Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Competency Based Learning: Notes From A Friendly Critic


This piece was stimulated by an article circulated on Twitter that the US higher education industry is flirting with competency based learning (CBL) as a framework for learning processes and outcomes. I am also currently entangled in the spider web that CBL has become in Australia. It seems the planets are in alignment to get a discussion going.

Let me preface what I am going to say here with the claim I am not an enemy of CBL. I used to write papers on CBL in the 1990s and annoy the hell out of those wedded to what was a fast growing competency movement in Australia. No matter how many times I repeated this opening statement about my motives at conferences and other forums, the assumption was that I was the competency anti-Christ come to burst the bubble.

In fact I have referred to competence, the acquisition of skills and knowledge, in the self-determined learning (heutagogy) literature many times as essential to human functioning. Being an unreconstructed Darwinist and observer of human behavior, acquiring competence is what we do from the moment we are born. It enables us to survive in a potentially hostile environment. The exponential increase in technological and social change has made acquiring competence more complex but it is as natural as breathing. What CBL attempts to do is make acquiring competence predictable and, most importantly for those who are uneasy with perceived chaos, measurable.

This is fair enough, of course, because everyone wants their surgeon and plumber to be demonstrably competent before they perform their tasks on our bodies or our leaky pipes. But there is a linearity about CBL that is seductive, particularly to policy makers. And like a seductress it appeals to a singular need: in this case, simplicity. Humans by their very nature like to keep things simple. We are not that good at complexity and seek the easiest explanation, the easiest route, even if it is taking us in a completely wrong direction. As Lester Davis and I said in a paper once, it is not a map that learners need, it’s a compass, given the complexity of the world in which we live. CBL is a map.

In the heutagogical literature, I have also made the observation that there is a deeper level of learning that goes beyond competency. This occurs when, in the act of experiencing the world, the human brain makes neuronal connections between it and previous experience or learning, that creates new ways of understanding. It might be a Eureka moment or, less dramatically, the constructivist notion of the human capacity for constructing a unique view of the world. The notion of human agency, that we are instruments of our own actions, is a central underpinning idea to self-determined learning: and supported by a considerable psychological literature.

This deeper learning is unpredictable. It occurs at any time and anywhere and is not likely to occur in a classroom or as part of a formal learning experience. Certainly, the teacher cannot predict it or even know it has occurred unless she/he is in tune to the possibility and closely monitoring the learner. Critically, however, it changes the learner. Suddenly the person has a whole new set of questions, a changed motivation and different needs. Lethally, for those who like a predictable world, deeper learning takes people off to new horizons.

John Stevenson, in developing the notion of capability, said that competence is about past experience, the familiar, and it is immediately out of date the moment it has been measured. He said that what we need in an increasingly complex world is a way of adapting to the future, to unfamiliar contexts. Central to the idea of capability is the ability to use competencies in novel circumstances and have the required self-efficacy (a component of human agency) to be able to do so. We can’t predict the future or the way in which we are going to behave when we enter it.

What we need in today’s world are people who are creative, who can adapt, who are able to shift perspective, reflect, and learn. My twenty-year observation of the competence movement in Australia and the UK has been that it works, not intentionally, against these rather less tangible behaviours. It can become mechanistic, linear, prescriptive to the point of causing savage constipation, so that anything outside of the box is ignored. What’s more, the educational design is similarly afflicted . For the sake of simplicity and ease, an attractive aim of CBL that was noted in the article I read, we risk losing imagination and enterprise.

As heutagogy points out, teacher’s need to follow the learner’s mind rather than the curriculum. In their natural state humans are excellent at exploring, hypothesis making and testing, learning, and creating-until we constrain them. Our educational system needs to be geared to enabling people to do these things rather than getting in the way. My experience is that CBL risks doing just that for the sake of pragmatism.

So, having been involved in CBL for over 20 years my observation is to beware of the potential wolf under the fleece. Yes, competency is essential but it is only part of the journey. It shouldn’t be the destination that it has become in some training and educational systems.









2 comments on “Competency Based Learning: Notes From A Friendly Critic

  1. tetontech
    April 6, 2015

    You state “Everyone wants their surgeon and plumber to be demonstrably competent before they perform their tasks on our bodies or our leaky pipes.”

    I don’t.

    I want someone who IS a surgeon. Who lives and breaths surgery of the type I will be undergoing. I want surgeons, plumbers, teachers, mentors, programmers, and all the other people I interact with to have become surgeons, plumbers, teachers, etc. Not just be competent at what they do. I want them to have changed who they are not just what they can do.

    If learners haven’t moved from knowing and doing to becoming they have not fully learned. They have not “become professional” as described by Dall’Alba. If their educational experience did not give them opportunities to change who they are it did not have the impact it might have had. This becoming, be it professional or personal, requires agency which a complex, Heutagogical situation can supply.

    Being competent is insufficient. We must all become to reach our potential.

  2. DrKP
    April 10, 2015

    Reblogged this on karenpriceblog and commented:
    Learning is not Linear. Creating and not stifling capable people is a challenge in the ongoing learning needs of adults. Very applicae to medical education.

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2015 by .
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