't very good at helping to solve.

Now, it's not impossible. You could involve the student in setting the explicit, measurable goals. But this design principle does not lean that way. It leans instead toward asking not "what do we want to know" but instead "what can we most easily measure." The principle only argues for "sharing" the goals and measures with the students-- not letting them in on the design. It also argues for transparency, which I agree with.

Design Principle 3: Assessment Is Meaningful and a Positive Learning Experience for Students

Hey, look! We agree on something. Authentic assessment is meaningful, an activity that culminates everything that has come before, an activity that lets the student experience that pleasurable "snap" of feeling all that has come before fall into place.

That said, this design puts a lot of emphasis on "formative assessment" which, unless we're using the very loosest of definitions for "assessment," is a path to drudgery and, once again, teaching students that the purpose of learning is to complete a bunch of tasks designed by someone else in order to satisfy someone else. So, boo on that part.

Design Principle 4: Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support

We talk about this like it's novel and mysterious. It isn't. Good teachers have been doing it forever. Or rather, they've been trying to do it for forever. Because it's pretty much impossible if you have forty students in your classroom with no aids and a desire to have some kind of life outside school (I'm not saying a whole second career, but maybe occasionally eating a meal with one's family not interrupted by a stack of papers). And before you guys selling the whole computer-based learning platform start into your song and dance about how you can help with this-- no, you can't. At least, not yet. To actually save time with your super-duper learning management system, I have to use all your canned, pre-packaged material, which completely sacrifices my autonomy and judgment. But to "customize" your system to my students, from data entry to teacher designed materials, takes just as much time (maybe more) as doing it all myself.

You know what really helps with this? Classrooms with just a dozen students. Teaching assitants. A bunch of things that cost money, which always seems to be a problem when it comes to schools.

Design Principle 5: Learning Outcomes Emphasize Include Application and Creation of Knowledge

I'm going to assume that somebody is going to fix/edit this header at some point. The explanation helps.

Competencies emphasize the application of learning. A high quality competency-based approach will require students to apply skills and knowledge to new situations to demonstrate mastery and to create knowledge. Competencies will include academic standards as well as lifelong learning skills and dispositions.

Well, it helps a little. I'm a little curious about what a "lifelong learning disposition" would be exactly, and how we would turn that into an explicit and measurable outcome. Likewise, the business of having explicit and measurable expectations that can be applied to new situations and new knowledge strikes me as a bit of a challenge. Okay, it strikes me as a huge challenge. "Okay, Pat. Neither you nor I know how this is going to turn out, but here is exactly how I'm going to judge it."  But not an insurmountable one-- it's basically what I do with every single writing assignment. It is up to the teacher to make sure that the quest for an explicit measure doesn't squelch the whole "new" part.

I also like this design principle because it means that in a CBE whatzahoozis with fidelity to this vision, there would be no place for a Big Standardized Test, ever.

So what have we learned?

Well, for one thing, what the CBE purists keep talking about and what the CBE salespeople keep trying to hawk are not exactly the same thing. The discontinuity makes me nervous, because national standards have been repeatedly sold over the years with a pitch of "We'll just give you some standards to kind of guide you and local districts and teachers will set their own curriculum and instruction" which sounded tolerable, but what we actually got was bad amateur hour standards and instructional straight jackets like EngageNY and Common Core high stakes testing.

There are things about this purist model that I like. But at this point in my career, I view all new bangwhoodles like house shopping. I don't want to see the Model Home-- I want to see the actual house I would be living in. I don't care what the Big Mac looks like in the advertisement-- I want to see the one I'm actually going to put in my mouth. CBE is being used as the lettuce in a big reformster salad, and lettuce can be swell and salad can be swell but if you cover my lettuce with chopped liver and fried ferret butt and the road kill that even road kill is disgusted by, I do not want the salad, no matter how nice the lettuce is.

And I can't help noticing that even the Model Home version of CBE has the same fatal flaw-- the mastery thing. Until CBE fans can deal with that piece, even the model home is going to have a cracked and unstable foundation.  So I have, perhaps, a better understanding of the CBE thingy-ma-whatsis, but I am still not a fan.


  1. I can't get beyond #1. I agree it's either a nightmare for the teacher or requires total reliance on the computer system. If there's a particular sequence to these activities, how much enthusiasm could the teacher possibly bring to supporting kid #30 compared to kid #2? And where does group work come in, especially once kids are far enough along and there's no one else that's at kid #30's stage in the learning activity? Also, anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes in an upper elementary classroom knows what will happen there: the upper level kids are going to race each other to see who can get done the fastest and will resent being asked to work with slower kids/teams to help them because it will slow them down.

  2. I'm working through your comment "Sometimes real learning means figuring out how to find your way through the fog, not simply learning to follow directions and meet someone else's expectations." The deeper our school district has wandered through the jungle of CBE, known in these parts as The Proficiency-Based Grading System, the more entangled we've become in the brambles of Learning Targets and Mastery. Frankly, the fog would be a welcome relief. At least then we could admit that learning is a process shrouded in a good deal of mystery.

    Measuring real learning has always been difficult, hasn't it? For one thing, real learning doesn't always happen until much later, even years after the final exam. On the other hand, real learning from the first semester might be forgotten by the second semester. (Is there such a thing as Eternal Mastery? If so, should it be incorporated in a CBE algorithm? Ha.) In addition, sometimes assignments and exams are not very good at measuring real learning in any student, while other times they adequately measure real learning in Student A but not in Student B. Thus, measuring real learning is more of a "try to catch a cloud and pin it down" sort of exercise, one whose limitations need to be accepted. Instead, real learning is deconstructed and fed into a standards-based algorithm and spit out as an evidence-based, data-driven, hard-edged, non-nuanced lump of mastery. The (only) good news is that it can be easily measured.

    Basically a transcript is a record of hoop-jumping and expectations-meeting spread out over a certain period of time. Who knows how much real learning took place? It's more likely, however, that a student with perfect attendance and high marks will have experienced more real learning than he would have had he skipped half of his classes and earned mostly Ds. At the very least the good student knows what it means to be engaged, even if he has an in-it-to-win-it attitude rather than one focused on real learning. When the desire to engage in real learning kicks in, he will be more prepared than the student who refused to engage on any level, ever. But I may be wrong...