Principles of CBTE: Customized Mastery
February 1, 2021
by Greg Henson, President
In today’s post, we are going to look at what it means to customize one’s journey toward and demonstration of mastery. This builds on our previous reviews of collaborative mission, mentored teamwork, and contextualized discipleship.
Mastery can be an intimating word. Do we ever really “master” anything? All of us should be invested in a process of ongoing learning and development so in that sense we never “master” something. At the same time, however, there is a goal or destination for each portion of a journey we take. Like most things in the CBTE philosophy we call Kairos, we begin with the end in mind. In Kairos, we call those outcomes.
Each program in Kairos has a set of outcomes (i.e. integrated learning goals) that have been developed and refined over the course of many years through conversations with a wide range of people, contexts, and Christian traditions. While these outcomes are shared by all who participate in Kairos, the principle of customized mastery embraces the fact that the path people take to arrive at those outcomes will be quite varied.
This variation is quite noticeable when working as we do in Kairos with students, partners, faculty, and mentors from 30 different countries and 70 different denominations. In such a community, it seems obvious that there would be many different vocational contexts and goals. The principle of customized mastery would call us to note, however, that extensive variation can exist even within relatively closed or connected systems like a single denomination, local church, nonprofit, or business. The reality is that definitions of mastery are contextually defined and that the understanding of context extends to one’s role within a particular setting. In addition, one’s context and call are shaped and formed by current and historical forces.
As a result, customized mastery is an invitation to adaptive learning that builds from one learning opportunity to another along a pathway that can twist and turn or even back upon itself when necessary. This is a significant departure from conventional programs that define a path or set of courses that must be completed by each and every student – regardless of prior learning, areas of deficiency, or contextual fit.
The principle of customized mastery is an invitation to many practices, three of which I will highlight today. They are: 1) defining mastery in light of one’s vocation, context, and call, 2) encouraging learner agency, and 3) embracing the fact that no one is a blank slate or a finished product.
Customized mastery is rooted in the idea that definitions of proficiency, excellence, mastery, competency (whatever word you might want to use) are shaped and formed by one’s vocational community. As such, it is vital that the community plays a role in defining mastery for the student. Traditionally, schools tend to define mastery or excellence and then impose that definition on everyone in a given program. Such a practice may make sense when students are coming from and participating in a common vocation and context (i.e. all students are the same age, have the same educational background, are from the same cultural context and upbringing, plan to engage in the same vocation within a particular geographic or cultural setting, etc.).
Obviously, that is not usually what happens.
Instead, participants enter into an educational or discipleship journey with a wide array of vocational goals and have been formed and shaped by an even wider array of backgrounds and cultural realities. As such, we would do well to honor, listen to, and embrace the unique contextual realities of everyone in Kairos. In doing so, we refrain from superimposing a monolithic definition of mastery which emanates from a community that is foreign to the student. In short, one’s definitions of mastery should account for the context, vocation, and broader community of which she is a part.
In order to define mastery well, we must also encourage what some refer to as learner agency. Historically, programs have given students a checklist of activities to complete, books to read, resources to engage, and class sessions to attend. Independently, each of these can be good. As a collection, they tend to reinforce the idea that learning is something that must be guided by “experts” or a syllabus. Unfortunately, this creates a dependency situation wherein learners tend not to develop the self-discipline and information literacy needed to flourish in one’s vocation and walk with Christ. Mastering self-discipline is, in fact, part of the Kairos learning journey itself. Customized mastery, as a practice, helps students grow in their ability to not only learn but also to continue learning. In doing so, we (the school, the student, the mentors, the faculty, and the vocational context) become confident that demonstrations of mastery or proficiency are not “point-in-time snapshots” but rather repeatable expressions of learning.
This approach also allows the student and mentor team to respond to learning opportunities in real time, whether or not those opportunities were produced by a faculty or included in the curriculum. Customized mastery embraces the idea that we can make adjustments without needing to create an unending list of programs, tracks, specializations, and pieces of content produced by the school. Rather, with learner agency as a foundational skill, these nuances and adaptations can be addressed through the way mentors alter the journey in order to serve the particular need and interest of the student.
Blank Slate/Finished Product
Another important aspect of customized mastery flows from the fact that everyone who invites Kairos to walk with them on their journey of discipleship is neither a blank slate nor a finished product.
No one comes to this journey of discipleship empty handed. All of us have prior experiences that have shaped and impacted us in some way. Those experiences could include jobs, degrees, workshops, conferences, relationships, self-guided learning endeavors, projects, mission trips and more. Everyone enters Kairos with some level of competence, prior learning, or even mastery as it relates to any particular outcome. We must customize the educational journey in light of this reality. Conventional programs tend to require a one-size-fits-all approach that asks every student to grind out every piece, whether or not these various assignments are useful or necessary to the student’s display of mastery. Kairos allows mentors to recognize mastery, celebrating such, and move on to other areas of greater concern.
Just as no one comes to this journey of discipleship empty handed, no one's journey is ever complete. Each of us is always growing and learning. While an individual theological tradition or vocational context might define "growth" differently than another, there is always some way in which we can grow. It is here where mentor teams have the opportunity to bring to bear the vast resources of what Stan Grenz referred to as the Great Tradition. With learner agency and contextual definitions of mastery front and center, mentor teams are able to help students see where they have already demonstrated mastery and where they have room to grow; where they have a robust understanding of how their faith integrates with their vocation and where understanding and discipleship can be enriched.
In our experience, customized mastery is one of the most challenging principles of CBTE to fully understand, embrace, and practice. The gravitational pull toward conventional definitions and practices is extremely strong – in part because that approach is seemingly easier, straightforward, and more economical (though it is anything but more economical given the reality of student debt in the United States). Institutional structures, processes, and power dynamics tend to push hard against customized mastery.
In Kairos, we embrace customized mastery because it allows us to meet people where they are and to walk with them as they discover what God has in store. This flexibility empowers students and mentor teams to build a journey of discipleship that is affordable, accessible, relevant, and faithful.
Join me next week as we jump into the principle of integrated outcomes!