CBTE: A Philosophy, Not a Model, Part 1

October 8, 2018

CBTE is an acronym that stands for competency-based theological education.  It was developed as a way to distinguish what is happening in theological education from what is happening in the broader world of competency-based higher education.

On November 5 and 6, 2018, I will be speaking at CBTE 2018, a conference focused competency-based theological education.  Over the course of two days, there will be plenary sessions and workshops of all types.  I am looking forward to being there, sharing a bit about what we have discovered, and learning from others interested in this topic.  If the future of theological education is something that interests you, or if you want to learn more about CBTE, I strongly encourage you to register.

When I was invited to speak, the organizers of the conference asked what topics were of the most interest to me.  The first one that came to mind was the fact that CBTE is a philosophy, not simply a model, of education.  That distinction is an important aspect of our journey here at Sioux Falls Seminary and even my personal journey over the past ten years.

CBTE fits within the broad heading of outcome-based education (OBE).  OBE got its start in the 1970s and grew out of a desire to build educational programs that produced in students the results promised in a specific program.  This was an important development in the history of educational design for it signaled the birth of an entire area of research and study focused on assessing the outcomes of learning.  Rather than assuming that learning happened by default through courses, OBE required us to think critically about what educators were trying to accomplish.

Combined with the growth of research on adult learning and andragogy, OBE gave way to entirely new models of education.  One of those was competency-based education.  In competency-based education, students work towards discrete learning goals in order to demonstrate mastery or competence in a given area.  More than just exhibiting skills, demonstrating competence in an area meant students exhibited certain skills, knowledge, and dispositions or attitudes.

All of this is good.

It is good to use outcomes as the starting point rather than the assumed ending.  The clarity of competencies helps delineate learning goals along the way to outcomes.  Unfortunately, the potential of these new approaches has been stifled by the fact that we often seek to force them into modern understandings of education.

Here’s an example.  Prior to competency-based theological education, schools divided knowledge into disciplines and disciplines into courses and courses into weeks or modules within the academic calendar.  We assumed that if students participated in the courses, thereby collecting knowledge and skills, they would learn what was needed.

In short, we divided a Master of Divinity into a series of courses (Course A, Course B, etc.). Students passed Course A, Course B, Course C, then Course D, and so on.  We assumed courses A + B + C + D = Master of Divinity.

Outcome-based education attempted to challenge this by saying that we can’t assume A + B + C + D = Master of Divinity.  Instead, we needed to start by defining the desired outcomes of the Master of Divinity and move backwards.  Most schools still used courses and credit hours as the building blocks.

Competency-based education provided a new building block within the outcome-based approach.  Students collected competencies on their way to outcomes.  Therein lies the problem.

In most of the cases I have seen, competency-based education still functions using the formula A + B + C + D = Master of Divinity.  The difference is that competency-based education replaces courses with competencies.  Courses are collections of learning experiences and assignments that students are required to complete in order to pass a given course.

Competencies have become the same thing.  Both have the tendency to be reductionistic. That is to say that both assume we can reduce learning into its component parts, require students to gather those parts, and then, when they have gathered all the pieces, the whole will be the same as the sum of the discombobulated parts.

That simply isn’t true.

Aristotle knew this when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and contemporary authors like Parker Palmer describe the pitfalls of this kind of thinking.

That is why we need a new philosophy.  However, I’m not sure how new it is.  It could be that we need to reclaim a lost philosophy?

Competency-based theological education has the potential to call us back to a form of education that values the role relationships, both with God and with each other.  At its core, it is a philosophy of education that invites us to let go of our assumptions about learning, to humbly critique our long held ways of knowing, and to embrace the development of learners as a truly organic, spirit-filled, process of discipleship.

Without embracing the philosophy and the far-reaching implications of it, a model of competency-based theological education runs the risk of being a fresh façade for the modern forms of education that are crumbling all around us.

Over the next few weeks, I will share a few examples of how this is lived out in practice at Sioux Falls Seminary. If you’d like to hear even more, feel free to attend CBTE 2018.

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