Reflective students, Well-prepared engineers and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam find out more about Competency-based Learning from special guest Jen Dousett, Director of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at Collingwood School in British Columbia, Canada. What exactly is Competency-based Learning? How do students react to it? Plus, Jen speaks on how she communicated this new learning style to the parents.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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Welcome to another episode of The School of School podcast. We've got the regulars, Andy and Robin, how are you both today?
Hi. Very good, thank you.
Yeah. Great, thank you.
And I would like to give a very long distance welcome to our guest today, Jen Dousett from Collingwood School, Director of Teaching, Learning and Innovation. Jen, welcome. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thank you. It's really exciting to be here. I am a Director of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at Collingwood, as you said, and I've been in education for over 25 years. And just recently in the role, well, about eight years in the role of a Director of Teaching and Learning. And I'm really passionate about student-centred decisions and putting student learning at the forefront. So it's really exciting to be here to talk about education with you today.
I was going to say, and the one thing we didn't mention maybe, Jen, where is Collingwood?
Oh, sorry, yes. Collingwood is in West Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada. So very far from Adam indeed.
Yeah, certainly. I was reading about competency-based learning, and I need a bit of help because I think I just need an explanation about what that is and how it ties into education. And so, fortunate to have you here and I'm hoping that you can enlighten me.
Well, I will do my best. We're really excited, in British Columbia, Canada, we have a competency-based curriculum. So in the past, curriculum was designed around a bunch of information you needed to know. So you might have to know definitions of terms, you might have to know concepts, but it was generally designed around facts. And when British Columbia moved into competency-based learning, they redesigned their curriculum around a series of skills. And so, these types of skills are analysis skills, supporting an opinion with evidence, reasoning, all kinds of things like that, as a primary focus, and then there's curriculum that is content as well.
So we have what we call a, "Know, understand, do" model. So the understandings are, what are kids going to leave your course with? What are they going to really understand and take away and be able to apply to a new situation? That's, "Understand." "Know" is the facts. So what are kids in your class going to know? What is the concepts? What are the nitpicky pieces of knowledge they need to have to succeed? And when we talk about "Do," we talk about them showing their learning by building skills that are important today. A lot of people call them, "Employability skills," but we tend to stick with competency-based skills, just because it's our language for the education system.
So it's actually really exciting. And our planning has changed and the way we deliver our lessons has changed, and I think it's probably beneficial for a lot of students who are going off into a variety of things when they leave high school.
So Jennifer, how did the teachers respond to this when it was first introduced?
As you can imagine, a lot of people have been doing content-based curriculum for years.
I was doing content-based curriculum for years, and so I would say there's a number of teachers who had dabbled in this and were really excited about this, and then they just took it and went on that way. But it's really hard to change the way you approach what you do. So in the past, I would say, as an English teacher, I would have a book and I would've taught that book. I would've had kids tell me what happened in the book, I would've had them write essays about the book, I would've told them the themes and then they would've told them back to me in an essay.
And when you move into competency-based learning, what you have now is a skill. So I'm going to teach you the skill of analysis, so it no longer matters what text you're reading. And those teachers now have to choose, "These are the skills I need my students to have. Which content best fits the teaching of those skills?" As opposed to, "Which content and which order do I want to teach the content?" What content is best taught through analysis? What content is best thought taught through having kids understand continuity and change and those kinds of things? It was hard, I'm not going to... We're five years into it and we're still on a journey of ups and downs.
Yeah, I was going to say, I suspect you need every one of those five years. And what you've described there, it seems like a far greater level of sophistication and understanding that, if I'm putting a teacher hat on, that I would need. Because if it's a, "Just mimic me, I'll tell you what I know and you just make sure you remember it and feed it back to me." Obviously, there's going to be slight changes along the way. Being able to elicit and coax the decision making back to students, because that would be a cultural shift for both. Because I'll be sitting there as a student thinking, "Are you just not going to tell me? Can you just tell me please and I'll remember it? I'm ready to go here. What do you mean it's back on me?" So how did the children take it?
They absolutely say, "Just tell me." And they still love, "Just tell me what you want me to write about. Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it." So it's funny because a lot of students said, "Oh, this competency-based curriculum, our marks are going down." And when we look at the data, what we're seeing actually is students' marks are improving because now, we're engaging a number of students that weren't engaged previously because they didn't do school well, but they were learners and they were thinkers and they were excited to do really challenging things.
