Liberal Education

What Competency-based Education Cannot Do: Part I

Competency-based education is a popular trend in higher education circles. It also seems to be a trend that could do great damage to liberal learning.

What is competency-based education? It has two key elements. First, any course of study must be accompanied by a “competency framework”—a detailed statement of the knowledge and skills expected of students who complete the course. Second, the competencies described in the framework must be verified by valid and reliable tests of student learning.

Obviously, this trend is based on the notion that what matters in education is students acquiring specific bits of knowledge and specific practical skills. These competencies are first and last in this model of education: in the beginning, the teacher must identify them and spell them out; in the end, the student must demonstrate possession of them.

Now an interesting wrinkle appears when one asks, Does it matter how students acquire these competencies? If the important factors are identifying the competencies and testing for them, then why would it matter how students get them?

Indeed, it is now becoming fashionable to claim that the mode of acquisition is irrelevant. If some students learn the competencies best by being lectured at, then that’s fine. If others can pick them up by studying from textbooks on their own, that’s fine too. If still others can pick them up by watching videos on YouTube, or downloading information from the internet, or by talking to people they meet at Starbucks, that’s fine too. As long as they can demonstrate their possession of the competencies through verifiable assessment, then they can and should be certified as having those competencies.

In higher education circles, this is giving rise to two notions of how courses should be taught. On the one hand, you could still have “traditional” courses, in which class attendance remains tied to assessment by the usual method of assigning papers and giving tests along the way. On the other hand, assessment could be set free from courses altogether: the role of an educational institution could be simply to determine competencies and assess students for them.

There are institutions that operate on this model, giving credit and even degrees to people who pass the necessary tests, even if they don’t attend any classes. And when you think about it, if it’s really all about the competencies, then why on earth should people have to endure a certain amount of “seat-time” (this is an actual term of art!) just to be allowed to take the tests they must pass?

This model of learning is anathema to liberal education. It assumes that teachers and classes are not essential to the learning process. After all, anyone can pick up a book or watch online presentations and extract information. Indeed, if that’s what learning is, then the entire history of education since the advent of the mass-market book has been ineffective and time-wasting. Why do you need a lecturer if you can read the book yourself?

But for liberal education, teachers and classes are essential. Why? Because it’s not just about information, but about dialectic.

What is dialectic? The pursuit of truth, together with others, in a spirit of good will, about the things that matter most to human beings.

A good liberal arts class always involves dialogue between teacher and students, and dialogue among students. This serious discussion acclimates students to an activity that is much more complex and communal than the acquisition of information or skills, even though it may be connected with both.

Dialectical learning cannot be assessed in the ways used for information and skills—and especially not by timed questioning intended to elicit valid responses according to a predetermined “competency framework.”

In particular, the highest goal of dialectic—namely, dependable judgment based on thorough consideration of issues that really matter in life—is not assessable by “objective” testing instruments. It can only be assessed by competent dialecticians who watch students’ progress over time as they grapple with ideas, listen to others, join with others in inquiry, become proficient at asking insightful questions, become deft at working through premises and consequences, and so on.

Liberal education is about more than competence. It’s about more than acquiring knowledge and skills. It’s about developing as much as possible the sort of wisdom that guides us in using our competencies well. So Yes, you can have competency-based education if all you care about is producing people who know specific things and can practice specific skills. But No, this is not liberal education, which, if pursued seriously, offers an opportunity to obtain the arts of freedom needed to use wisely the knowledge and skills one has acquired.