Shifting towards Competency-Based Learning – Lessons from New Hampshire


This post was inspired by Katrina Schwartz’s Going All In: How to Make Competency-Based Learning Work – published at MindShift. The article is a distillation of a recently published report by Julia Freeland from the Christensen Institute. Titled “From policy to practice – How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire”, this report must be golden for Alberta Ed. Why? Because Alberta Ed has recently embarked on a path similar to the one the state of New Hampshire (US) had started on, back in 2005. Alberta Education too is changing its policies to encourage competency-based learning. Therefore, it seems obvious that Alberta should tap into New Hampshire’s experience.


So, what can be learned from New Hampshire? Here are some of my takeaways.

  • Control versus Autonomy: Finding the right balance – The hands-off approach the state of New Hampshire adopted so far in regards to how the new policies are implemented by schools is slowing down the reform process. The main goal of the 2005 policy was to enable students to advance through school at their own individual pace as determined by their achievement of pre-defined core competencies rather than based on their age and scores. Yet in 2014 many schools continue to group students according to age and subject area, they assess using the 100 point scale, and generally follow the old, traditional ways. This finding is disappointing but not surprising. The traditional school system has been in place long enough to become second nature. For schools to give up their long-established and familiar structures and routines and move into largely unstructured and unexplored territory, they will need exemplary models and guidelines. Educators will be open to try a new model if it’s been shown to work in other schools. Therefore, the state should build the new model using ideas tested in the field, and then ask the schools to adopt it. Alberta Ed is in the process of doing just that through its Curriculum Development Prototyping – A smart move!
  • Building a solid knowledge base, support and trust – The official view in New Hampshire is that substantive change can only happen if all those involved have embraced the ideas behind the policy. To make this possible, the state’s education department is working hard at building resources meant to assist teachers and other school staff in appreciating the value of the new policy and in putting it into practice. A lot of emphasis is put on creating flexible online professional development resources accessible to teachers at their convenience. I agree that making competency-based learning a reality should start with changing people’s hearts and minds, with educating the educators. Unfortunately, Alberta Ed doesn’t seem to see it that way. There isn’t yet any Inspiring Education initiative aimed at teachers’ professional development. I don’t see much effort being put forth toward displacing outdated educational philosophies from people’s minds. Although the Task Force for Teaching Excellence has made some good recommendations for improving new teachers’ education, it didn’t come up with any promising ideas for those already teaching. Leaning more toward New Hampshire’s approach would help.
  • Investing in assessment – The methods used for assessment of learners’ progress and their achievement of the required competencies are viewed as crucial to the success of the policy. In collaboration with Stanford University, New Hampshire’s education department is working to create a comprehensive bank of performance-based tasks for teachers to use when assessing learners’ competencies. The intention is to facilitate the transition by making meaningful and reliable assessment tools readily available to teachers statewide. Designing new assessment strategies and tools is fundamental to Alberta’s Curriculum Development Prototyping process as well. By changing its provincial exams, and by developing new methods for the assessment of literacies, numeracies and cross-curricular competencies that must be acquired by its learners, Alberta seems to be on the right track!
  • Using teacher evaluation as motivation rather than coercion – To encourage innovative instruction and risk-taking, New Hampshire education officials try hard to keep the system for evaluating teachers separate from the still very new competency-based learning. In New Hampshire’s model, teacher evaluation is integrated with the curriculum and regarded as a coaching tool and a means for improving schooling. At the other end of the spectrum, some US states use an approach in which teacher evaluation is based on their students’ performance. Alberta is in the process of developing its own new system for evaluating teachers. The by now infamous recommendation #21 made by the Task Force for Teaching Excellence calls for a re-evaluation of teachers every five years for maintenance of their teaching certificates. This system would lean toward the coercive side of the spectrum. Not so smart!

Competency-based learning promises to rejuvenate education. The changes it brings are big enough to disrupt traditional schooling, and they are as big as they are inescapable. Let’s keep an open mind and learn from each other! And know that sooner or later we’ll have to give up our old ways and adjust. Our societies’ future and well being will depend on it.



4 thoughts on “Shifting towards Competency-Based Learning – Lessons from New Hampshire

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