According the Chronicle of Higher Education and National Public Radio, competency based education is the new thing. Actually, it’s the old thing. Vocational education, once the main road to middle class prosperity in America, has returned with a new name and an updated version of the same approach: see one, do one, teach one. Electricians, plumbers and even physicians are all still apprenticed and routinely evaluated to gauge their level of skill and expertise.
John Dewey, the great American philosopher and leading prognosticator of a school of thought we now call pragmatism built schools and universities at the turn the Nineteenth Century that influenced the entire American educational system to become more practical, applicable and measurable. This functional approach to education worked so well that the United States innovated its way past more established nations in less than a century.
So if competency based education is such a great idea, why did we return to the more general and rarified curriculum and pedagogy of a liberal arts approach? Because higher education is not just about the acquisition of skills. It has become the central socializing system in a post-industrial economy and the dynamic exchange where new ideas are created and shared, or bought and sold, depending on your point of view.
The campus has become the breeding grounds for innovators and the cradle for their progeny. Pick any major research university in the western world and observe the prosperous amalgamation of businesses and institutions nicely situated across the street. They vigilantly stand watch for the next new thing. It turns out that knowledge isn’t just power: it’s money as well.
A recent cover story of the Economist, America’s New Aristocracy, points out that our most prestigious universities are getting ever more selective. Anyone who was lucky enough to go to a top tier institution quietly wonders if they would in fact be admitted to their alma mater today. A liberal arts degree from an elite school has come to mean so much more than the development of any number of competencies. It has become a premium brand: something valuable and rare. It suggests status and gives entre to those talented few who can speak the arcane languages of medicine, law, physics and finance. It’s little wonder that studies on social immobilitynicely correlate to the astonishing rise in the cost of a quality college education. It’s among the best of all possible investments if you can afford it. There’s the real rub and reason behind the push for new approach to higher education.
Thomas Edison, arguably the greatest inventor this nation has produced, famously espoused a hands-on experiential approach to education: on the job training. While Edison was the prototype for the journeyman inventor and entrepreneur, the complexity of emerging scientific discoveries quickly outpaced his practical understanding of electromagnetism and the mathematics required to calculate its transmission over distances. His competency based education became his limitations. It left him insolvent for years.
Over a decade ago I created a leading innovation institute and certification program to develop highly practiced innovators. I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the top companies and organizations celebrated for their innovation prowess. What I have learned firsthand is that contemporary innovators need to understand both theory and practice to be successful. While certifications are a viable means of demonstrating the acquisition of relevant competencies, much in the same way that Girl Scouts earn badges, they do not replace the requirement for deep domain expertise which is developed over time through an integrated curriculum and commensurate pedagogy. Furthermore, competency is merely the price of admission for anyone wishing to truly create anything better or new. That also requires an ongoing understanding of the complex fundamental principles and forces that move our world.
As an outspoken proponent of competency based education for over three decades, what I’ve learned from trial and error on the front lines is that the reason things fail is usually because we confuse why they work with how they work. While new technology and an alternative accreditation system will make higher education better, cheaper and faster, it won’t make it any more valuable. To do that would require changing our perspective on who we value and why we value them. Now that’s a competency worth developing.