CBTE: A Philosophy, Not a Model, Part 4

October 29, 2018

Last week we started talking about the nature of power in higher education.  We identified that power or control of the educational process exists on at least four levels: accreditation, institution, and curriculum, and assessment.  This week, we are taking a closer look at two specific changes that might help: distributing sources of input and assessment.

In the context of a seminary, the curriculum is owned by the faculty in the sense that faculty, often those with PhDs in particular disciplines, have the power to define what goes into the curriculum thereby defining what students will do during their educational journeys.

In most cases, this means defining the specific books, assignments, courses, instructors, pace, medium for learning.  The challenge with this approach is that it privileges those within the institution and puts the faculty and institution in a privileged place as the keepers of pedagogical truth.  CBTE, on the other hand, requires the faculty to invite new voices into the curriculum development process not as consultants but as vital contributors with equal voice and vote.

As we build a journey of theological education predicated on the demonstration of knowledge, character, and ability as they relate to holistic and integrated outcomes, we begin to see how institutions and faculty do not have all of the skills, viewpoints, or knowledge to adequately imagine such a journey.  Once we add the value of organic discipleship into the mix, we also learn that defining a particular pathway is an act of power and control.  CBTE requires us to not only invite voices other than our own in the development of curriculum, but also mandates that the students, while in the midst of a journey, are empowered to suggest additions, subtractions, or adjustments to the curriculum.  That brings us to the point about assessment.

In order for us to invite all of these voices, including the student’s, into the development and ongoing adjustment of one’s education, I believe we are called to reconsider the nature, purpose, and practice of assessment.  Traditionally, the faculty plays the role of assessor.  In some cases, for example field education or experiential learning, other voices are invited to provide feedback.  Such voices may carry some level of “weight” regarding the final assessment of the student, but often the value an institution places on those voices pales in comparison to the value of assessment conducted by faculty with terminal degrees (usually a specialist in a given field related to the particular type of assessment).  CBTE, on the other hand, invites us to think more broadly about how we do assessment, why we do it, and who is involved.

When assessing integrated outcomes that require students to develop knowledge, character, and ability that is demonstrated in the context of one’s life, vocation, and faith, I believe we must distribute the power of assessment by inviting a community of people to evaluate and assess the progress that students are making.  In particular, we need people who see the student act upon what they are learning, people who see how the student’s development is being revealed in their way of conducting themselves in their relationships, as well as faculty who see the student work through a variety of educational disciplines.  Finally, students and their peers must be involved as well.  All of this must be done in the context of a relationship rather than through standardized assignments or point-in-time assessment.  That is to say, students must have a community of individuals walking with them through the entire educational journey who are simultaneously encouraging, evaluating, and challenging them along the way.  At Sioux Falls Seminary, we call that group of people a mentor team.

The mentor team plays a vital role in the ongoing development, education, formation, and assessment of students.  Together with the faculty, a ministry mentor and personal mentor walk alongside a student developing a relationship with her, evaluating her, encouraging her, and challenging her.  In this team, the power of curriculum development and assessment is distributed in a powerful and dynamic way.  Using the institution’s curriculum and outcomes as a guide, the team, in conversation with the student, adapts the journey to fit the context and vocation of the student.  The team shares the role of “assessor” and equal voice is given to each member.  In doing so, the student is challenged in ways never before possible.  Through this relational approach, students are no longer receiving one-way performance evaluation in a class but rather feedback, direction, and assessment from multiple angles – and each angle has equal power.

I have only begun to scratch the surface of how CBTE invites us to address the traditional power dynamics within education.  I am sure there is more that could be said and some may worry that such a shift will diminish the “quality” of education provided through CBTE.  The data on student learning through this approach would say otherwise.  By distributing the power of curriculum development and assessment, student learning improves.  Perhaps more exciting is that students learn how to own their development journey and how to invite others into that process.

Another question I often receive is, “If we are focusing on helping students demonstrate integrated learning outcomes rather than assuming A+B+C = Degree, and if we distribute power in such a way that faculty no longer have sole ownership of curriculum and assessment, then what is the role of faculty?”  That sounds like a great topic for next week!

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