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Making the Transition: 150 Years in the Making

June 11, 2012 by

Prior to moving into the nitty-gritty of competency writing, I would like to preface with a couple of statements. First off, before we can build competencies, we need to, as a group, identify what a competency really is. The dirty little secret of education, is at the heart of what I am about to tell you. So strap on your seatbelts…..make sure your tray tables are in their upright and stored position, and get ready to embark on a journey of educational intricacy….

Just kidding.

But, this is what it may seem like when another idea comes down what I like to call the “Edu-Babble Pipeline….” That long road of solving the woes of an age-old institution that sadly enough has not so much as budged from where it started roughly 150 years ago. Every educational generation comes up with a new method or introduction to current technology, or a great process that will solve the woes of the educational world. When in reality, the saving grace has been around longer than compulsory education itself. You ready for the definition?

Basically, a competency is nothing more than a representation of what a student knows and is able to do.

Yup. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less. In the most basic of definitions….

A competency is the representation of what a student knows and is able to do.

For instance, in my last blog, I spoke about professions and what they needed in order to be considered competent. In looking back, all it is the knowledge and skills to be successful. A painter needs to be able to mix colors as well as convey a message through their art. A surgeon must be able to not only cut, but identify organs, analyze the situation, evaluate methods, and sew the patient back up. In all actuality, every profession or identity has attached to it a basic amount of competencies; all of which are grouped together to create the ideal system as long as all competencies are 100% efficient.

Looking at this system then, we see a WORLD of possibilities when it comes to teaching and learning. In order to complete this though, we are going to need to start looking at what really is needed to consider someone educated. For in identifying this crucial question, we have the ability to open up the dialog of designing and implementing a competency-based educational system.

The following is a list of components that go into this designing of competencies, and can hopefully assist you (and your institution) on setting up a system that helps ALL of the stakeholders in educating our future generations. Look for answers to these questions, (and ones that you can come up with as a group…) and you will be well on your way in the beginning stages of competency building.

1.     If a competency is what a student knows and is able to do, what is the balance between the two?

The world we live in today is full of innovative methods of gaining information. Gone are the days in which the amount of information you can remember is called being educated… you must use it, manipulate it, and apply it to produce something. There needs to be a balance in expectation, activity, and production. But, where is that perfect position?

2.     How does one prove competence?

If we are going to transition to a competency-based educational system, we need to accept that a student can prove competence in many ways, (differentiation, um, hello…..J) This means that we are going to be looking at not only products, but opportunities as environments that prove competence. And, once they know it, they can move on!

3.     Is competence black and white, or is it a sliding scale that must account for other factors?

This question is at the heart of the competency-based system. To be honest, there really is no right answer….just a way of going about getting a student to produce representations of what they know and prove what they know how to do. Once a student proves they are competent, what now? Move them on to another group? Increase the obligation of production? This is a topic for a whole other blog post!

4.     Is there an end to competence?

Young Jedi, (am I dating myself yet???) is there ever an end? Is there not always more? Can we not attempt for the next step in the path? See last statement’s clarifer above to understand where I hope to be going with this!

5.     How do we use competence as a tool to shape and measure the learning that is going on in the classroom?

And the icing on the cake…. Once we identify the concept of competencies and what we are hoping that the student knows and is able to do, we can then use it for good in our mission to produce willing and able young men and women that have the skills and abilities to find success in their future goals. And although the goal is (hopefully) the same for us all, the way in which we get there is going to vary. Strangely enough though….I see people in all walks headed in the same direction.

In the next few blogposts, my hopes are to expand upon these and other ideas to give you some insight in your own competency-based movements. I will say, it is a long process….. but, with the ambition, focus, and charisma that I have grown used to seeing from educators that want to make a difference in this 150 year old environment, it is going to take the proverbial “first-step” if we want to look towards the future. Hopefully, this post has you tightening your laces.

About the Author

Justin Ballou is a high-school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called Socrademy, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech, and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at to ask questions or leave comments, and follow him on twitter (@socrademy).


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  1. Comment by Ed Jones 4:59 pm, June 12, 2012

    Justin, thanks for the thoughts. It’s a tough business, setting competencies. (I look at Ohio’s social studies standards, and they look like they’d turn out fine undergraduate history students, but incompetent HS grads.)

    Here’s one approach to K-12competency–determine what is needed to go on to master the frameworks a 24 year old might adopt. What’s a framework?

    Well, geometry is one, by itself. Not all the non-euclidean stuff, but the idea of angles and cosines and volumes. Carpenters need it, avionics systems engineers, lighting technicians, optometrists, sharpshooters.

    An example of a framework I’m not here advocating, but some K-12 students will go on to adopt, is that of Catholic divinity. For centuries, it was one of just a handful of frameworks in play; it didn’t much need or want others. Still, in it’s own way, it could be highly complex.

    Literary criticism is a more modern framework that can sometime take on the same qualities.

    But I have in mind a number of more complementary frameworks. Accounting, for example, lets you see into the guts of an organization, large or small. Something as simple as a small parks unit can benefit greatly from a good accounting view.

    Business law isn’t just for large corporations. If you buy something, you’re subject to the law of contracts; if you sell something, more-so.

    Financial management and micro-economics let you think not just of how a company might enhance the bottom line, but how your family might–or, how a nation must balance the competing interests of its citizens.

    For a long time, behavioral psychology guided how many people thought about individual choices and actions. Now we use more cognitive psychology. And we find the an understanding of how computers work can help with that.

    National security actually has extensive frameworks, from the study of sanctions to the established principals of tactical engagement, to force structure, to deterrence and negotiation.

    And, in our world today, the frameworks of entertainment seem almost to rule all. The arts of music, cinematography, scriptwriting, and even game design contribute to this. When they illuminate and uplift, few things are better. When they wallow, well, we have too many entertainers.

    In 1776, the founders were well versed in Natural Law. Now, how many college students even peruse it?

    It’s easy in establishing competencies to stick with the old faithfuls (and those are good bases indeed). But sometimes we might consider working backwards, seeing where we’re going in an ever-more-complex world, and planning for not just competent individuals, but a competent people as a whole.

  2. Comment by Justin Ballou 12:20 pm, June 13, 2012

    Thanks for the comment Ed!

    You touch upon a couple of things that are coming up in my next post about the designing of competencies and how that leads to our teaching and assessment practices.

    In your example about cognitive psychology above, you hit the nail on the head! Not only must we “know” the information, but we must apply concepts, evaluate the reaction, and then use that to create something, (computer processing in your example)

    When delving in, we need to look at both content as well as skillsets….that way, students have a foundation in information and abilities that can extend beyond the closed environment of the traditional classroom!

    I look forward to our ongoing discussion!

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