The CBT decade: Teaching for flexibility and adaptability - An overview

By Stephen Billett, Charlie McKavanagh, Fred Beven, Lawrence Angus, Terri Seddon, John Gough, Sharon Hayes, Ian Robertson Research report 11 June 1999 ISBN 0 87397 566 9


This is an overview of the report by the same name which looks at how competency-based training has helped to achieve the goal of an adaptable and flexible workforce.


Executive summary

This executive summary presents the key findings of the study, and outlines the contribution competency-based training (CBT) is currently making to the development of an adaptable and flexible workforce. Moreover, it provides a set of recommendations that are intended to contribute to the governmental policy goal of adaptability and flexibility in the workforce.

Key findings

  • A range of factors within the current vocational education provisions was identified as being likely to promote adaptability and flexibility.
  • However, the degree to which CBT itself can be identified as contributing to this outcome is problematic.
  • The contributions of the broader vocational education and training (VET) reform movement, along with the instructional and curriculum practices that existed prior to the introduction of CBT (and which have continued to this time), were more significant to the development of an adaptable and flexible workforce than CBT specifically.

These findings are now elaborated upon below.


Factors identified in the development of curriculum associated with securing adaptability and flexibility were as follows:

  • determination of curriculum intents (aims, goals and objectives) and content involving industry/enterprises assists in making the goals for, and content of, courses relevant
  • currency of teachers' knowledge of the requirements for the workplace assists the development of transferable knowledge in students
  • experience in the workplace is important for students in enabling them to develop knowledge applicable to workplace settings. The development of understanding and higher order procedures is particularly important for workplace performance
  • a combination of instructional approaches (e.g. group learning, self-directed learning, teacher guided activities) provide the student with access to problem-solving skills, the reinforcement of knowledge, opportunities to work with others and access to knowledge which learners cannot discover by themselves. Such outcomes of instruction assist the development of adaptability and flexibility
  • project work, self-directed learning and combinations of on- and off-the-job experiences have the potential to develop in students the forms of knowledge which permit transfer and, hence, adaptability and flexibility


Factors associated with assessing students' attainment of the knowledge required for flexibility and adaptability follow.

  • Performance measures must reflect the complexity, depth, routineness and non-routineness of the vocational activities being assessed.
  • Assessment must include judgements of the ability of students to engage in non-routine activities, more than just routine activities.
  • Assessment must account for situational factors, with validity found in their application. For instance, on-the-job assessment is likely to be useful to indicate validity in terms of authenticity.
  • Dispositional factors (values, attitudes) need to be assessed as they underpin the thinking and acting processes valued by government, industry and enterprises alike.
  • Multiple learning outcomes need to be assessed as they reflect requirements for work practice (e.g. project work as the basis for assessment).

Teachers' work

Factors associated with teachers' work that contribute to the development of this knowledge were identified as follows.

  • Teachers' involvement in selecting and providing appropriate kinds of experiences for students is essential in determining how these experiences are best organised for a given group or individual.
  • Teachers require currency of knowledge about kinds of settings (e.g. different kinds of workplaces) in order to develop appropriate experiences for students.
  • Direct engagement with students is required for teachers in order for them to understand student needs, to organise experiences and to provide guidance appropriate to students' level of development.
  • A broad role is required for teachers in identifying and determining needs at the situational level and responding to those needs.
  • Teachers must value a strong student focus in organising appropriate experiences, tailoring arrangements to the needs of the learner, and providing support and guidance underpinned by currency of knowledge.

Contributions to developing adaptability and flexibility

Associated with these findings, the contributions to developing adaptability and flexibility are identifiable from three sources: (i) CBT itself; (ii) the broader reform movement, and (iii) existing practice, as stated in the following paragraphs.

Contributions of CBT itself

  • Shifting the focus for determining curriculum intents and content to outside the vocational education system has enhanced the relevance of what was taught.
  • Adoption of accreditation and registration processes has pressed for the use of external advice and for teacher currency. These processes have contributed to the enhanced currency of the content as well as the goals for learning.

Contributions of the broader reform movement

  • Increased interactions between providers and enterprises have resulted in the development of clearer goals and content for courses.
  • Increased opportunities for students to engage in workplace experiences have increased their potential to develop appropriate knowledge.
  • Self-paced and text-based learning experiences pressed capable learners into higher orders of learning.
  • Greater emphasis on individualised learning resulted in meeting learners' needs.
  • Broadening of teachers' industry engagement with training through market-based reforms provides a currency for teachers as curriculum makers and instructors.

Contributions of existing practice

  • Teachers' work in addressing students' needs, tailoring curriculum experiences and direct instruction secured positive outcomes for learners.
  • Teachers mediated the limitations of self-paced and text-based instructional activities and their take-up by students.
  • Teachers made links for the students between the classroom and the workplace, hence enhancing the prospect of transfer of knowledge.
  • Teachers' expertise in both content and pedagogy is valued by learners and value-adds the development of the kinds of knowledge required for flexibility and adaptability.
  • Instructional practices such as the use of group work, simulated workplace tasks and problem-solving activities are likely to develop transferable knowledge.

Consistently, it was reported that the quality of educational encounters determined whether adaptability and flexibility are realised in students. It seems that group activities, individualised learning, resource-based activities, project work and teacher guided experiences, as well as combinations of classroom and workplace-based experiences, are likely to deliver outcomes associated with adaptability and flexibility. However, it is the combination of these experiences that are at the core of these outcomes. Hence, it is the quality of the 'enacted curriculum', something managed best by teachers with appropriate pedagogical knowledge and skills, that is central to the quality of learning and the prospect of securing the outcomes desired by industry, enterprise and individuals.

