Saturday, January 26, 2019

Is Competency The Hot New Thing?

Tom Vander Ark thinks that competency is the up-and-coming next big thing in education. He just said so a few weeks ago at Forbes, but he's been saying so for several years now.  Vander Ark has been at the education reform biz longer than most, but his career also includes the launch of K-Mart's competitor to Sam's Club, point man for the Gates small schools initiative, and an attempt to launch some charter schools in NYC that left a bad taste in many mouths. He's not always right. How about this time?

When we talk about competency (as in competency-based education), we need to keep a couple of things in mind.
Everyone's probably at home working on badges
First of all, it's not remotely new. For most of its history, it has been called "mastery" or "learning for mastery," and it crops up as far back as almost a century ago, when programs like the Winnetka Plan started playing with the idea that instead of focusing on the hours spent in a program, we could focus on whether or not the students had mastered a particular piece of skill or content. Mastery Learning began to catch fire again in the sixties. Most of us who went to teacher school in the seventies learned about it and were encouraged to make it a factor in our work, though nobody had yet solved one of the central problems with mastery learning. The premise was that every student could learn the material as long as she was given enough time--but there were still only 180 days in the school year.

In the classroom, mastery learning often took the form of giving students multiple, even unlimited, attempts to show mastery of the material. On the ground, this looked like, "Students, you can keep taking the unit test until you pass it." Students sometimes took advantage of the reduced sense of urgency, and parents were not always supportive--as one parent asked me, "Why should my kid try when he gets a dozen shots and everybody passes?" While mastery learning became central in very few classrooms, by the eighties, many teachers had incorporated elements of mastery learning into their practice.

In the nineties, mastery learning made a comeback with the rise of Outcome Based Education. In OBE, each lesson would culminate in a student demonstration of some particular outcome--new terminology for showing mastery (immortalized in a million million lesson plans as "The Student Will Be Able To", aka "TSWBAT"). We would have authentic assessments, where the students would demonstrate mastery in some "real" way; multiple choice tests and their ilk would be banished. Each student would have a portfolio that would show the complex web of her mastered skills, not just some simple letter grade. And finally, the motto, drilled into teachers at countless professional development sessions, was that "all can learn all."

But OBE died a quick death. Part of the opposition came from conservative parents who resisted the "values" outcomes that required students to demonstrate mastery of the skill of being a good person. The other fatal attack on OBE came from the rising tide of accountability hawks, spurred to action by A Nation At Risk and demanding the kind of cold, hard numbers and measures that led us to No Child Left Behind, Common Core and accountability based on multiple-choice standardized tests.
Competency is a new branding of a century-long thread in education. Now mastery can be marked with digital badges, the progression of skills maintained, measured and recorded by computers, the badges earned and issued in and out of school.

If it's going to finally become the big thing in education, it will have to solve some of its old central problems. How long do you give students who progress to mastery slowly? How do you sequence competencies in a way that's fair and sensible? How do you break complex skills and knowledge into competencies that are measured in authentic and valid methods? If you let anyone, anywhere issue a "badge" for a competency that's been mastered, how do we keep accountability hawks happy? And a new problem--what happens when you let all of these educational decisions be made by tech companies?

Vander Ark's evidence that competency is going to finally bust through this time is essentially a list of tech companies that are working on various parts of the problem. Some companies are working out how to issue a digital badge for a variety of mastered skills that will be assessed... somehow. Financiers like XQ and New Schools Venture Fund are throwing money at groups that want to work on these problems. But even if all these groups successfully solve the problems of mastery learning, advocates like Vander Ark will still have one more question to answer-- can you get parents to sign up for a mastery learning system on a large scale for the first time in 100 years?
Originally posted at Forbes

1 comment:

  1. I go back further than you, Peter, but I had an intensive experience with "The Student Will Be Able To.." That came to us in the 1970s in the form of behavioral objectives and from one administrator who tried and succeeded to use BOs as his ladder to advancement. Actually, he was a good assistant principal and later a small town superintendent. At any rate, I spent a good summer job writing behavior objectives for my English 10 course. In fact, I wrote over two hundred BOs including course objectives, unit objectives, and 180 daily objectives. Did I use them? Of course not, except that writing them did help me focus on my course in a new way. In the end, they served as the basis for two masters degrees earned by two of my friends.
    The summer project also included the production of "Unipacs," an early version of personalized and mastery learning, giving each student the chance to proceed at h/her own pace. They actually became the foundation for math in my high school, but soon were discarded when neither parents, kids nor teachers could figure out what it was they were doing. Without computers, no one had time to keep track of where students were in a course.