Imagine that your kids are climbing trees in the back yard. One of them falls from a branch and breaks his arm. You put him in the car and head off to get him some help. About a mile down the road, you see a large hospital sign. Relieved, you pull over and lean your son against the sign to get better. This is an absurd scenario because we all know the difference between a hospital and a hospital sign. The sign points to the hospital. It is meant to direct people to the place dedicated to helping people get well. However, the sign itself has no healing powers. It is just a sign. Hopefully, it is a good one, meaning that it does indeed point people in the right direction. Good hospital signs truly indicate that a hospital is near.
What does this have to do with education? I’ve been thinking more recently about the difference between being competent in an area and having a symbol, sign or credential that is supposed to show some level of competency. As a teacher, I have teaching licenses in the state of Illinois and Wisconsin. That is intended to indicate that I have the pre-requisite knowledge and skill expected to teach in a state-authorized school within those states. Most of us know that it is possible for someone to be a highly competent teacher without having that credential. It is also possible to lack competence but potentially have a teaching license.
It goes a level deeper. In most cases, getting that teaching license also requires me to earn a degree from a higher education institution and it typically requires me to go through a prescribed teacher education program at a University. Even if I go through an alternate route like Teach for America, I still need the credential of a college degree. In other words, becoming a licensed teacher is not as easy as having all the pre-requisite knowledge, skill, and competence. I could gain all of that in an alternative manner (like through self-study, observations, informal mentoring, etc.), but that would not enable me to be a licensed teacher in these states.
I am increasingly confident that such models will be challenged in the near future. In five states in the US, I can become a lawyer without going to law school or having a degree. All I need to do is study, apprentice with a practicing judge or lawyer, and pass the bar. In the end, I must demonstrate the same competency, but the pathway I choose and use to become competent is not dictated. What I need to know and be able to do is prescribed, but not how I go about learning it. This means that some could become a lawyer while bypassing massive school debt. It opens the field to people who are competent without restricting those who lack the financial resources to take the standard pathway. And this is not new. Many like to point out that Abraham Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer who gained entry into the profession without a college degree.
Things are changing. We live in an age that is rich with increasingly well-organized and high quality information, personal learning networks, open learning, immediate access to mentors/coaches/tutors/guides, adaptive learning software, growing interest in competency-based education, increased knowledge and research on how to become a self-directed learner, emerging technologies that help us plan and organize our own learning, and learning organizations that are discovering the power of giving students control over learning time/place/place/pathways. The convergence of these will soon lead to alternate pathways to many professions that currently require credentials like high school diplomas and college degrees for entry.
I suspect that competence will dominate in the future. At the end of the day, whether I am getting a haircut, need medical attention, need someone to help with home repair, need clinical counseling, or drive over a bridge designed by a team of engineers; it is not their degrees that matter. It is their competence. As it stands, most of society remains comfortable using diplomas and degrees as a partial measure of of this competence. In some professions, they add requirements like apprenticeships, passing specific exams, and conducting background checks. Moving forward, expect to see more alternate career paths. Some professions that require diplomas and degrees will not. They will expect the same or a higher level of competence, but there will be multiple pathways to demonstrating that competence. This change has already started in new professions and those that are less regulated. It will be most delayed (perhaps indefinitely) in the those professions that are highly regulated or considered the highest stakes (like in many medical professions).
This is how disruptive innovations work. They gain traction where there is less resistance and regulation. As they grow in public acceptance and adoption, others try them out. Eventually, the innovation becomes a mainstream option in areas that likely scoffed at the technology years earlier.
What does this mean for schools and Universities? Formal learning organizations can respond it many ways. They can point out the value of their community apart from career preparation. They can draw people’s attention to the wrap-around support and services that come with becoming a member of that learning community (also known as a “student”). They can point to the limitations of competency-based education, and defend alternate models. They also have the choice of considering how they might embrace and integrate competency-based education, helping teachers/administrators/students/parents make the shift in thinking from one-size-fits-all models of instruction to organizations that value and welcome personalized pathways to learning.
Questions for Reflection
- For three minutes, brainstorm all the areas of competence that you have that did not come from formal schooling, areas that don’t have any credential associated with the competence. How did you learn it?
- What are the best reasons for having everyone in a given profession take the same (or a very similar) pathway to mastery or entry in that profession?
- What are the best reasons for providing multiple pathways to mastery and demonstrating competence in a given profession?
- Imagine a future world where people could gain basic qualification for entry into a job by demonstrating a high level of competence, apart from earning a diploma or degree. In which jobs would you be most comfortable with this? In which jobs would you be least comfortable with this? Why?
- What would it look like to re-imagine learning organizations around mastery and competence through personalized learning pathways? What would be the benefits and drawbacks to this?