Essential Skills and Habits: Building an Instrument for Teaching and Learning

dsc00091Throughout this year, I will be writing weekly to reflect on teaching and learning at The White Mountain School, focusing primarily on the implementation on designing learning experiences and assessment tied to our School’s Essential Skills and Habits for College Success. Throughout the writings, I intend to tie what we are doing to the changes occurring in the educational landscape. In particular, I will be focus on the research and conversations surrounding competency-based education. In this first post, I want to share the summer work we did in the context of a national conversation on the future of education.



The educational landscape is changing. Quickly. Arguably faster than it ever has before. At White Mountain, it is not enough to simply stay current with the changes; it is our responsibility to help lead this change. As an independent school who has long been committed to 21st century skills and habits, we need to create not only our own path, but a path for others to follow. No longer are schools, as they had been, simply hoping and wishing for students to embrace 21st century skills; schools are beginning to understand that these need to be taught explicitly if we in fact want to develop in our students the capacity to thrive in uncertainty, to find empathetic solutions for new and novel problems, and to communicate these solutions effectively to diverse audiences. To do this well, schools and teachers must design learner experiences and assessment tied directly to our intended outcomes. In the case of White Mountain, we tie them to our Essential Skills and Habits.

This summer, ten teachers and administrators spent a week researching and developing a comprehensive instrument which will allow teachers to better guide students in their respective growth in the Essential Skills and Habits, a set of 21st century life- and college-readiness skills and habits White Mountain has been developing over the last decade. In our work this summer we surveyed the research of best practice in 21st century education, relying heavily on The Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning; we also dug into the the classics, such as Grant Wiggins and John Dewey. From there, we dissected each of our Essential Skills and Habits that White Mountain faculty developed a few years ago, building stages for growth in each category, creating a comprehensive rubric that allows teachers to assess meaningfully, and students to reflect accurately on their learning and growth potential: what have they done; how might they improve it; and, what are they capable of? This instrument will be edited by faculty during our in-service work prior to the launch of the 2018-19 school year. During the first and third quarter, teachers will focus their feedback entirely on the schoolwide Essential Skills and Habits. In the summer of 2019, we will review and refine the process.

Yes, White Mountain is moving quickly. Because of the trailblazing work we are doing, we were invited to beta-test Blackbaud’s upcoming competency-based grade book, and we will be sharing  the roadmap we are developing at conferences throughout the fall. We are on the edge of where education is going. This is an exciting time to be an educator; this is an exciting time to be at White Mountain.

To help calm the nerves of those nervous about change, and to recognize that not everyone is a student of pedagogy, let’s take a step back and ask the obvious question: what is a competency? Sydney Shaef, a thought-leader for, gives a wonderful description of competencies: “Competencies emphasize the application of skills and knowledge to achieve a purpose that has meaning in the world. Competencies mark an important shift … toward a broader, more aspirational vision of learners equipped with the skills and dispositions for post-secondary success.” This is absolutely consistent with White Mountain’s work with Essential Skills and Habits. Furthermore, in a student-centered learning environment, when we embrace student-driven inquiry, clear trans-disciplinary competencies allow students to make appropriate and independent decisions regarding thoughtful and appropriate next steps in their learning.

As an intentionally small school, competency-based learning is aligned with White Mountain’s  commitment to knowing each student, and meeting them where they are because “competency-based learning has the potential to transform our education system [through] its non-negotiable commitment to the growth and achievement of every child; a distinctive positive youth development frame reinforces a belief that, with the right experiences and supports, all students can achieve at high levels” (Schaef). Competency-learning invites students into the conversation, putting them as active co-creators of their learning experience. Dewey would be proud, since he saw teachers and learners as “co-inspirers” (Higgins, 438). This is the time we get to roll up our sleeves, sit beside the students, and “cultivate wide-awakeness” in our students because “[t]he highest form of education is not that of imparting skills or knowledge but of ‘turning the soul’ towards objects worthy of our attention” (Higgins, 436, 459).

