Finding the Gestalt in Competency-Based Learning

February 19, 2014 at 12:09 PM Leave a comment

Experience gets rewarded with cynicism…but that does not mean one has to discard visions from pedagogical ivory towers. A total program of competency-based learning, for example, would inevitably lead to tracking of students based on ability. And, more importantly, students moving more slowly could have a natural tendency toward inertia, identifying with their peers at the slow table and losing motivation. That is not what the literature promised. But don’t throw out the book…just close it before it becomes a problem.

The doctrine of manifest destiny is the dark underbelly of educational inequity. As educators we must guard against elitism and learning strategies that sort out winners and losers in predictable ways. Competency-based learning theory seems sound, but untamed by counter-balancing efforts to sustain heterogeneity, it may do damage to the very group it was supposed to protect.

Competency-based learning has been touted as a safeguard against serious knowledge gaps for students. In its purest form, students work at their own speed through sequential tasks and explorations, unhampered by the need to catch up with or wait for students progressing at different paces. In actual practice, there would be fluid cohorts of students working together at any given time. However, it is likely that a seemingly natural divergence of students could occur based on a blend of ability and motivation – both of which could be influenced by out of school experiences as well.

Now, competency-based learning is supposed to keep students on a path to proficiency, which is great. However, time would become the enemy of educational equity. It is true that no student under the plan should experience the cumulative effect of being allowed to remain unclear on so many concepts that they begin shut down academically. However, they still would be able to survey the classroom and know how they ranked among their peers.

Suppose, however, that there were a moment of Gestalt when a student working off-track began to grasp a concept so completely as to be ready and able to independently seek missing data without needing to be excluded from the rest of the group? That is, in fact, part of the promise of competency-based learning. But the diverse learning groups must be within reach of one another for this to happen. Otherwise, the service done to the learner who falls behind may begin to feel like another elitist ploy.

Enter the hybrid solution: parallel pedagogical approaches and flexible scheduling. Suppose a subset of competencies could be determined to be ubiquitous. Further, consider that these could be developed and assessed over time in a sort of lab setting which ran concurrently with heterogeneous classwork. Labs could be personalized for students, allowing a range from remedial skill-building to content enrichment. The linear development of skills would be secured and, back in a mainstream setting, diverse groups of students could explore concepts with relatively equal cognitive readiness.

I believe attention to competencies is essential. Without them, for example, my high school math students in Special Education always had knowledge gaps, and those gaps often led them to get most problems wrong all of the time. By high school, they all knew they must be bad at math, some even hating it. However, growth in competency could allow them great leaps in achievement, getting many of the answers right simply because they could successfully complete one formerly missed step in problem-solving.

Empowering students with procedural basics often compensated for a mismatch between their executive function issues and pedagogies that favored student who could synthesize algorithms more easily. Of course, this is the most superficial aspect of competency, not true mastery. Still…wouldn’t those same students have been better served years earlier with mainstream instruction that was both sensitive to learning style and supplemented by competency supports?


Entry filed under: Pedagogy.

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