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Disruption in the formal educational system: how to understand the meaning of competency based education

Paul Vadas - Master of Arts in Political Science (California State University, Northridge), professor, lecturer, executive, writer and consultant for higher education institutions in Brazil and the United States. Education Editor of the Brazil Monitor

Paul Vadas

by Paul Vadas

Over the years I have become more and more convinced that the current, 7 thousand year old model of education, centered on the school, the library, the teacher, the classroom; structured by number of credit/hours; evaluated by average grading system; and certified by final degrees characterized by diplomas (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s) is long overdue for a complete rethinking and disruption.

For ages, information for high knowledge development was distributed inside the four walls of schools by teachers who had mastered their particular field of study. That concentration of information was exacerbated by the central libraries that contained the books that would have been very expensive for any particular student to buy in order to supply her/his information needs.

Until the beginning of this century the model, with all its flaws, was still justified. Schools were, and still are, centers of teaching, evaluation, and certification, operating within a structure controlled by law and by a certain academic freedom, within the boundaries of rules, regulations and preestablished curricula.

From kindergarten to high school, the typical schools operate within the age-old formula: classroom, grade level, subject matter, teacher, classes at predetermined time and place of study, with the student being evaluated by the gpa – a reflection of how well, percentage wise, she/he assimilated the teacher’s teachings. Teaching has been, and still is the main focus. In this model of mass education, individuality has, for the most part, not been considered. For economies of scale, mass education was and is still the norm.

The centuries old farming jobs that predominated through history, up to the 18th century, when mechanization expelled humans out of farming, was replaced by the new centers of jobs: the factories. From the 18th to the 20th century, factories were the job creators, provoking a massive displacement of populations from the countryside to the sprawling cities. This movement also had the benefit of creating other types of industries, such as the service, retail, financial, and tourism industries, to name a few, solidifying work specialization and the interdependence among human beings. Schools reflected well the times by preparing individuals for the work place based on specialized professions.

By the beginning of the second decade of this century, however, technological advances have profoundly affected the up-to-now labor-intensive work force, that demanded routine, repetitive operations, and has replaced many of the factorylike jobs with robots in the place of human beings. Repetitive, routine operations have been steadily become robotized in both the factory and the service sectors, displacing once again human resources from the factories and service sectors to either less paying jobs, or self-employment or, even, the unemployment lines.

Today, being able to do the same, repetitive, mass production work is no longer valued in the job market. What is valued today is being able to innovate and personalize services. Labor intensive work has given way to intellectually intensive work. What is important is no longer being able to do what others do. What is important today is to have a differential that permits the individual to does what others don’t. Being different in a pertinent and relevant way is what the labor market is looking for and schools, as they are set up, are not equipped to prepare that kind of worker.

Schools need to adapt to the new times and re-think their models of education, disrupting the thousands of years old model and replacing it with a model that is pertinent and relevant for the present and the future, capable of preparing students individually.

If we want to disrupt education, first we have to disrupt what we understand education is. We need to understand what we mean by the concept of “education”, what its objectives are, how it relates to environment in which it exists, and how it can become pertinent and relevant in an age where constant changes require constant adaptation. I suggest that the concept and objectives of formal education have changed over the years and we have not adapted our definitions to those changes. Only when we re-define education will we be able to construct a model for our and future times. If we keep thinking of education within the concepts of the traditional school model, we will fail to transform it into a pertinent and relevant model and will, surely, witness its demise.

During the past few months, I have been studying all facets of education in order to propose a functional model that, by assimilating today’s and future technologies, can maintain formal education pertinent and relevant. I believe that I have been able to arrive at such a model.

Before I describe my model, however, in order for people to understand education the way I understand it, I need to present my reasoning behind my thinking on education, why I believe the current system of formal education needs to be changed by a competency based education model (CBE), to finally arrive at how it can be changed from the traditional model to the CBE model. To do that, my next articles will deal with:

  1. What is education and what are its objectives;
  2. What do I mean by “Competency “, in general, and how does it relate to the different types of education I suggest flows from it;
  3. Given the definitions of “education” and “competency”, how does CBE, as a formal education model, fit in;
  4. Is the traditional model “salvable?”;
  5. What is the CBE model I am proposing?

I truly believe that once we reexamine the conceptual framework that comprises the idea of education as a system (definition of education and competency; definition of the objectives and responsibilities of formal education; and the use of new and emerging communication technologies as they apply to the process of education) we will be able to create the base of a solid, new paradigm for the effective functioning of formal education.