Finally. A system and structure that supports our fundamental belief that all kids are highly capable and multi-potential.

Finally. A system that utilizes an asset model for describing student growth, rather than a deficit-model.

Yes, one might contend that progressive schools have long been creating learning experiences that encourage students to engage in relevant and authentic experiences. What is new? Progressive schools have forever described themselves as student-centered. (Even quite traditional schools have begun to import the same language.) And, at White Mountain, we have for some time expected students to make active choices in not just what they are learning, but how and why they are learning. This model of learning, this commitment to the students, is the oldest form of education. Centuries ago, Michel de Montaigne wrote: “My pupil will not say his lesson: he will do it. He will rehearse his lessons in his actions. You will then see whether he is wise in what he takes on, good and just in what he does, gracious and sound in what he says” (Montaigne, 188). Despite student-centered learning being an old idea, the current educational assessment system focuses primarily on measuring rote content acquisition, choosing efficiency over efficacy.  The traditional educational assessment system –which is based on the industrial model of education started in the late 1800s, and the disciplinary silos created by The Committee of Ten in 1892, and which is almost uniformly used across the United States– assesses what is easy to assess, not what matters. The competency-based learning movement is creating disruptive and welcomed change. And this movement is absolutely in line with our commitment to student-driven inquiry,  resonating synergistically with our LASR project in which we engage in best practice: “help[ing] students design exhibition and portfolio projects that satisfy their own natural thirst for information and skills” (Guya, Wagner, et. al.)

Over a century ago, John Dewey wrote: “The young live in some environment whether we intend it or not, and this environment is constantly interacting with what children and youth bring to it, and the result is the shaping of their interests, minds, character– either educatively or mis-educatively” (1964, p.9). This rings true today. As educators, we need to ensure that we are creating the right conditions in their environments that result in an intentional and positive shaping of “their interests, minds, character.” Competency-based education provides the framework and compass to ensure that learning is inspiring, relevant and meaningful. At White Mountain, by anchoring our educational practices in our Essential Skills and Habits, we are creating the right ingredients for purposeful, joyful learning: “a potent combi­nation of full attention, enthusiastic interest, and positive emotional intensity. The joy in learning comes during these moments” (Goleman, 249).

At White Mountain we are committed to teaching and assessing the 21st century skills that “accommodate the full range of value outcomes (and not just cognitive/academic achievement narrowly defined and narrowly measured)” as Bialik, Martin, Mayo and Trilling write in Evolving Assessments for a 21st Century Education (p7). If we want our learners to have the intra- and interpersonal skills to navigate, negotiate, and solve relevant and pressing problems—and we do—then we certainly must teach, assess and report on these skills, which is precisely what a competency-learning system and framework allows schools to do.

Works Cited

Bialik, M., Martin, J., Mayo, M., & Trilling, B. (2016). Evolving Assessments for a 21st Century Education.

Dewey, John, and Reginald D. Archambault. “The Need for a Philosophy of Education.”  John Dewey on Education; Selected Writings. New York: Modern Library, 1964. 3-14. Print.

Goleman, D., “The Sweet Spot for Achievement” (267-284) in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Random House Publishing, 2006.

Guha, R., Wagner, T., Darling-Hammond, L., Taylor, T., & Curtis, D. (2018). The promise of performance assessments: Innovations in high school learning and college admission. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Higgins, Chris. “Teaching as Experience: Toward a Hermeneutics of Teaching and Teacher Education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education44.2-3 (2010): 435-78. Web.

Montaigne, Michel De. “On Educating Children.” The Essays of Michel De Montaigne. Trans. M.A Screech. London: Allen Lane The Penguin, 1991. 163-99. Print.

Schaef, S. (2016, October 9). What IS the difference between competencies and standards? Retrieved August 14, 2018, from

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