There is limited evidence that CBT itself is directly associated with the development of a skilful and adaptable workforce. Most of the factors identified in this investigation were associated with the broader movement for reform of vocational education and those practices which existed prior to CBT and remain unaffected by it.

Conceptually, the key antagonism between CBT and the development of adaptability and flexibility is vested in CBT's focus on outcomes, rather than process. This distinction raises concerns about educational orientation and practice. This antagonism manifests itself as follows.

  • Standards based upon measurable performance de-emphasise the very processes of thinking and acting which make these performances possible and which can most sensibly inform future performance (e.g. transfer and adaptability).
  • The development of detailed national standards made the prescribed intents of education remote from the circumstances in which student performance was to be judged, thereby denying that local enterprises and individuals may have particular performance requirements.
  • The process of the development of standards did not involve input from the individuals who would have to teach and assess against those standards (e.g. teachers and trainers).
  • The means by which national curriculum prescriptions were imposed upon the training system and its clients was associated with mandation rather than processes consistent with developing teachers' commitment.
  • The importance of approaches to instruction likely to secure skilfulness is downplayed by the need for flexibility in delivery, and learning that focusses on the attainment of measurable performance.
  • The validity of mandated assessment processes must be questioned given their failure to address the qualities associated with adaptability and flexibility, and by the absence of appropriate moderation processes to give consistency in assessment

Put simply, the orientation employed for developing the educational intents denied the very thinking and acting which determined performance. The national focus and the means of implementation also misrepresented the complexity of vocational knowledge, its situatedness, the teaching and assessment of that knowledge, and the basis by which teachers commit themselves to their practice.


The recommendations advanced here are aimed at building on the contributions to adaptability and flexibility identified above.


Recommendations on curriculum are directed to two key areas: the kinds of intents and content, and the quality of the learning experiences.

Kinds of intents and content

  • Objectives that emphasise process and values should be established in combination with objectives that are focussed on behavioural outcomes.
  • Negotiation at the local level is required in the determination of objectives and detailed content.
  • Broader statements of intent (aims and goals) and recommended content are best developed at the national level which is linked to certification. However, such statements should not preclude a capacity for local variation.

Quality of learning experiences

Accreditation processes should be used to emphasise the role in learning of factors such as the kinds of instructional activities and learning experiences likely to develop skilfulness.

  • Combinations of instructional experiences should be given greater emphasis in curriculum planning and accreditation arrangements.
  • Processes to determine the readiness of learners for instructional encounters (e.g. literacy and numeracy) are required if self-paced and other forms of independent modes of learning are to be adopted.
  • The view of curriculum and its organisation needs to be extended to include consideration of the combination of integrated experiences.


Recommendations on assessment are classified in terms of validity, reliability and incentives for learning.


  • For assessment to be valid, the bases for judgement (e.g. objectives) need to consider the forms of knowledge which are to be assessed, the circumstances in which performance actually occurs, the need to assess both understanding as well as practice, and the dispositional attributes which are important and underpin good practice.
  • Matters of complexity, authenticity and integration need to be considered more fully as criteria for the selection of approaches to assessment.
  • Benchmarks other than behavioral objectives need to be considered and their negotiation needs to take into account an understanding of the situational factors.
  • Integrated knowledge and skills for the performance of creative, and reflective and innovative tasks need to be developed to help ensure adaptability in a climate of changing work practices.


  • Measures to assist reliability in the decade of CBT focussed on the use of standards and outcome statements. Now with greater diversity of learning contexts, standards of reliability need to be considered to maintain the standing of judgements about student performance and certification within vocational education.
  • While there may be differences in the detailing of intents against which assessment will be made, approaches such as moderation across a range of contexts will need to be considered in order to assist reliability.


  • Incentive is at the core of individuals' learning. Non-graded passes appear to remove a key source of incentive for learners. Hence, it is recommended that some form of graded assessment that measures the skills required for students to be adaptable and flexible be re-introduced to provide important incentives for learners.

Teachers' practice

Recommendations on teachers' practice are presented in terms of broadening and deepening of role and developing teachers' knowledge.

Broadening the teachers' role

  • Teachers' roles necessarily need to be extended beyond that of being just implementers of content and curriculum intent developed elsewhere.
  • Teachers need to be engaged as adapters, developers and researchers of both pedagogy and practice.
  • Teachers must be given discretion in the management and interpretation of curriculum in order to determine the appropriate array of routine and non-routine experiences, the best integration of experiences, and effective combinations of independent, group and teacher-led experiences.

Deepening the role

  • The valuing of pedagogic expertise, that is, an emphasis on instruction and learning, needs to be acknowledged hand-in-hand with vocational knowledge.
  • Teachers must possess the appropriate expertise to furnish the experiences required to develop workplace adaptability and flexibility within learners.
  • Teachers must posses a capacity to evaluate their impact on learning, and to refine and improve their learning processes.
  • Hence, a greater emphasis on pedagogic principles and practice needs to be engendered within VET teachers.

Developing teachers' knowledge

  • The broader and deeper role suggested above requires that the professional practice aspects of teachers' work be given due attention.
  • Professional development activities such as maintaining currency and extending knowledge should emphasise pedagogic as much as vocational aspects of practice.


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