The Challenge of Competency

The Unmeasured Learning

This past week I was talking with one of my aunts who worked in education for something like 30 years, and she observed that one of the most essential skills students learned in her school was how to function in a society. Perhaps one could also note that they learn to meet deadlines, follow through with commitments, and (from a negative perspective) learn how to conform to arbitrary expectations even without understanding why. These may all be considered competencies, but few schools measure them. Why?

Secondly, there are competencies of the head, the heart, and the hands (Waldorf schools understand this well) but usually, assessments only consider the first category. Dancers and chess players have two completely different skill sets, but in school the only thing that counts is how well they move their fingers on a keyboard to form words and sentences with proper grammar and APA formatting. [courtesy link to Purdue OWL here!]


Investors already know it’s a bad idea to “put all your eggs in one basket,” but formal education still has to wake up to the fact that a human being is more than just a walking brain – or at least figure out some way to measure academic growth besides standardized tests!

Until we begin to value a broader diversity of skills than remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create (limited mostly to mental operations), it will be difficult to persuade anyone to design a learning experience around competency. In some ways, this is a catch 22, but as noted already, students are learning many things in school that do not get assessed. You value what you measure, which is why my proposal is one of seeking a measurement system for competency before developing an instructional system for competency.

Why It Matters

For example, in entrepreneurship, punctuality, personality, patience, persistence, poise, and power structures may all have a more profound influence on the future success of the student than performing well on a test. In my own experience with marketing, I learned about the 4 P’s (now Google says it’s 7) so many times in my courses, but then I struggled to put them into practice because they were de-contextualized…even in my theoretical applications of the framework to fake examples required by my written exams and final papers.

Content ≠ Competency

What if instead of asking me to re-explain the theory, I had been assigned to help a non-profit organization improve their marketing. I would have probably found and used the 4 p’s in the design of my plan, but I would have learned so many of the other things necessary for competency in marketing that it could have become a career option instead of just another word on my diploma!

DISCLAIMER: Although most of my undergraduate career was spent sitting in a chair, I did learn with an innovative professor who designed a class around our work as a team to market for an upcoming non-profit event…probably one of the most engaging and practical learning experiences of my college career.

For further reading on the idea of messy “wicked” problems and the challenges of implementing a competency-based educational program, check out this wonderfully readable academic article by Jacob Oyugi at

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