The competency-based approach to education is on a fast upswing. In fact, it’s one of the most important trends facing higher ed in 2016. Many people want to understand the process for putting a competency-based education (CBE) program in place, but they don’t know where to begin.

The best starting point for a successful CBE program might surprise you: a plan for change management. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Established systems are largely self-interested

  • The 100-year-old Carnegie unit.
  • The Flexner model for medical education.
  • The-200-year-old Victorian classroom.

What do these systems all have in common? They grew organically, and at the time they emerged, they were innovative, enabling great progress in education.

But once these organisms have established themselves, much like trees, strength and longevity become their primary measures of success. They do not bend, and naturally attempt to block out competition by throwing shade on new things attempting to take root around them. We can shake these trees to get rid of the dead wood, but in order to facilitate a stronger, healthier next generation, we must be willing to uproot that which no longer enables long-term success.

That’s no simple task—but it is exponentially easier and more successful with effective change management.

2. Change requires strong leadership and vision

We recently held a design thinking workshop with educators in New Hampshire who are in their first year implementing competency-based education in their district. As we explored their challenges, we consistently heard that the vast majority of their pain points could be linked back to a lack of change leadership.

The largest pain points mentioned were:

  • No clear reason presented as to why CBE is the right direction to pursue (or whether it actually is the right direction).
  • Lack of organized approach; for example, randomly swapping out a scale the district spent many years developing for another without stakeholder input.
  • Lack of leadership outreach to the larger community; this communication is left to lower level staff.

When you attempt to break down existing structures to make way for new ones, there is often a lack of communication, and fear can take over. Leaders might be nervous that they will lack all the answers and will be “exposed” for not having a perfectly defined path forward. In education, the implementation of new initiatives is contingent on the willingness of people to challenge the established order and systems. To bring about change, you risk grey hair, ulcers, hits to your professional stature, and often most troubling, you worry about the effects of change and upheaval on the students.

It can be scary to jump into the role of leading big change. But we can’t let fear stand in the way, and strong leadership can make all the difference.

3. Everyone has to be on board

Many times, the best path forward is not perfectly defined. Pick a course, and plan on iterating (or as we like to say, be agile!). Your willingness to try alternative solutions outside of the proverbial box is frequently the perspective need to jumpstart revitalizing change, and it should be looked upon favorably.

Once you’ve chosen your (agile) path forward, it is important to effectively communicate your vision for change to all parties affected. Why? Because leaders are not the only ones nervous about change. When change is implemented, questions about direction and vision that remain unanswered by leadership can sap morale in the team members you need for successful outcomes. A clear and common vision of success, established and supported by leadership, is essential to bring team members together to work together along a defined roadmap toward this vision. Without it, the team will often become fractured and resistant to change.

The bottom line: Everyone needs to be a believer. If you don’t stand together, you stand for nothing and the roots of change will not take.

4. Will you uproot the ‘factory school’ tree?

Let’s apply this strong leadership/pick a course strategy to breaking down one of the old ‘trees’ of education, the ‘factory school.’

One of the major differences between our traditional models of education and CBE is grading. The problem with grading is not the fact they provide a concept of scales—granularity and explicitness are hallmarks of careful thought and analysis—it’s the lack of clarity about what skills are represented by those grades. What do the different levels within grades look like as an individual progresses through them? How do we know that students are performing?

We don’t know.

So, then, what is the goal in uprooting the ‘factory school’ tree with a model like competency-based education?

It’s to have people ready for the next level—school, college, life—who can confidently say they are ready because they (and the people charged with their mentorship) have a clear understandings of their skill level and what progress looks like in the areas they want to explore in their professional life. These people will understand that their learning is their responsibility, that it’s a privilege rather than a burden, and a result the system has imbued in them.

That kind of vision says we’re talking about the need to plant a whole different tree altogether. If we look to nature we can find other organic models that suggest alternative growth approaches:  

  • Small grasses: programs with simple structure & fast growth but limited height  (‘greenfield’ projects);
  • Large grasses like bamboo: rapid growth based on extreme rigidness (‘pure play’ systems);
  • Vines: growth based on exploratory (or iterative) “feelers” being put out, as part of a strategy to establish a lasting foothold (what Motivis hopes to build).

Using a new model to execute on this grand vision means that everyone must be invested and must keep their eye on the prize—which can only be accomplished through effective change leadership.

Leading and managing change is one of the most difficult but important tasks of innovators. By establishing practices that incorporate stakeholder engagement, your learning vine will flourish and you will have lifelong learners who are confident enough to understand their personal learning needs.  Empowerment and engagement ensures that students can determine their best path and scaffolds the community connections necessary to foster continued growth and enrichment. This provides people with more fulfilling pathways, while ensuring institutions are able to face unforeseen challenges with staff ready to ask the right questions instead of hoping they know the answers.  

1 thought on “When Implementing CBE, Start with Change Management”

  1. Your article is one of the best reads for a long time, and very important. Educators are the worst innovators and do not come under the tag of ‘early adopters’. It is pleasing to find someone who thinks that creative destruction, 180 degree, quantum leap change strategies are needed for tomorrow, if educators in the 21st century are to solve the problems created by yesterday’s outdated solutions.

    Congrats my friend.

    Dr Geoffrey William
    North-Chiang Mai International College

    Note. Our Bachelor Degree programs feature 40 percent practicum, and 60 percent theory. Employers hire graduates who can contribute from day one.

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