Teaching and Assessing What Matters (Part 2 )

by Mike Peller, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning; Sam Talcott, Mathematics & Robotics Teacher, and; Matthew Williams, English Teacher

Read Part One Here

White Mountain is helping to lead national conversations on student-driven inquiry. This December, we presented at TABS (The Association of Boarding Schools) Conference, a national conference focused on boarding school education. The presentation—Change Management in the Competency Movement: Accelerating through Crises, Responding to Crises—explored how competency-based education loosens the constraints with regard to what we teach, what students read, and what projects students choose to engage in. In February, we will present on a similar topic at the annual NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Conference. While schools around the country and world are exploring the opportunities and implementation of competency learning, we embrace competency learning because it provides a method to truly unlock student-driven inquiry. Let me give you two examples of this.

Consider Sam Talcott’s statistics class. Sam engages students in learning through a hands-on approach. Motivated by 2020’s reckoning on race, Sam altered his course to focus on the data behind structural racism and mass incarceration. His students learned and applied the same statistical skills—frequency tables, box plots, linear regression, confidence intervals—but on real data sets of national relevance. Students had agency in what questions they wanted to ask about the data, and thus, what variables would be analyzed. Sam recognized that although the data, context, and conclusions drawn from each individual student project would be different, the skills they used were the same. This is the essence of competency learning—putting an emphasis on underlying skills instead of the specific content through which students demonstrate those skills. And what it allows and unlocks: authentic student-driven inquiry.

At the conference, Sam presented on some of the other benefits he’s seen in his classroom as a result of shifting towards a competency-based model. In the past, when Sam asked students to reflect on how they were doing in his classes, he often heard “I need to do better on tests” or “I’m really good at projects.” Students’ attention went to the method of assessment, not to the actual skills Sam wanted them to learn. This, of course, makes sense because when they looked at their gradebook, that is what they saw. For example, it might show: tests = 85%, quizzes = 78%, homework = 92%. But each of those methods are simply the mechanism by which we can assess a student’s skills in what truly matters: our Essential Skills and Habits. When his students look at their gradebook now, they instead see their scores and feedback on the underlying skills.

The result of this difference is subtle yet transformational: students can see where their strengths are and what they need to focus on. Sam has found, because of the shift to competency learning, that he is much more likely to hear students say, “I need to get better at using the rules of probability” than “How do I turn my B to an A?” The move to competency learning has opened up opportunities for more student ownership and direction. Students are encouraged to monitor their progress on the skills covered and given the option to design their own assignments to demonstrate proficiency in skills they haven’t yet mastered. As an example, one student felt that she had improved in one of the class competencies—quantitative data and box plots—since her last assessment. She’s passionate about animals and, after some searching, she was able to find a dataset of zoo animal life expectancies by species, class, and gender that she could use for her analysis. This was a project the student developed entirely on her own, and was based on her interests; it also targeted a specific skill, aligned to the core knowledge of the course that she knew she needed to improve on. This is truly a radical change that is so empowering!

Or consider Matthew William’s Creating New Worlds class. In this course, students grappled with the question, “Can we create an equitable world?” In order to answer this question, students read a variety of short stories and watched several short movie clips. While doing this, students were simultaneously creating their own fictional worlds that were designed around a real-world issue in hopes of finding a solution to this issue in our reality. Matthew activated students through the medium of fiction to enter into the critical conversations of creating a just world. Students were able to pick meaningful topics to them and bring their worlds to life in whatever medium they saw fit as long as they were demonstrating their understanding of the competencies assessed.

One student in the class wanted to explore the topic of police brutality. While this student is a strong analytical writer, creative writing didn’t come naturally to her. She had the ideas in her head but didn’t know how to express them on paper. This student chose to engage in this class by creating a portfolio of amazing artwork that highlighted the beauty and struggles of her planet and then complimented her artwork with analytical writing explaining what she had created and how it was metaphorical for the real-world issues she was creating. Thus, the student was able to leverage their strengths while still demonstrating her mastery of the competencies being assessed in the course.

In fact, Matthew’s classes are over the brim with student-driven inquiry. Rather than assigning all students the exact same homework (which is a model built of efficiency, not efficacy), he allows students to choose from a well-curated “playlist.” Students have agency in choosing from a list of different writing assignments that demonstrate understanding of the text they are reading. Each option is labeled with different competencies, so students can pick assignments they are interested in pursuing while simultaneously picking which competencies they want to work on for that week. This gives students the opportunity to choose how they want to engage with the material, as well as push themselves on a daily basis to demonstrate and/or improve on their courses chosen competencies. This is a brilliant solution for differentiating the learning to allow for both student interest and student need.

Of course, we are a community of adult learners as well. Our teachers model the same curiosity and thirst for learning as our students. With increasing urgency, we seek to make sense of critical questions: How might we create mission-driven cohesive programs throughout our school, and thus a cohesive singular program, that inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion? How might we create a truly inclusive community where all students and faculty feel a true sense of belonging? How might we actualize the critical work of anti-racism throughout our school? How might we create equitable grading practices? How might we inspire students to engage civically?

To inspire and encourage our faculty this year to grapple with these questions, we built an in-house four-day White Mountain Equity and Inquiry conference. The conference will support faculty in wrestling with our overarching focus this year: How might I lead with anti-racist actions while teaching and living with compassion and humility? While this question that was written in July continues to feel like a strong guiding question as we examine it in December, we know that it is just lip-service if we do not provide intentional school-wide learning to support faculty in this work. The idea behind the White Mountain Equity and Inquiry conference is this: transformation only happens when learning and conversations and shared across all members of an organization. How many times have you sent people to a conference—spending lots of money on a select few—only to have them return to the torrent of school-life and not having the time and space for their learning to provide institutional change? What if, instead, the conference is brought to campus so that everyone can engage and thus increase the likelihood of institutional change?

Over the first week of January, all faculty will engage in the White Mountain Equity and Inquiry conference. Faculty will be presenting to one another, elevating the wisdom in the room. We also will bring in expert keynotes to motivate and inspire our collective focus. Topics and speakers include:

  • Grading for Equity with Joe Feldman and Mark Boswell from The Crescendo Group
  • Four-Dimensional Education with Charles Fadell from Curriculum ReDesign
  • A discussion on equity in the outdoors with Mirna Valerio, and
  • Building an anti-racist school, with Paul Gorski from The Equity Literacy Institute

Our commitment to student-driven inquiry (as a central ethos) and competency-based education (as the method for actualizing student-driven inquiry) is grounded in equity. We unapologetically engage in work outside and alongside the canons, thus allowing students to pursue that which is interesting to them as well as focusing on topics critical for us all to wrestle with, such as climate change and anti-racism. We loosen the constraints with regard to what we teach, what students read, and what projects students choose to engage in. We throw fuel on the flame of student-driven inquiry.


Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

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