Competency-Based Education (Part 2)

By | January 29, 2015

Coincidentally, Inside Higher Education today has an article on a new report from the Carnegie Foundation that basically concedes much of the critique I offered in Part 1 of this series, but then rather arrogantly goes on to describe their “unit” as a gold standard, and asserts that there’s no better way to maintain educational accounting.  When even this august foundation, which has been firmly retrograde on almost every true educational reform ever suggested, has to engage in such raw self-defense, it’s reasonable to consider that perhaps some real progress can be and even is being made. CBE is almost certainly part of that reform.

Last time, I briefly summarized the idea of competencies as relating to multiple areas of effort. To elaborate this further, let’s look at a useful diagram provided by the Clearinghouse that claims to break down the idea competencies into some very specific levels and content. These “Building Blocks for Competency Models” describe nine specific “tiers” of competencies that are supposedly required for success in business and industry in general:


Click on the image to view models

Occupation Related

  • Tier 9 — Management Competencies
  • Tier 8 — Occupation-Specific
  • Tier 7 — Occupation-Specific Technical
  • Tier 6 — Occupation-Specific Knowledge

Industry Related

  • Tier 5 — Industry-Specific Technical
  • Tier 4 — Industry-Wide Technical

Foundational Competencies

  • Tier 3 — Workplace Competencies
  • Tier 2 — Academic Competencies
  • Tier 1 — Personal Effectiveness

The idea of competencies as a multifaceted collection of more or less specific things is generally appealing. However, I’m always a little skeptical about anything that gets arranged in the form of pyramid. Despite all attempts to claim otherwise, pyramids typically imply hierarchy – specifically, a hierarchy in which the upper levels are built on the foundation of the lower levels.

I probably wouldn’t argue about the so-called “foundational competencies”, although I might organize and somewhat differently and would certainly include “emotional intelligence” and “time management” somewhere within the groups. But the pyramid model basically begs the question of the degree of competence required in any of these areas, and any costs associated with less than stellar competence. Personally, I know many highly successful people in business, government, and academia who have managed distinguished careers despite being singularly deficient in numerous of these foundational areas (most notably interpersonal skills, communication, and integrity, but also teamwork and adaptability). For that matter, I’m not sure just how much competence I’d be prepared to claim for myself in a lot of these areas. And even if one does possess a measure of competence, that’s no guarantee that in any given situation that competence can or will be exercised, or won’t be subordinated to other organizational and political priorities.

As I’ve suggested in other places in these discussions, nothing in these models really clarifies the question of how much responsibility for educating people towards these competencies really ought to be borne by the public, and how much really ought to be borne by employers specifically. For many years (certainly during the formative stages of my own career), college was expected to emphasize at least some basic skills in the first three tiers, on the assumption that that would qualify you to learn whatever you needed specifically to learn for any organization you happen to find yourself part of. Somewhere along the line, employers decided that they didn’t need to train people anymore, probably because employees are now fungible and disposable units rather than members of an organization. This of course has not stopped them from complaining about the state of education despite their own abdication of responsibility for participating in it.

Tiers 4 through 8 seem to be so diffuse as to be not particularly helpful. By attempting to throw into these tears just about everything anybody needs to know to do a job, it pretty much reduces the practical value of comparing the different fields. The process of acquiring competence in, say, medicine, as opposed to building and construction or design work is so vastly different that lumping them all within the same category seems to obscure more than it illuminates.

And of course the whole thing being capped off with “management competencies” again encourages the notion of a hierarchical model in which managers are sharply differentiated from employees and behave somehow differently. In fact, the things that are listed as management competencies are really pretty much foundational skills for any line of work that involves more than a couple of people. And it leaves off probably the most important management competency of all – the one that seems to catapult people to the board rooms and corner offices – that of course being a healthy degree of sociopathy and a willingness to assume organizational roles that fundamentally devalue humans and human activity. The ability to behave as something other than a decent human being seems to be a prerequisite for upper management these days. Of course, we shouldn’t let the kids know that – but they’ve probably figured it out already.

So overall, I find this pyramid to be interesting and suggestive, but something less than a beacon pointing toward the future. In trying to do too much, I’m afraid it does too little.

I’ll elaborate and illustrate this further in Part 3.