A close friend continually asks me, “So, are you still running at those windmills?” shaking his head a bit at what he considers to be my Don Quixote-like quest.
The “windmills” are the U.S. education system. The perceived folly is my optimistic yet grounded belief that the system can change, good things are happening, and effective instructional systems (and even an appreciation of behavior analysis) ultimately will prevail.
In this era of federally mandated educational reform and concurrent state and local resistance to top-down government directives (in the U.S. at least, with efforts such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the Common Core State Standards, standardized assessment), what fuels my current sense of hope? It is the surprising enthusiasm and support from school districts, states, and even federal education agencies for “competency-based” initiatives. Competency-based education (CBE) entails students’ progression through their academic work toward proficiency and mastery—regardless of time, method, place, or pace of learning (U.S. Department of Education). It is also referred to as “proficiency-based,” “performance-based,” or “mastery-based” education, all terms very familiar to a behavioral audience.
Competency-based education (CBE) entails students’ progression through their academic work toward proficiency and mastery—regardless of time, method, place, or pace of learning (U.S. Department of Education).
The components that make up CBE also should be quite familiar to behavior analysts, including:
- Competencies are specified for what a student is to learn/demonstrate;
- Competencies include clear, measurable, transferable learning objectives;
- Students advance upon mastery;
- Assessments are relevant, useful, and timely;
- Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
- Learning outcomes emphasize both application and creation of knowledge, in conjunction with the development of college and work-ready skills.
In addition, CBE advocates often emphasize that instructional strategies, interventions, and reform efforts must be evidence-based to the fullest extent possible.
Inherent in the CBE aim of “learning held constant, while time varies” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p. 19) is the notion that each learner demonstrates competency, regardless of the amount of time that demonstration may take.
Within a CBE system, no longer does individual student learning vary as time is held constant (e.g., 180 day school year, a semester, a grading period); the goal now is for time to vary as learning outcomes for all students is the constant. Inherent in the CBE aim of “learning held constant, while time varies” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p. 19) is the notion that each learner demonstrates competency, regardless of the amount of time that demonstration may take. Other aspects of CBE often free to vary include: time (when learning occurs); place (where learning occurs); method (how learning occurs); and evaluation (how to demonstrate something meaningful has been learned). In a CBE model students may take multiple pathways to achieve a competency, and may use multiple methods to demonstrate that competency. (See Twyman, 2015 for a more in depth discussion of CBE and its components.)
Much work needs to be done in defining what constitutes a “competency,” especially from a behavioral (functional) or even instructional perspective (If possible find a copy of Susan Meyer Markle’s “How to Formulate Clear Objectives” for a truly useful tutorial on designing objectives and now, competencies). Often, large skill sets (now “standards”) are broken down into competencies (ala a component composite analysis), which themselves may have sequential levels of mastery. Competencies often reinforce and build upon one another as learning progresses; the impact of increasing competencies is often synergistic–with the whole greater than the sum of the parts (as behavior analysts often engineer in their work in generativity).
All aspects of competency-based education stand to benefit from the findings and procedures of a science of behavior…
All aspects of competency-based education stand to benefit from the findings and procedures of a science of behavior, and hence the impetus of this BATech SIG blog post. Behavioral “technology,” in the parlance of Pennypacker and others, is ideally suited for informing and improving CBE systems. We’ve been figuring out the nuts and bolts of such a system for over 50 years. Our challenge is sharing these findings and the science with others, and learning to use the language of CBE to talk about what we do (in the vein suggested by Ogden Lindsley). This translation is not hard, and we can often find a willing listening audience, as I’ve learned in my own work with some of the 42 states considering or implementing various models of CBE.
As the movement towards systems of CBE grows, I believe digital and hardware technologies are essential in making CBE feasible, scalable, actionable, and transparent. Our behavioral technology of functional definitions of observable behavior can help clarify standards, develop competencies, formulate measurement structures, and inform implementation. Systems and tools are needed to help educators and learners keep track of where they are, their progression, what competencies are to be tackled next. Evidence-based curriculum and instructional strategies are needed to produce high rates of meaningful learning and move students towards meeting competencies. Programs and software that provide individualized instruction with built-in automatic assessment and data-based decision-making are essential in ensuring students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. Understanding and applying organizational behavior science and implementation science can help inform how well CBE components are being carried out and where change may be needed. Each of these areas is ripe for contributions by behavior analysts, efforts that the BA Tech SIG could encourage, support, and disseminate.
As the movement towards systems of CBE grows, I believe digital and hardware technologies are essential in making CBE feasible, scalable, actionable, and transparent. Our behavioral technology of functional definitions of observable behavior can help clarify standards, develop competencies, formulate measurement structures, and inform implementation.
A final word: The competency-based movement is not just for K-12 education–university and business and industry are embracing competencies as a way to arrange instruction, ensure learning, and demonstrate capacities. Behavior analytic professors, those of us teaching in higher education or running or consulting for companies would be well served to bring a behaviorally informed CBE model into their teaching and professional development (if they aren’t already of course!).
Janet S. Twyman, Ph.D., BCBA, NYSLBA is a noted proponent of effective instruction and technology to produce individual and system change. She has been a preschool and elementary school teacher, a principal and administrator, and university professor. Dr. Twyman has presented nationally and internationally on technologies for diverse learners and settings, including at the United Nations. In 2007-08 she served as President of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and was named a Fellow in 2014. Formerly a Vice President at Headsprout, Dr. Twyman is currently an Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Univ. of Mass. Medical School/Shriver Center) and the Director of Innovation & Technology for the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Center on Innovations in Learning. She has published and presented widely on evidence-based innovations in education and the systems that support them and was presented with the Wing Award for her work in Evidence-based Education in 2015.