Saturday, January 21, 2012

Follow the Web of Competencies Toward Personal and Professional Fulfillment!

There's an excellent piece at Forbes by Daniel Jelski on re-architecting the higher education system.  As I was commenting on it, I realized that there's something implied in the Open Education Manifesto that I should have spent a bit more time on.

We tend to think of education in terms of classes or courses:  "Third grade Math". "Western Civilization", "High School Chemistry".  "Nineteenth Century Romantic Poetry".  But that's mostly a convenience for an outdated form of educational record keeping.  When you peel off the cover of these courses, you find that they're a shorthand for a particular bag of competencies.  Some of the competencies are obvious.  For instance, in third grade math, you learn to multiply multi-digit numbers.  In Western Civ, you learn a set of facts about classical civilizations, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc.  But there are other things you learn that aren't as easily quantified but may be more valuable.  For instance, in order to multiply two four-digit numbers together, you have to have a slightly larger coding span than you did to learn your arithmetic facts.  To understand Western Civ, you have to infer the role of demographic migration in shaping societies.  Neither of these skills will ever show up as the title of a unit in a syllabus for the course, but they are more broadly applicable than the knowledge imparted in the course itself.

Your education teaches you not only static knowledge but a set of behaviors.  The knowledge is often essential for correctly executing the behaviors, but the behaviors are what your eventual employer is looking for.  In short, the employer doesn't want to know what classes you took.  He wants to know a list of things you're competent to do.

A couple months back, there were a spate of posts (here, here, and here) that pointed back to a paper by Lauren Rivera, who researched hiring practices at super-elite organizations (high-end financial firms, white-shoe law firms, etc.)  The key takeaway was that elite firms tended to hire only from super-elite universities, often from as few as four universities, not because they thought that the curriculum or educational quality was significantly better, but because acceptance into those universities was interpreted as a signal that the applicant possessed exceptional qualities.  In other words, the firms were outsourcing their applicant screening to the admissions departments of the super-elite schools.

At the bottom of all of this is a very simple fact:  Hiring excellent candidates out of school is a crapshoot, because there is no objective way to determine the candidate's actual competency in the tasks for which he's being hired.  There are two huge problems here.  First, the actual performance of companies is significantly reduced because a fair percentage of new hires don't work out.  Second, and more important from a societal standpoint, access to elite jobs is highly constrained by acceptance to elite universities, which in turn is a consequence of the applicants fitting an extremely narrow set of criteria.  And those criteria seem to be inculcated best when your parents had the same educational background.  This has profound negative effects on social mobility.  Per Scott Winship:

...evidence indicates that American children born since the 1950s have had lower educational mobility than children in Sweden and other Western nations. And recent research indicates that the link between parental income and educational advantages on one hand and child academic outcomes on the other is stronger in the United States than in other Western countries. So it may be that higher pay for better slots and narrower opportunities to occupy the best slots both now contribute to lower earnings mobility in the United States.
Megan McArdle concludes from this:

You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull?  But does it matter?  As an editor at The Economist once noted to me, it's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic.  An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall.  [An] aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.  

And self-legitimating.  The old aristocracy was, I think, at least dimly aware that it wasn't quite fair for them to have what they had by mere virtue of being born to the right parents. But in the new aristocracy, it is rarely enough to just get born to the right parents; you also have to work very hard.  (Higher earning men are now more likely to work more than 50 hours a week than are men in lower earnings quintiles.)  Whatever the systemic injustices, it's also quite clear to everyone . . . even parasitic leeches of investment bankers . . . that their salaries only come as the result of frantic effort.  

The ability of one's parents to confer such enduring advantages is obviously unfair.  And while I don't want to say that a society cannot last that way--obviously, many have, for hundreds of years--I don't think it's healthy for society.  It is hard to get civic engagement, or respect for the law, when the bottom 40% or so feels that the game is rigged.
This is a hell of a social consequence for what is essentially a data collection deficiency.  The hiring managers at these companies are not idiots; if they have access to data that allows them to get a higher hit rate from new hires than they would by looking for good schools on the resumes, they'll use it.  And the really sad fact is that they know exactly what they're looking for.  With only a little reflection, I'm sure that they could reel off a set of attributes that their perfect new-hire would have.  If only they had the data!

In an open education environment, there's absolutely no need to lump multiple competencies into a single piece of courseware.  And even if they are lumped together, the testing and record-keeping for them is easy to separate.  As a result, hiring managers can get exactly what they're looking for.

There's another potential advantage to fine-grained competency records:  They're a pedagogical goldmine.  Imagine a web of competencies, ordered by prerequisites, starting in early childhood and extending through the life of each indvidual.  It starts with walking and talking and proceeds up through a set of motor skills, also through shapes, colors, numbers, and letters, then on into the set of academic skills learned in elementary school.  But you don't have to just include academic skills.  Physcial education and social skills could also be mapped and tested.

The result of such fine-grained, exhaustive record-keeping will almost certainly show that children that have difficulty with more advanced competencies have patterns of difficulty with more elementary skills.  This will allow earlier invervention and remediation.  It will also almost certainly allow teachers to classify children into various learning styles and allow optimal teaching methods and courseware to be applied to each child.

As children enter high school a good guidance counselor today uses experience, intuition, and testing to begin to feed students into educational paths that will ultimately result in a rewarding job for which the individual is well-suited.  To say that the success of modern guidance counselors is less than stellar would be an understatement. But full competency records would take most of the guesswork out of this process, allowing students to enhance their strengths with sets of more advanced competencies that depend on those strengths.  This process can continue throughout secondary education and on into higher education.

Except in this model, there is no higher education.  There is merely a process of continuous enhancement, leading ultimately to a career.  When the individual transitions from student to worker is now merely a function of where the chain of competencies for which he's suited--and best enjoys--finally qualifies him as a valuable employee.

Let's now think about an individual in an entry level job.  He has that job because he's attained good scores on the competencies required by the job.  But this individual is ambitious, and wants to move the next step up the ladder to a job with more responsibility.  Because that job also has the competency requirements listed, he know exactly what additional education--or on-the-job experience--he needs to acquire.  Investments in continuing education therefore become highly focused and require a minimum of additional expense.  No more taking course that lead nowhere.

Even more important, the same process applies for displaced or dissatisfied workers.  If it turns out you hate your job, or your career has just evaporated because a robot can do it better than you can, you're going to want to acquire the minimum new set of competencies that will qualify you for a job that meets your temperamental and remunerative requirements.  Furthermore, your past history can provide a good indication of how likely you are to be successful if you choose retraining toward a particular career.  Competency-based education therefore retrains displaced workers in the minimum amount of time, at a minimum expense, while simultaneously maximizing the chances of success.

Human beings are complex animals, exhibiting a complex set of interacting behaviors.  But the number of behaviors associated with each individual is measured in the high hundreds or low thousands, not in the tens or hundreds of thousands.  It is well within our current technology to enumerate those behaviors, organize them into logical progressions of new skills, and guide children and adults through those skills to attain employment that makes the best use of each individual's talents.  The world is turning into a scary place, with technology steamrolling workers faster than the workers can keep up.  Competency-based education and record-keeping provides a way to remove some of the fear from life in world growing ever more complex.

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