CBTE: A Philosophy, Not a Model, Part 2

October 15, 2018

Last week, we began a conversation about competency-based theological education (CBTE).  We explored a bit of its history and how I believe it opens new possibilities given how it is different than much of what exists in the wider world of competency-based education (CBE).
Today, we are going to dive a bit deeper into this topic by talking about the organic nature of learning, human development, and discipleship.

To refresh your memory, here is an excerpt from last week:
Competency-based theological education has the potential to call us back to a form of education that values the role of 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.

That last sentence is the starting point for this week.  I contend that the inclusion of the “T” in CBTE has a deep impact on how this philosophy of education is lived out in the context of a seminary.  Yes, CBTE overlaps greatly with CBE and obviously has a shared history wherein the focus on mastery of learning outcomes plays an important role.  Another shared, and foundational, value of CBE and CBTE is that learning must be flexible enough to adapt to each student’s pace of learning, something Bloom pointed out in 1968.

When looking at a Master of Divinity, a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership, or even a Master of Arts in Counseling provided by a seminary, we must embrace the organic nature of discipleship, community formation, and more.  To put it another way, mastery of learning outcomes within CBTE must not only account for one’s pace of learning but also for one’s context, culture, spiritual journey, community of faith, and movement of the Spirit.

As we have said before, this reality is at the heart of why Sioux Falls Seminary uses Kairos as the name of our CBTE track.  The attention paid to “moments in time” is the foundational principle of Kairos.  While I am obviously biased in my opinion, I also think it serves as a foundational principle of CBTE.

If we look through Scripture, we find God uses these moments in time to develop within the people of Israel, the disciples, the apostles, and the early church a deeper understanding of what it means to be citizens of the Kingdom who are walking alongside of each other as they follow God into mission.  To say this in a less cumbersome way, God gives us several examples of how moments in time naturally encourage integrated learning.  We also see how these moments in time sometimes reinforce each other (i.e. Acts 9 with Cornelius and Acts 15 with the Jerusalem Council).  Discipleship is not a linear process.  It is organic in that we can’t define a path that everyone will take, how long it will take, or how different experiences or learning will impact various people.  If we are honest with ourselves, I think we would admit most of adult learning theory over the past number of years would say the same thing about mastery learning with adults.

Herein lies an extremely important principle, and challenge, about CBTE.  The systems that support CBTE must empower students and their faith communities to journey through the process in a very organic way while also being able to provide structure, intentionality, and focus.  This requires more than adaptive learning technology or software that responds to students based on their knowledge and aptitude.  In addition to those wonderful tools, this new world of CBTE requires us to imagine systems that encourage and value holistic, integrated, and general assessment as much, if not more, than task specific and analytical assessment. Both types are important.  Only holistic and integrated assessment enables us to embrace organic progression through outcomes and discrete competencies.

Here’s an example.
Sioux Falls Seminary could create a CBTE system that allows students to complete competencies at any time by allowing them to choose when they want to work on a specific learning outcomes.  If the student is going to be preaching sometime in the next month, she could choose to work on the “preaching” competency during the month leading up to the day that she is going to preach.  The system could even allow her to expedite her journey through that competency by taking account of prior learning and experience with preaching.  In fact, all of this could be automated through software with a few assessments done here and there by humans.  This approach is flexible, responsive to the needs of the student, and even accounts for her pace of learning.  We might even be able to refer to it as organic.  I would argue, however, that it isn’t quite what we need with CBTE.

Here’s the challenge.
Such an approach does not account for many of the nuances present within the context of ministry.  The faith community in which she is preaching is unique.  It has a character of its own, and the relationships she has (or doesn’t have) within that community greatly impact what she says, how it is received, and even how it is assessed.  In the example above, “mastery” is going to be assessed by her progression through specified learning activities.  Even if those activities are assessed by a team of people (rather than the software itself), they will not be able to account for the important learning that takes place in the act of preaching within that specific faith community.  Our systems need to account for the fact that even if she completed the “preaching” competency, she may not actually reach the integrated outcome of which preaching is a part.  Preaching cannot be viewed as a standalone competency.  Rather it is an experience that informs one’s journey of discipleship.  We need to be about the development and assessment of integrated outcomes that allow organic progression through learning experiences.  Simply have the “preaching” competency is not enough.  Learning in the context of a seminary cannot be reduced to discrete assignments, objectives, or competencies.

Obviously, this is true in areas outside of theological education.  In our work, however, I believe the complex and organic nature of discipleship must be a guiding principle.  If it is going to be a guiding principle, I think we may need to have a few conversations about power dynamics in education.  Let’s save that for next week!

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