For some time now, I have been having some reservations about the effectiveness and value of the competency based form of assessment that my paymasters have asked that I use in my class of older English as a second language (ESL) learners.
For starters, I don’t think that I am that competent to give what is generally called an objective “competency standard.” A number of items in a portfolio, including can-do lists, which by themselves seem to put too much pressure on older learners, still leave me questioning myself: What is my standard of competence? And am I assessing my students against my standard of competence? And not what I think they can do? Is the notion of competency superseding everything else in class? The questions keep popping up. And the more they do, the less competent I feel.
The main advantage of a competency based education is that it is a personalized, student focused endeavour. An individual is given every opportunity to learn step by step at his or her pace; no one is lumped into one module or semester. (In trade and vocational schools, the competency based assessment seems to work well; learners master one aspect of something before proceeding to another aspect. It is more doing; competencies matter. The subject matter is not important. Subjects such as history, government, and civics, I think, need be taught to maintain a common culture—the strength of our democracy). I would certainly be happy to see my learners be competent in the entire tasks they would encounter outside the classroom. My concern is that there is never the time (or if otherwise, I hope my colleagues would tell me how they find the time) to prepare individual learning plans for each and every learner. How do you identify each competency, its necessary accompanying skills, and its complimentary activities? Also, it’s trying to assess a whole class while they are doing certain tasks. How about portfolio keeping? All that, it seems, is a very tall order.
But I am still pushing on.
In the meantime, my older adults are in no rush, I must confess, to move from one level to another. The majority are not preparing for the labour market or academia. I work from the themes and the topics that were identified at the beginning of the term. I add new ones because we have continuous intake and external assessment. Lessons are prepared and spiralled to incorporate new topics and the four basic skills. Is all going well? No.
For starters, it is apparent that the present competency based form of education does not factor in affective factors such as self-esteem, self-confidence, and motivation. Not all mature students, it seems, enjoy the instructor simply as a facilitator. And not all of them, so it appears, want the individualized, personalized approach. Many seem to want to learn simply as a sort of fulfilment, an intrinsic desire for more knowledge, not the acquisition of skills, or an external behavioural objective. The can do expectation that comes from competency based assessment seems to wants to override everything else. What I find most disquieting, or ironic, is that I am expected to have learners master a skill, an objectivist, behaviourialist outcome at that, in a learner-centred environment, one that is supposed to be social and democratic. Equally ironic is that in their quest to get positive results, many students tend to ask for more teacher-directed lessons.
It has been demonstrated that the competency based form of assessment, which is now trendy, is useful to validate basic skills in job situations, set achievement levels in trade and vocational schools, create global standardization and licencing benchmarks for trades and industries, and summative assessment in general. Essentially, it helps learners know work-related tasks and problems before using them at work. However, when it is used in the context of older ESL learners, serious questions arise about its validity and effectiveness. I find it very difficult and time consuming. It is demanding of older adults who don’t see value in it, are too focused on results and, most importantly, an inherent contradiction in the whole context: a behaviourialist, authoritarian outcome expected from a democratic learner–centred context.
What do you think?
After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board. He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University. He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.