Are some learning pathways superior to others? When it comes to competency-based education (CBE), people point to personalized pathways as an affordance of this approach. Many traditional teaching and learning contexts have prescribed pathways toward reaching a given learning objective, one established, guided and controlled by the teacher. Everyone goes on the same pathway together, led by the teacher. CBE leaves greater room for the possibility that different learners will go on different journeys toward demonstrating competence. A learner with significant prior knowledge might be able to take a shorter pathway to competence than someone new to the field. One learner might opt for more practice exercises, more readings, more one-on-one coaching sessions, or a variety of real-world experiences intended to help one make progress toward competence. One learner might need one or two laps around the track, while another might need twenty before reaching competence.
This is, from my perspective, a core affordance of competency-based education. Once we are able to articulate with clarity what it means to be competent, then we are well-positioned to start thinking about multiple learning pathways to that single destination. Yet, this is far from a universally accepted understanding of education for several reasons. One reason is that some pathways are deemed superior to others even in the absence of solid data to support such claims. A second is because critics are often concerned about trying to reduce learning to a discrete list of competencies. That risks of losing the forest by chopping down all the educational trees and placing them in nicely organized piles. Yes, there is a qualitative difference between a forest and a lumber yard. Critics argue that CBE often ignores such distinctions. Another is that CBE seems to unbundle or strip learning from social interaction, community, and a culture of learning that some value as much as they do any demonstrable outcomes of the experience.
Yet, as I look at the types of assessments and requirements established in a growing number of competency-based education programs in the United States, I often see as many limitations on learning pathways as I do in traditional learning contexts. Schools are prescribing the pathways that people must take to demonstrate competence with a level of detail that makes it resemble the traditional methods. They often do it in the name of scalability and efficiency. For example, if you are in a CBE MBA program, you can’t necessarily demonstrate your competence in financial analyses of businesses in multiple ways. You must do so in the form of an established business simulation. The simulation is the assessment, but it also becomes a significant part of the learning process…the pathway. Students might take varying levels of time to prepare for the simulation. They might leverage slightly different readings in preparation. Yet, many end up on the same general learning pathway.
Not all pathways are equal. This comes back to something that I repeat often, that education is not just about measurable results, data and evidence. It is also about deeply held beliefs, values and philosophies of education. Educators don’t choose one learning pathway for others over another because they have carefully analyzed pools of learning data and decided that this pathway is objectively superior to others. Some might do it that way, but that is in the minority. Most do it because they prefer, value or are attached to certain pathways (and some take offense at being forced to defend and articulate their reasons for a given pathways). They often can’t fully articulate why learners should follow the learning pathway that the instructor has established. They just believe that it is important, maybe even fundamental to the task at hand. “Learners need to learn and experience this in community,” we might argue. “You can’t truly grasp this through an online learning experience,” another might explain. “There is something important but intangible about doing this in small groups or a workshop,” yet another will defend. “Without work through these specific seminal works, the learners would be ill-educated on this topic”, the teacher points out.
Even as we witness the great unbundling of education, there are still many educators who reject the unbundling. Some never thought of their lessons in categories like learning objectives, learning pathways, and learning assessments (formative and summative). Some haven’t even thought of what they do in terms of lessons (especially in higher education). It was all just teaching and learning. It was content-driven, experiential, social, an art shaped by an autonomous artists known as a professor or teacher, a blend of these, or perhaps several other perspectives.
I suspect that this is why the debate around competency-based education remains tense at times, limited at others. The CBE conversation seems to be growing more slowly than some expected. It is a massive disconnect for many educators because it hardly resembles their careers and callings as they have understood them. They find it difficult to imagine losing the many qualitative benefits of what they do now and are perhaps offended (or frightened) by the claim that these competency-based education alternatives offer a comparable or equally valuable education to people. Not all pathways are equal and desirable. Even changing the pace of the pathway for different students is not agreed upon among educators. As such, if we are going to have a rich and valuable conversation about the affordances and limitations of CBE, perhaps we are wise to spend more time examining the role of learning pathways.