May 12, 2022
I ended the previous chapter with a teaser, one that I promised in this installment to explore: Can we really have learner-centered and competency-based education in our current education system? The thing is, this might be the wrong question to ask because it suggests that both learner-centered and competency-based education are final destinations. Both are steps in the right direction (away from traditional instruction), but if we’re not careful, we might forget that better is the enemy of best. I’ll focus briefly on the question’s three elements, one by one while keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
The current education system is for my purposes the one we typically think of, the one created from Cartesian-Newtonian models. It values things like age-related standards, university readiness, fixed curricula delivered through structured teaching, and individual achievement using external metrics. There are, of course, variations within the system. Some schools have innovated by integrating SEL or PBL programs as alternate means of achieving their goals. These programs often still have college in mind and a set of content to deliver. They’re not quite free of the demands of the traditional system, but they have acted to mitigate its dominant forces. For the purpose of simplicity, I will place the schools that have chosen different sets of values outside the current system. Ulcca Joshi Hansen refers to them as liberatory schools, and they remain few in number.
Systems reveal themselves and their values as patterns over a period of time. In other words, what are the stories the systems tell and what are the conditions that make them thrive?
Competency-based education can provide multiple routes for learners to demonstrate and hone their abilities, thereby releasing some of the pressures for standardization. Yet when we assess competencies, we look for actions to justify the ways in which we achieve levels of competency. “Sally has demonstrated strong collaboration skills when she did x.” This is backward. I’ve written elsewhere that competency-based education should be put at the service of a greater good. We need a set of ethics to guide these competencies, otherwise, we might be doing more harm than good. For example, launching wars, organizing labor camps, and finding new ways to extract natural resources demand high levels of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication.
Lastly, learner-centered education. I have written previously about how learner-centered…