A (bad) argument for competency-based education in today’s Orlando Sentinel

A retired education professor made his case for “competency-based education” in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel.

These are the takeaways from his column (as far as I could tell):

  • Students learn best when they are working on their own in front of a computer screen.  The extensive research literature on the value of social interactions in learning should be ignored.
  • Intellectually gifted individuals who understand their subjects deeply make bad teachers.
  • Lectures are of limited value (at best) in learning.

Of these three, I agree with the third.

On the first point, the columnist, Robert Lange, argues that in an optimum classroom,

Students have started to work at their own pace. At the same time, some students are working on reading while others are working on math, social studies and other subjects.

Lange’s assertion ignores the value of collaborative learning.  It’s fairly easy to accept that weaker students benefit from working in collaborative groups with stronger students.  What surprises many people is that the stronger students generally benefit from working with weaker students – at least in my subject (physics) in which nearly everybody in the class is struggling at least a little.

As for the qualities that make a good teacher, Lange says,

From 1965 through 2005, I participated in a variety of research studies of classroom teaching. We often found that at any grade level, teachers with greater amounts of college credit in the academic fields did much more talking or presenting than teachers with adequate but wider content backgrounds. Teachers with less-deep but wider backgrounds were more attentive to individual student needs. 

In other words, teachers who hold a degree in physics or math can’t connect with their students or teach interactively.  Lange’s characterization reflects a dangerous prejudice against highly accomplished individuals and gives mediocrity a pass – at least for the K-12 environment.

Furthermore, strong content knowledge is much more important in a highly interactive classroom environment than it is in a traditional lecture class because the instructor has to be able to deftly respond to student questions that come out of left field.  Some teachers who are insecure in their content understanding use the lecture method as a shelter from the intense interactions with students that take place in an interactive learning environment.

The problem with the views of Lange and others like him is that they legitimize the idea that students should learn on their own in front of a computer screen, attended to only by inexpensive educational technicians who have little or no understanding of the subject that a student is presumably learning.

The term “competency-based education” that Lange uses to lead his column is a Rorschach blot often used to obscure the hard questions that face educators and policy-makers in an era in which children must learn much more than their parents to succeed economically.  The educators and advocates I know and admire on all sides of Florida’s intense debates about K-12 education are more thoughtful than Lange.  I just hope that views like Lange’s don’t tempt them to give up on the hard work and patience that is required to keep these debates constructive.


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