I remember nervously sitting through one of my early planning meetings during my first job as a public school teacher. The topic was testing and how we could be more effective at teaching to it, as well as preparing our students to take tests. The message was clear: Pass the tests or suffer the consequences.
Unfortunately, my early years of instruction were heavily influenced by my need to develop learning experiences that ended with a test. Now, I’m not trying to refute the value of assessment — understanding individuals’ level of aptitude and establishing standards on which they can be compared and understood is a powerful step in the overall learning journey.
My concern is that all too often, that’s where that journey ends. For me, the discussion has shifted to one of competency, not just mastery. I also have found that since my focus has shifted in these areas, student buy-in and the overall organizational engagement in the learning I have tried to provide have increased dramatically.
For the sake of this column, let me clarify the difference (to me) between mastery and competency. Mastery is reaching a certain level of understanding of a particular content area. It is often knowledge-based and measured through testing.
For instance, in my domain of teaching IT skills, I wanted to assess students’ mastery of a particular class or topic I taught. What skills can they remember? Can they hit the right keys? Do they have a conceptual understanding of key topics and focus areas?
Measuring competency would be an assessment of their ability to apply what they have mastered — it’s not only how much was retained or remembered but their ability to take that knowledge and make it applicable on the job.
Mastery and competency clearly need to work hand in hand for learners to become productive. The problem with many learning programs is that we are well-steeped in theory, curriculum and offerings that drive to mastery, but we fall short in participating and supporting the journey to competency.
It’s often hard to sell and elicit engagement for learning programs with a heavy emphasis on mastery. From the learners’ perspective, these programs are not seen as realistic or of true value. It’s wonderful to earn a certificate or be recognized for having participated in a learning event, but as far as learners are concerned, if that experience has no relevance to what they do, or if the learning is not seen as making them better at their job, fewer individuals will find the time or desire to engage.
We need to do a better job of balancing our current learning assets. To clarify, a learning asset is any environment or modality a learner uses to learn.
The first step to achieving a more balanced portfolio is to understand your current offerings. Every learning organization needs to do a learning-asset analysis to better understand how its learners grow through formal and informal instruction.
When performing this analysis, do not limit yourself to your own learning domain — get out among the masses and better understand the tools they use in achieving competency. Don’t be surprised if many of the strategies and tools you discover are ones the learning department did not create or does not support. Allow everything to make the list because the more we understand the complete learning landscape, the better we’ll be at helping learners architect and develop effective strategy.
As an industry, we have spent years perfecting mastery. Our classes and instructional designs are tested and validated. For many of us, the next step in the journey is to better support competency with equally effective strategies and tools. When our programs are seen as supporting both, we will achieve an unprecedented level of success.