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Point and Counterpoint: Fonseca to Change How We Do Schooling in Belize – COMPETENCY-BASED EDUCATION

Posted: Friday, July 29, 2022. 3:25 pm CST.

Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ or the Institution he serves.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Educational changes in Belize have always been top-down, whereby our political elites decides on what form of education is best to maintain the socio-economic status quo in the country. In the past those education reforms have favored the merits of constancy, comparability, and portability. On Wednesday July 28th, 2022, the Ministry of Education will be changing the way we do schooling in Belize in a way, according to officials from the Ministry of Education (MOE), that “will be promoting the benefits of authenticity and agency over the stability of comparability and portability”. The latter they are calling the traditional approach to schooling. Their new approach to schooling, called Competency Based Education, is the second wave of educational reforms in Belize for the twenty first century, the first since Francis Fonseca and the PUP came back to Belmopan in 2020. The current leadership in the MOE -Fonseca, Zabaneh, Mehair and Gongora – seem now to be convinced that through this effort, “the good of those who advocate for a constructivist project-based approach to schooling and those who want to ensure scalability, portability, rigor, and consistency can finally merge”.

Fonseca and his team came to this conclusion after one year of “consultations” with key stakeholders in all six districts in the country, and they say that they are now ready to roll out, in some limited way, this education reform effort come August 22nd, 2022, when the new year starts. The question is can Competency Based Education as a strategy for schooling in Belize survive; or is this just another pipedream from a new pied piper leading us yet again down, as the blues singer Stevie Ray Vaughan would say, ‘Tin Pan Alley’? My thesis is that though the supporters of CBE are optimistic that these reform efforts will bear fruits this time around; its critics say that “it can actually work to hinder education and training” in Belize if CBE is defined too narrowly. So, on Wednesday July 28th we will be keeping an eye on how Fonseca and his team defines CBE. But what is this Competency-Based Education all about?

An extensive review of the relevant literature reveals that “In the world of education there is a growing movement to transition from seat-time and move towards a flexible structure that allows students to progress in their learning after they have demonstrated mastery, which is often times at their own pace” (Walton & Ryerse, 2021). This movement which extends well beyond the issues of time and pace is known as Competency Based Education (CBE). Numerous educational jurisdictions have taken steps to begin to implementing CBE within there own context. This may have contributed to why the powers that be within the MOE may have decided that the time is right for education in Belize to go competency based.

It is important to note that – as with any new impactful, complex, and relatively new approach – there are a variety of perspectives on the topic. CBE as a field we are early in the shift from time-based to learning based as the key milestones in education, or where “learning is constant, and time is the variable”. Early models within CBE fall along a continuum from constructivist educators that advocate project-based learning and teacher judgements to those seeking more consistent, and stable approaches. This article therefore attempts to introduce some leading definitions of Competency Based Education and related concepts with an effort to hold in tension “the benefits of authenticity and agency as well as the merits of constancy, comparability and portability” i.e. what we as a country has always expected of our education and what the system has been delivering consistently over its entire history.

Competency Works, an international organization dedicated to catalyzing the transformation of K-12 education, together with a 100 leaders in competency education came together in 2011 to develop a working definition of Competency Based Education. That working definition encompasses five (5) elements. The first element is that students advance only upon demonstrated mastery, i.e. you do not go on to learning objective II until the learner has demonstrated that they have mastered learning objective I, regardless as to how long that takes. The second element is that competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students. Thirdly, assessment is meaningful and a positive experience for students i.e., formative assessments are emphasized so that teachers better understand where students have misconceptions. Fourthly, in this CBE system of schooling students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual needs. The final pillar of a CBE system is that learning outcomes emphasizes competencies that involve applications and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions. In other words, Competency Based Education is about mastery, pacing and individualized instruction.

Although there are many synonymous terms to competency-based education, such as competency education, proficiency-based education, mastery based learning that was made popular by Benjamin Bloom in the 1960s, and performance based learning, these all refer to mastery, pacing and individualized instruction that leading educators such as Chris Sturgis, Susan Paluda, Linda Pattenger, Brant Davies, Linda Ellison, Brian Cadwell, etc. have described.
But Competency Based Education since its inception in 1968 has often created controversy and confusion, especially with the notion of competency. Jensen (2018) for example indicates that “the language and terminology associated with CBE are too complex, confusing and contradictory”. According to Kerka (2008), “for the critics, the CBE model is excessively reductionist, narrow, rigid, atomized, and theoretically, empirically and pedagogically unsound. The behaviorist breaks down competency into the performance of discrete tasks, identified by functional analysis of work roles.” In my view the most devastating criticism of Competence Based Education has come from Elliott (2013) when he said: “CBE strategies, although now somewhat discredited in the academic domain, continue to linger in the political domain as an ideological device for eliminating value issues from the domains of professional practice and thereby subordinating them to political forms of control” (p.496). For Hokinson and Dissit, this marginalization or disconnection of the teaching profession’s ethical values and principles will make the teacher much more vulnerable to managerial policies of market-oriented influences. According to this view, with CBE the teacher in the future may simply become a commodity.

Though as an educator I personally support this MOE’s initiative, I do not do so without reservation as these considerations above illustrate the complexity of the debate on Competency Based Education. While opponents claim that CBE is just a manifestation of a conservative political agenda, its supporters see CBE as a political tool to change such agendas. There is no doubt that analyzing and reflecting on the consequences and benefits of CBE is a necessary task before selecting or rejecting the approach. Identifying the weaknesses and pitfalls of the CBE model at the beginning of the curricula design or renewal provides an opportunity for those who are leading the curricula change to avoid mistakes. At Galen we are ready for this change because this has been our approach under the leadership of Provost Aird. Analyzing and reflecting on the issues associated with the selection and implementation of a CBE curriculum, from my perspective, is an indispensable part of responsible and thoughtful decision making.

In the column below do feel free to challenge any or all of the issues raised above in this piece and let’s get the national dialogue of Competency Based Education going.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.


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