We know, empirically and anecdotally, that our educational system is in a crisis. We need to do something.
Well, that’s not quite true. We don’t need to do just something. We need to do better.
Business and community leaders want graduates who are ready for work. Students want to know that they’ll be well-prepared for the work at hand. All want this done while making the best use of time and money
Two models of education – Scenario-based learning (SBL) and competency-based learning (CBL) – are competing for our attention. Each has advantages and advocates.
Competency-based learning focuses on mastery of a discrete but connected, set of skills in a particular domain. Students can move at their own pace through the programs, relying on their understanding of each module and applying previous life and work experience to their understanding of the material.
Pre-dating CBL by three decades, B.F. Skinner showed how a properly constructed series of educational exercises could be implemented by way of a teaching machine. (Skinner describes how he has put his ideas into the then-modern classroom in this video.) In his 1954 essay, The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching, Skinner establishes his concept of reinforcement as the basis of meaningful learning. Immediate reinforcement not only speeds learning but produces better outcomes.
By the early 1970s, competency-based training had become significant enough to be a mandated part of New York State teacher training. Robert Spencer and William Boyd reported on the effectiveness of these programs for teachers and, as a result, for students.
CBL is often used in the credentialing process, giving students credit for life experience on their way to obtaining a certificate or degree. It can also be important where following procedures strictly and correctly, such as the completion of death certificates, is an essential, if tedious, part of a practice.
Jumping ahead another quarter-century, we see another educational model emerging not in opposition to CBL, but as an important evolution. In Skinner’s view, learning was energized when there were small variations in the course of instruction accompanied by immediate feedback. These variations helped students adapt their learning patterns to differing circumstances. Courses of instruction became scenarios.
Scenario-based learning, also known as simulation-based learning or problem-based learning, guides students through a series of scenarios to teach them both practical skills (competency) and analytical skills.
These scenarios require more sophisticated curricula, whether delivered in a seminar or by way of online instruction. The parameters are more nuanced because, in real-life settings, the variables are less precisely defined.
The effectiveness of SBL or its cousin, PBL, has proved hard to measure. In his 2003 paper, A Pilot Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis on the Effectiveness of Problem Based Learning., Middlesex University researcher Mark Newman reports that only a few of the many published reports have rigorously assessed the usefulness of PBL.
A major part of the problem, for researchers and practitioners, is the number of analogous words and phrases. Newman used more than 50 synonymous keywords in his meta-analysis.
In subsequent posts, we’ll discuss the implementation and evaluation of both SBL and CBL in various professional fields, assessing which model is more appropriate for each. Stay tuned and keep your thesaurus handy.
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