Being Mobile Blog

A Brief Critique of Mastery/Competency Learning

Writing a negative blog post about “competency-based learning” is dangerous! After all, how can any sane educator be against children developing competencies? So, we need to be very clear: We are not against students developing deep understandings, or honing practices and skills. But what we are against is how competency-based education is typically enacted.

Let’s back up. Competency-based learning is based on Bloom’s notion of mastery learning: “The material that will be taught to mastery is broken down into small discrete lessons that follow a logical progression. In order to demonstrate mastery over each lesson, students must be able to overtly show evidence of understanding of the material before moving to the next lesson…” 

Now, how it is decided that a student can progress to the next lesson? In traditional classrooms, the whole class moves up a grade after a school year. Progression to the next level is more a function of sitting in a seat for a fixed period of time than demonstrating mastery of the content. 

By contrast, in the competency-based model, a student progresses to the next lesson only after clearly demonstrating “mastery” of the current lesson’s material. What is that demonstration? Typically a quiz made up of multiple choice questions (MCQs), since they can be easily graded by a computer. After all, in the workplace, professionals take MCQ tests all the time … excellent preparation then for moving into the workplace.<smiley face goes here.>

In mastery/competency-based learning, the pedagogical strategy that is typically employed is direct instruction. Sometimes, for example, students are provided with “playlists” that identify the resources that they should be view/read/engage with, and the sequence in which the resources should be viewed/read/engaged with. Sometimes, the next resource to be presented to a student is determined by an algorithm based on the answers to previous questions or previous material viewed. This is so-called adaptive instruction or “Dynamic matching of students with a customized playlist of content and interventions…” Either way, it is still direct instruction.

To further complicate the story, mastery/competency-based learning is also often called “personalized learning” because each student’s path through the material may be different — different in the amount of time that it takes and/or different in exactly what information resource is presented to the student.

Finally, we are at the point where we can voice our objection to mastery/competency/personalized learning:We are not fans of direct instruction.  (Regular readers of our blog probably saw that coming!) Our objection to mastery/competency/personalized learning is about how a learner comes to develop that mastery/competency. Reading a website, listening to a podcast that may or may not be complemented with a PowerPoint presentation and viewing a video-recorded lecture are various direct instruction strategies. And, it is well known that children can be drilled, drilled, drilled to successfully pass standardized tests:  “… [there is] conclusive evidence that an appropriately instituted mastery approach to instruction yields improvement in student achievement…”

But there is no evidence that the type of “knowledge” gained through direct instruction enables students to solve “uncharted problems,” the sorts of problems that arise in living in our globally connected world. Just the opposite. “Knowledge” gained through direct instruction is memorized, so that information remains inert and unconnected to all the other knowledge in a learner’s head. And as Dewey points out, the core of learning is the “…intentional noting of connections…”

Still further, as the Ministry of Education in Singapore points out:

“The world that we live in today is a knowledge society… a knowledge society values creation and sharing of new knowledge, so that the new knowledge can be applied for the well‐being of its people and solutions to global problems … It is therefore no longer sufficient to help our students achieve only the learning objectives specified in the national syllabi. Rather, learning needs to be broadened to develop students’ competencies in learning how to learn….”

(We will spare our regular readers a tirade on direct instruction and ask our new readers to peruse an earlier post devoted to the educational transformation Singapore is now undergoing – including a tirade on direction instruction.)

Bottom line: We agree that children need to learn content and skills. But in some educators' zeal to move away from “seat-time” as the measure for learning progress, and their zeal to still insure that students have “mastered” the requisite content, we believe that they have forgotten why students need to learn that content in the first place! Passing an MCQ test isn’t the objective of education; being able to “learn … how to learn…” and being able to solve uncharted problems are the objectives of education.

And, most importantly, there is an alternative to direct instruction that can result in gaining deep understandings: learning-by-doing (AKA project-based learning, problem-based learning or inquiry learning). In subsequent posts we will, giddily, lay out the scientific evidence that supports this claim! 

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