Competencies Should Drive Curriculum (and Reports!)

Twenty-First Century Skills, Survival Skills, Soft Skills, Approaches to Learning, the 6C’s, the 4 C’s… whatever we decide to call the dispositions, approaches, and abilities that are difficult to quantify and supposed to be so critical for success in the world, they remain inexplicably absent from the core of curriculum development and reporting in many schools. The IB has recently woven Approaches to Learning throughout its entire program (to a greater extent than it used to be) and teaches the strategies, skills, and attitudes explicitly*. Even when competencies (e.g. “Critical Thinking” for the MYP, which is used in subject assessment as well as ATLs) are part of the criteria funneled into one overall grade, this puts priorities completely backwards: subjects, content, and outcomes should be the ways in which we develop competencies, not the other way around.

Actually, maybe the absence of competencies in assessment is not so inexplicable. After all, it is so much easier to assess a worksheet or create a rubric that tracks punctuation and number of transition sentences. It is also much easier to tick off whether a kid can label all the parts of the cell or provide three reasons for the outbreak of World War I. It is much more difficult to assess a solution, growth in thinking, or the impact of a project. Last year, my son took a summative test on the first 30 elements of the periodic table: he had to know their symbols, atomic numbers, and weights. As if this was in any way useful in the world outside the classroom. It is, however, so easy to mark and so facile to convince ourselves that eighth graders are on their way to achieving great things in Science when they show that they can put together a long list from memory. Never mind exploring the reasons why the Periodic Table is organized in the way it is and never mind having students explore whether there is another to re-organize it, with a chance to justify their thinking.

I am not proposing that we should do away with content since one needs a minimum of content knowledge to ask relevant questions in a field (making meaning from what we have experienced) and the more one knows about a subject, the more sophisticated the questions one will tend to pose. We need to remember that the purpose of school is to prepare young learners for the world outside school. How many times have you applied what you were taught about hypertonic solutions? How often have you pulled out what you know of the Catholic Reformation to save yourself from an embarrassing situation? I am certain over the years you were thankful more than once that your school textbook covered orogeny in such depth. My point is that we need to expose students to life-worthy material and provide them with room to carry out their own explorations based on their interests, rather than fill their heads with discipline-shackled content. Content that inspires, yes. Content that covers material for the purpose of material, no. We should not fool ourselves into believing that achievement is linked to content memorization or even the purposeless application of knowledge.

At least in the United States, once a future medical student enters university (if she even knows as a first year she wants to be a medical student), she will take Biology 101, starting from the very beginning of content, even taught lab skills all over again. In another building, World History 101 assumes very little prior knowledge of the Greeks. After graduating from business school, my friends who joined financial institutions realized quickly that they were not going to run a book any time soon. Whatever we were supposed to come out knowing with our MBAs did not count for much in a regulated bank. Every new employer feels much safer teaching the recruit from scratch and only after trials and tribulations within the company is anyone given profit and loss responsibilities. 

Until the end of our days in this world, throughout our personal and professional lives, we systematically use competencies to achieve our goals, whatever these may be. Tony Wagner writes that there are Seven Survival Skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills proposes their own four C’s. Seth Godin suggests five of his own. A.J. Juliani cries out that the importance of these skills, however many there are, has always been recognized, certainly since Socrates. According to a 2018 McKinsey report, higher cognitive and social-emotional skills will become even more important for the jobs of the future.

I have my own ideas on what the taxonomy looks like, but this does not really matter. The Mastery Transcript Consortium requires every school (in consultation with its community) to identify, define, and assess its own competencies, which makes sense since each school has its unique context. MTC provides a system and a platform, but also an ethos to assessment and to the redirection of culture away from grades, toward binary mastery and student agency. There is no reason individual schools could not define competencies that make sense for their respective contexts and map them along a continuum, rather than on national or international age-related standards**.

It would be these competencies that would then drive the vision, mission, and ethos of the school. The classroom experiences, learning environments, assessments, feedback, common language… all would be reinforce this regularly and throughout. 

Imagine if we could design units and report on student progress based on evidence of mastery of competencies! When a child demonstrates newfound leadership skills, she is more likely to transfer this learning to other areas and grow in other ways that may not have been possible. When a young member of a team is provided with an experience that allows him to solve an open-ended problem that he has already identified, it will allow him to develop even more sophisticated and connected ways of thinking. When a student is put in a position where she has to influence a set of stakeholders, she has to find ways to communicate and justify her positions that will make the most impact (and this may not be a five-paragraph essay!).

Imagine if we could track this growth and tailor (some would use the word personalize or to a lesser extent differentiate) the experiences in such a way as to build on strengths or support areas for growth! We could have Personal Learning Plans for each child that detail where and when they have demonstrated mastery of competencies and take opportunities within each future unit (or co-curricular, family, or social setting… anything really) for each student to achieve mastery in a competency. Perhaps a young learner has made tremendous strides in providing his peers with more space to express their views. This should be noted. This should be celebrated. This should be built upon for deeper learning. The next unit should provide momentum.

If we plan units with competencies in mind, then we should report on these competencies. Competencies should drive curriculum and content should be used to support competencies. 

Let’s take “Influence,” a competency that is far less sordid than it sounds since any time we interact with others we are trying to influence them in some way. I cannot influence anyone if I do not have the background knowledge to back up my claims or if I am not able to apply the quantitative skills necessary to prove my point (unless the other person is even more ignorant that I am). Nor will my influencing skills be effective if I cannot express myself (orally? in written form?) or understand which mode of expression will best suit my purpose (email, article, presentation, drawing?). Lastly, any attempt to influence must take into the application of knowledge to a specific context.

I am writing this blog to share my ideas. My powers of influence would be all the more diminished if I was not able to write clearly, did not have some evidence to support my claims, and if I did not know a minimum about pedagogy (and maybe I don’t, actually!). Yet those things I learned in school are the technical skills that help me to achieve my greater goal, which is to share my ideas. No one writes anything for the sheer joy of demonstrating the effective use of primary sources.

We don’t need to eschew content, but we need to have content to support competencies. We need to report in ways that show how well content is used to achieve objectives, solve problems, grow as human beings. We need to embrace learning as taking place everywhere and track mastery no matter where it takes place. This will provide richer data to plan and assess learning. It will also foster more reflective and self-aware students (another competency).

Let us elevate competencies to be the driver for curriculum and reporting because each of us continues to develop these throughout our lives and they are the surest form of transferrable learning. From there, the content will follow, technical skills will develop, all because these are needed to develop the competencies themselves. Sure, we can keep reporting on content and its applications, but let’s flip the cart and the horse to have competencies be at the center of learning. This will foster lifelong learners and a culture of problem-finding and solving.

* ATLs, in most cases, continue to be a side thought and content remains king. In reporting grades, the MYP makes a decent attempt at including Critical Thinking and Application, but Understanding Content and Communication allow too much room for memorization and 5-paragraph essays, while Application only makes real sense if it is done so in a transdisciplinary way since no real-world problem is solved within an isolated discipline. Several schools report on the IB Learner Profile and this tremendously valuable.

**Though there are some broad developmental milestones to take into account, just like the very broad age range when a child learns to walk or talk. It does not matter if a child walks at nine or 15 months so long as they grow up healthy and happy. Intervention in the classroom needs to be delivered based on the school’s evaluation of “how far behind” a child is, to use rudimentary language.

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