More on Competency Based Education

While I wait to see what, if anything, comes out of the SF 2284 conference committee this week, I have been giving further thought to competency-based education.  (See previous post here.)

Competency-based education presents an opportunity to re-examine how students spend time in school and who directs the use of that time.  As a Montessori advocate, I am interested in seeing schools be able to move away from strict seat time requirements.  This could allow students to flexibly allocate school time among areas of study according to how much time they personally need to master content and skills in those areas.  In addition, CBE could allow students to allocate more school time to areas of personal interest.

I could see CBE potentially opening the door for the expansion of public Montessori programs in Iowa.  I could also see CBE supporting the use of blended learning environments which could allow students to move along at an individual pace in some areas (math, spelling, grammar, decoding, or writing, for example) while still offering group instruction in others (literature, history, music, art, science, or physical education, for example).

While I can imagine CBE done well, I sadly have no trouble imagining CBE done poorly.

Matt Townsley raises one possible pitfall, when he suggests that students, who have mastered basic competencies in the curricular area, could be assigned more complex or challenging competencies to master (teacher directed use of time freed up by earlier demonstration of competency rather than student directed use of that time).  Townsley notes, rightly I think, that students may find that to be a disincentive to earlier mastery of content and skills, which a reader described to me as turning learning into a Sisyphean task.

Another possibility is that CBE could reduce K-12 education even further to little more than test preparation.  That is, the focus on assessment (and individualized pace) may crowd out the immeasurable or less measurable aspects of a good education.  Is there value to moving through the curriculum with a cohort?  Is there value in the opportunity to discuss literature or history or science with other students reading the same literature, studying the same history, or doing the same science experiments?  Is there value to spreading out coursework over a semester or two to allow students time to develop thoughts rather than just rushing through to pass the CBE test and then moving on to something new?*  Do seat time requirements provide space for the less measurable aspects of a good education to happen and can we preserve those aspects while moving towards a competency-based education program?

I do think there is value to moving through a curriculum with a cohort and making the time for thoughtful study.  I also think that CBE can be accomplished while preserving opportunities to form cohorts and provide time for thoughtful study (see Montessori).  What competency-based education ultimately will look like in Iowa remains to be seen.

*I recommend Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise on these points, including the measurable and immeasurable aspects of education, benefits of thoughtful study, and the importance of testing ideas in both the private and public spheres.