The Next Battleground: Competency-Based Education v Inquiry-Based Education: How Should We Teach? How Do Students Learn?

A decades-long cyber revolution has been changing the face of education – sort of. Assignments are online, papers and homework submitted online, distance learning allows class participation from anywhere, Skype, Dropbox, cyber tools abound; however, every new cyber tool, hardware and software, has to be monetized, turned into dollars. Will the cyber tools ultimately substitute for the instructor? Enhance the effectiveness of the instructor? Increase student learning (defined as scores on tests aka assessments of learning)?

Is the future of education a tablet with a student tapping away and the teacher, as an adjunct assisting the student in using the cyber tools?

A description of Computer Adaptive Testing provided by I-Learn, a vendor,

There is growing interest in computer adaptive testing (CAT), where students answer questions online and a computerized algorithm tailors future questions based on correct or incorrect answers. The key difference between an adaptive assessment and a fixed-form one—which is often taken with paper and pencil— teachers can better understand the root causes of skill gaps spanning back multiple years as well as identify where to focus instruction next. This helps them differentiate instruction and meet the needs of all learners, including those who are below, on and above grade level.

Questar, the newly hired creator of the next generation of New York State grades 3-8 tests also is a proponent of competency-based education (CBE). Content can be divided into discrete packages; a Questar blog  describes the process,

… eliminate the one-to-many teaching approach. Students can’t receive personalized instruction and personalized learning when a teacher has to teach to the most common denominator. We can solve this problem with technology by giving every student a tablet device that wirelessly connects to adaptive software in the cloud.

… seamlessly integrate assessment with the instruction presented to each student on his or her tablet. Educators know that best-practice teaching involves instructing for five minutes, asking students a few questions to determine if they’ve understood the material, backtracking if necessary, and then moving on to the next topic …  With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results. If a student needs to relearn some material, the software automatically adjusts and creates a custom learning plan on the fly.

Does this competency or adaptive learning approach agree with what we know about how children learn?

The last decade has seen an explosion in brain research, and we know that children learn through interactions with adults and other students in challenging environments,  these interactions lead to increased learning.

… a more student-focused class provides multiple opportunities for students to discuss ideas in small groups and may support a whole class discussion. One simple measure of this is the proportion of the class dedicated to students talking to one another. The quality of the discussion is also important: tasks that have the potential for more than one answer can generate deeper thinking processes and may also shift the direction of the lesson.

The brain research has led to the development of a number of teaching frameworks, rubrics used to guide instruction and teacher assessment, for example the Danielson Frameworks, or Marzano or Kim Marshall. The Danielson Frameworks divides the process of teaching into domains; within the instructional domain let’s look at the questioning component,

Quality of questions/prompts: Questions of high quality cause students to think and reflect, to deepen their understanding, and to test their ideas against those of their classmates. When teachers ask questions of high quality, they ask only a few of them and provide students with sufficient time to think about their responses, to reflect on the comments of their classmates, and to deepen their understanding.

The Frameworks describe in detail “discussion techniques” and “indicators.”

Discussion techniques: Effective teachers promote learning through discussion. A foundational skill that students learn through engaging in discussion is that of explaining and justifying their reasoning and conclusions, based on specific evidence. Teachers skilled in the use of questioning and discussion techniques challenge students to examine their premises, to build a logical argument, and to critique the arguments of others.

Indicators include: • Questions of high cognitive challenge, formulated by both students and teacher • Questions with multiple correct answers or multiple approaches, even when there is a single correct response • Effective use of student responses and ideas • Discussion, with the teacher stepping out of the central, mediating role • Focus on the reasoning exhibited by students in discussion, both in give-and-take with the teacher and with their classmates • High levels of student participation in discussion.

“Cognitive challenge’ is at the core of the teaching-learning process.

The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has 80-90% non-completion rates, online courses without face-to-face teacher involvement receive low scores from students, and the industry continues to stumble. Colleges and universities move to online learning due to cost factors and space.  A part-timer can “teach” from their living room, and teach large numbers of students, a lot cheaper than a tenured faculty member.

Students who have been the least successful need more, not fewer interactions with adults or other students.

The cyber age has facilitated information retrieval and communications. The world is at my fingertips, Facebook and Twitter allow for the exchange of ideas without boundaries;  integrating cyber technology into classroom practice is challenging. Hardcover and soft cover books will be replaced by online books, kids will read on tablets, “discussions” can move beyond the walls of classrooms, kids learning Mandarin in Manhattan can speak to kids learning English in Shanghai,  While the opportunities are endless the new world of cyber is currently driven by dollars not the instructional needs of teachers .and children.

We are not Luddites, the world will continue to change, we just have to make sure the changes benefit the needs of children not line the pockets of entrepreneurs at the expense of our children.

8 responses to “The Next Battleground: Competency-Based Education v Inquiry-Based Education: How Should We Teach? How Do Students Learn?

  1. Pingback: Peter Goodman: The Next Battleground: Competency-Based Education | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. One to me is certain – this CBE approach, with competency tests that must be passed before one can move on, will be a disaster in Math. There is not the competence out there to devise evan passable software for the job, and even then, where will be the connections between “this” and “that” ?
    I put it into verse:


  3. Good to know this is already being piloted in several counties nation-wide. I’m sure it was packaged with a bow and made to look so much better than it is before all the research was done. This is experimental at best. I don’t think districts or states have even thought of the amount of parents that could possibly be pulling their kids’ from school to home-school with this type of approach.


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