Building a Bridge from 21st Century Learners to 21st Century Earners

Competency-Based Learning

Building a Bridge from 21st Century Learners to 21st Century Earners

By Sajan George     May 31, 2017

Building a Bridge from 21st Century Learners to 21st Century Earners

This article is part of the guide: Real Life Learning: An Up Close Look at Competency-Based Education.

Millennials are expected to change jobs or employers four times in their first ten years after college graduation. By age 40, they’ll likely have shown up for work with between 10 and 15 employers. This means that our future workforce should expect to have seasons of work, non-work, as well as periods of looking for work in between.

Consider the implications this has for the nature of work in adulthood.

Significantly, current and future employees will need to be fluid in a set of skills typically associated with entrepreneurship. Work will be organized around short bursts of defined project scopes, and non-work periods will be characterized by intensive periods of research, marketing and possible funding and cash flow management.

This does not mean that every adult will or must become an entrepreneur. It does mean, however, that entrepreneurial skill sets will move from the margins associated with a rare percentage of the population to the mainstream—as more professionals tap into these competencies in their job searches.

Consider the implications this has for the nature of education in childhood.

Children will need to master skills and competencies relevant to this emerging world of work. Specifically, they will need to understand how to reflect on their learning choices, which in turn inform their passions, which in turn trigger motivation, desire, and effort.

We often think about competency-based learning as an input—a method of instruction that is mastery based and not time-based. In fact, many CBE practitioners today are excited about this approach because it makes intuitive sense to them and drives their particular school or classroom instructional practices. The input is both powerful and leverageable.

However, what if we thought about competency-based learning primarily as an output—as demonstrated proficiency? How would we describe competency-based learners? What are they skilled at and accomplished in? What should such a competency-based learner be able to achieve, regardless of topic?

I would suggest that students proficient in competency-based learning should be able to:

  1. Identify what they want to learn
  2. Know how they would prefer to learn it
  3. Create pathways to their learning
  4. Assess when their learning is complete
  5. Produce evidence of what they learned
  6. Improve and iterate on what they learned

These are the competencies of a 21st-century learner.

Now re-read the six competencies above and replace the word “learn” with “earn”. You will see that they are the very same competencies that we would want to see in a 21st-century earner—in other words, a productive citizen able to navigate the changing needs of an on-demand, globalized, continuously outsourcing and automating economy.

In the latter part of the 20th century, college provided students a bridge from poverty to self-sufficiency. However, this bridge was often out of reach—financially, socially or aspirationally—to generations of children without the means that their middle and upper-class peers took for granted.

Given that recent grads traverse multiple employers in the decade after leaving college, what is the value of this intensive four-year college bridge? I suggest that the value of a four-year, non-competency-based, point-in-time academic degree is diminishing in value rapidly in terms of its’ ability to prepare students for 21st-century work and signal to employers each student’s unique skills and potential.

But I have hope. If the bridge out of poverty shifts from a focus on what school you can get into, and moves instead towards demonstrating what you know . . . this feels, well, more fair. It feels more just. It feels more equitable. Demonstrated competency is less the hallmark of a fancy institution and more the DNA of any institution that embraces a new way of learning for a new kind of outcome.

We must embrace competency-based learning not only as an input but also as an output. If we do, we will both prepare students for life and teach them how to access the life they desire.

Perhaps we should reframe competency-based learning even further. It is more than an input. It is more than an output. It is a generational poverty eradication machine. If we view competency-based learning as both the means and hope of a life without poverty—and at scale, a society without poverty—then perhaps we will embrace its full potential and thereby also unlock that potential. This is my hope.

Sajan George is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Matchbook Learning.

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