The Problem with Competency-Based Education

Time + co-presence = community.

An oversimplification, sure. But this equation captures a trait of classroom learning that I find essential, and that I fear is being overlooked in the chatter about “competency-based education.”

(A précis of the chatter: Department of Education, neoliberal as ever under the leadership of President Obama’s pick-up basketball partner Arne Duncan, has been pushing post-secondary institutions to adopt competency-based strategies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted $2.3 million to the cause. Southern New Hampshire University has been hawking its College for America, which features no faculty and no courses and yet awards degrees to students who demonstrate mastery of certain competencies. Politicians are stoked. Administrators are stoked. Businesspeople are stoked. You know who isn’t stoked? I’ll give you one guess.)

My objection is simple. Education, especially but not only in the humanities, is about more than the accumulation of standardized competencies. It’s about more than the attainment of “learning outcomes.”

It is also about sitting with other people, in a classroom or in a chatroom, and reckoning with them. Sharing ideas, confronting disagreement, working through various forms of difference and dislike. Coping with the difficulties of community, which happen simultaneously to be the difficulties of everyday life in a democracy.

Such an experience is multivalent, unevenly paced, and impossible to summarize properly in the language of competency. It requires “seat time.” Its lessons might not settle into a learner’s consciousness until long after the term has ended.

Don’t get me wrong: I am by no means opposed to helping students, particularly those in vocational certification programs, develop testable skills. Even in my traditional humanities classes, I spend a lot of time formulating learning objectives and assessing whether my charges have achieved them. This is basic pedagogical practice.

But I worry that competency-based education, as a framework for what college teachers will soon be expected to do in liberal arts universities, undermines the fundamental mission of the American academy. I worry that talk about learning outcomes has less to do with educating students and more to do with standardizing curricula, corporatizing administration, and cutting faculty costs.

And I worry that competency proponents have convinced the public that the future of higher education must involve a move away from the credit hour, that time is a shallow, outdated metric for learning. As the DoE puts it:

Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.

In the corporatized American state, space and place have no useful content, and “seat time” is inefficient, an old-fashioned frippery. But any good teacher knows that seat time is not empty time. It is the very pith and process of education as a communal experience.

Process. That’s what the competency-based model ignores. When we think only about outcomes, we begin to convince ourselves that process doesn’t have its own integrity and purpose, its own beauty and importance.


4 thoughts on “The Problem with Competency-Based Education

  1. This is a really different picture of competency-based education than I’ve experienced.My employer’s been doing it for almost 30 years. As far as class participation and ability to negotiate disagreements in community are concerned, we incorporate them into the outcomes and competencies, most directly by requiring students to repeatedly demonstrate their skill in social interaction.

    ‘Competencies’ and ‘testable skills’ are like any other educational frameworks; they can be designed to assess whatever you decide to assess, or to neglect whatever you want to neglect.

  2. I think I have different connotation for competence based education: while doing my M.Ed I was moaning to my professor if I really, really need to write a paper about all the developmental theorists for umpteenth time. Imagine my surprise when he said no. Then he pointed me to the library, told me to find a topic I know nothing about, but what relates to learning and development, and bring my paper to him in two weeks. Now, that was an open-ended task. Scaringly so. But, I really loved it. Because my professor recognized my competence in learning & development (I had ed psych as my minor). This happened in Finland, where I grew up and went to school. Now I am enrolled in U.S. University for my masters, and am absolutely frustrated because of all the busywork I must do, regurgitating articles and posting on discussion boards to “interact” with my classmates.

    Jumping hoops (or sitting in the class, or listening to a lecture) does not engage a student in the learning process. Meaningful learning does it. (There is lots of data about motivation driving academic performance, too, instead of the opposite).

    The problem probably is not in competencies per se, but measuring them. I absolutely agree with the need of creating a sense of community, or at least a dialogue between the student and professor.


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