Competence-Based Curriculum

My point of view on Competence-Based Curriculum
By Chris Marrow, School of Africa

I have been teaching for a very long time: since 1969. I have seen many curricular systems and teaching theories come and go. After many years of experience and study, I do not think there is much of anything new under the sun. Modern teaching theory, which in my definition spans approximately the last two hundred years, has certainly helped to define and refine our thinking. There are different ways to approach the same questions, and different methodologies to achieve the same ends. Ultimately, the relationship between teacher and student becomes personal. No one teacher can be all things to all students. We are individuals and must find the most effective way to reach our students while still being true to ourselves and our vocation. In the following few pages I will offer definitions of both knowledge-based and competence based learning systems. Then I will list what I believe is essential to good pedagogy; the essential skills that a good teacher brings to the learning experience that are uniquely human. Finally I will discuss how the new competence-based curriculum fits, theoretically, within these parameters.

Knowledge Based Curriculum
Knowledge based learning is designed to enable the learner to process facts, information, processes and other knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory. … If the learner is focused more on just finishing the training than actively trying to assimilate it for further use, the learning impact will be minimal. For purposes of this discussion we will use the above definition of knowledge-based learning to provide the basis for further discussion. Taking the first half of this definition, knowledge based curriculum would merely turn the student into an encyclopedic automaton. This is not a beneficial form of education in a world full of computers with their instant access to knowledge. Unfortunately his type of education is what I have seen primarily in Rwandan schools. Without the second half of the definition, the ability to assimilate knowledge for further use, knowledge-based curriculum has little value as Rwanda moves forward into the developed world economy.

Competence-Based Curriculum
Competency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. This is a classic definition of competency- based learning. Taken from the July 2015 Teacher Training Manual, Roll out of the Competence-Based Curriculum we get a much broader definition.
A competence based curriculum takes learning to higher levels by providing challenging and engaging learning experiences that require deep thinking rather than just memorization. This means moving beyond the recall of information to a level of sufficient understanding for learners to apply their learning in practical situations. (Note that the manual refers to “competence-based” curriculum rather than “competency-based” curriculum. I’m not sure whether this is merely a difference in spelling of terms or whether in fact it implies a slightly different meaning.)
Defined in this way, there is a clear correlation between the new curriculum and advanced thinking skills. Success for the Rwandan student is no longer a matter of memorizing and reciting lists and statistics. There must be a deeper understanding of those facts and the ability to relate them not only to other facts, but to the practicality of a given situation. The new curriculum also includes extensive changes to the way student progress is accessed. This is consistent with the classic definition of competency-based curriculum.

Essential Elements of Pedagogy
More than the memorization of facts, learning involves the art of thinking. Thinking is the domain of the human mind, and therefore it requires human input. In what areas is human input essential in helping the student learn to think effectively?
1. Teacher as guide. This demands a human and personal relationship between student and teacher. Notice that I do not use the term “learner” that seems so prevalent in Africa. This is an important distinction. A learner is passive. A student is active.
2. Teacher as model. Learning is both a social and a personal activity. A student must be taught how to learn in different ways and settings. Group collaboration takes skill, and can be highly beneficial to all participants. Ultimately, however, the student needs to know when and how to make and defend personal decisions based on critical thinking skills. A good teacher models both the skills or social interaction and personal integrity and responsibility.
3. Teacher as planner. The development of thinking skills is incremental. A beginning student does not know what they need to advance to the next skill level. To be successful the student must rely on the skill of the teacher to set up lessons in a way that will benefit the students both as a group and individually. This is essentially a combination of the first two skills, guide and model.

Knowledge, Competence, and Pedagogy
The purpose of this initial critique is to provide an understanding of what this shift in educational curricular methods means in theory. Rwanda’s most recent educational curriculum has been based largely on the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to recall facts. There has been little emphasis on the ability to think creatively and critically. Nor has there been much attention to the unique contribution of the teacher in the development of the student. The new “competence-based” curriculum opens up these possibilities, and as such is a much needed enhancement to the educational system.

As stated in the beginning, though, I have seen this pendulum swing before. Less than perfect systems are abandoned and replaced by other less than perfect systems. After a while there is a shift back to the first less than perfect system, and so it continues. Parents are unhappy because they no longer understand the “new” system. Teachers are confused because what they have been led to believe as a correct methodology no longer applies. Neither a knowledge-based or competence-based curriculum is a perfect system, and strict adherence to one at the abandonment of the other will only lead to frustration. Is this what we are seeing in the new competence-based curriculum? Fortunately, I think not.

Knowledge is not worth much without competence, but competence is impossible without a base of knowledge. Dr. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. developed a comprehensive core curriculum in the 1980s. He has chosen to call it Core Knowledge. Certainly no one can question his dedication to student competence and advanced thinking skills. The original Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains listed knowledge as the foundational skill. Interestingly enough, the revised version lists the foundational skill as remembering. Remembering, processing knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory, is exactly the definition of knowledge-based learning used earlier. It is an essential skill, but only as a foundation. The manual developed by the Rwandan Ministry of Education consistently refers to knowledge as an important element in the new curriculum. Therefore, it seems that this new curricular model is not an abandonment of the old system, but an enhancement. This is good.

However positive this change may be, it still involves a revisiting of pedagogy. As stated in the manual, “The teacher is the most important player in improving education quality and a key factor in determining learners’ success.” The teacher is the vital human link that makes education possible. No textbook or computer program can replace the unique role of a human educator. To gain competence beyond knowledge a student needs a guide to show the way. (S)he needs a model to follow and a mature mind to plan the path. All of these attributes are included in the Teacher Training Manual. What remains now is to translate the theory into positive action. Pedagogy will be a key element in the success of the new curriculum.