So there are pocket of students who still really do like the content because it can be easier for you if you're really good at memorising. But we've really worked hard to train in systems, and especially being five years in, our standards now at, let's say, a grade 10 level are much higher than they were when we were our first year of doing competency-based learning. We hadn't taught our students all the way along, what does it look like to have excellent analysis compared to very good analysis? We hadn't done that. And so, with our students not understanding that yet, we had to go easy on them. But there's still pockets of moments of... It's hard for students, it's harder, but I think that there's a little bit more of a joy of learning for them, which is that trade off, definitely.
What about the parents? Because this is a difficult concept for the parents.
You took my question.
Oh, I'm sorry.
That's exactly what I was thinking.
Robin, ask the question. Let's ignore that I asked that question. Go ahead, Robin.
No, absolutely. Same thing. I'm really curious what the feedback from parents is on this, because I would think some of them would be challenged, or struggling with understanding why you've moved into this, and some would be embracing it. And I guess it depends also on how their kids are finding it. Or are the parents even aware that you've done this shift? Are they very involved? What's happening?
Oh, they're aware, and they're probably the hardest, to be honest, to convince, because what I've learned is that people like their children to have similar experiences to them. So they went to a high school and they had these certain experiences and they've turned out great, and they worry if you're doing something different in your school, is my child still going to be as successful as me, or be as creative as me, or as curious as me?
And so, one thing I would say is we probably should have overeducated. We thought we educated, but I think we should have done a lot more along the way, and we're now doing a lot of that. We're also lucky because our province went competency-based learning, and in the US and in some other provinces, just individual schools are doing it, so that has helped.
But no, it's really hard to help parents understand that what we want to do is create kids that can transfer their knowledge and their understanding and their skills to unfamiliar situations, and to help them understand that this actually is what's going on in university, so that's important. And to also help them understand that beyond university, they're going to need these skills. But it's a lot of education.
So an example I often give is, when we went to high school, we would get in the car, we would be given a book from our English teacher, we would get in the car, we would drive, I would buy, they were called, "Cole's Notes." Some people use Spark Notes or different things. And you wouldn't read the book, you'd memorise the Cole's notes. You would game whatever the essay the teacher was going to ask you, you'd probably memorise a version of it, and you'd write that and you'd do really well. And that's not going to provide us with really engaged learners who are going to, for me, I think, change the world, save the world, and that's ultimately our goal.
So with parents, we talk a lot about the future and how do we prepare students for the unknown and what's coming next.
Yeah, and things are changing so fast. Yeah, the world's definitely going to be different for them than it was for us, there's no question about that. So how did you communicate this with the parents? How did your school approach that?
So we started, actually, we're really lucky, we did start five years ago. And so, the curriculum was actually announced, and we had two years of implementation time before we had to fully adopt it. And then, we've had... Our new report cards even only come out officially next year, so the ministry gave us a really long time.
And so, we started with parent meetings at, actually, our benefit, to the pandemic, which is not a great thing to say. Once we moved to online meetings, our parent attendance at things increased. And so, part of the issue was, we were having parent meetings, we were writing things in our newsletter, but parents weren't always there. And so, we've actually found, since the pandemic, we've done a better job of educating our parents because they don't have to come in the building.
So we've given examples, we've run curriculum evenings, we do a lot now, we have a new timetable, and so through the new timetable to leverage competency-based learning, we're now trying to engage parents in understanding what it means to focus on learning versus focusing on doing school really well, and that you can get great grades, which is what a lot of our parents are worried about, with doing this model as well.
I'm just wondering, it might be a wee bit too soon to ask this, but do you get a chance at all to get any feedback once the children have left Collingwood? Is there a sense in BC that this is actually... You talked about employability skills. Is there a sense at all or any feedback that is actually what the children are being equipped with when they go?
We have a really hard time tracking our grads in surveys and things, but we do receive a lot of anecdotal feedback. And so, I would say we've got about two years of grads out in the world now that have had more than just one or two years, and they would say the same thing. I had a student who told me that, at UBC, University of British Columbia, their calculus class was all project-based, they had to work in groups, they had to solve the problems, and they had to develop these understandings. And then, they had an exam at the end, but it was designed very differently than the old way that was quiz, quiz, quiz, test, test test, midterm final, kind of thing.
So our students are saying that they're very well-prepared, but we do a really good balance of, we also offer AP classes, so our students get a dabbling of really content heavy courses and they get a dabbling of really-
What's AP? Sorry.
Sorry, good question. Those are advanced placement courses.
So they're an external curriculum that we also deliver here, and they're very content focused. Not everyone takes them, but students can take a really good variety of courses. And one thing I would say, actually, is, with our new timetable, we're finding our students being better equipped with the pace of university. So our students are really well-equipped academically, we've always had really great feedback from our students. I had a student here a couple of weeks ago who's at Imperial College in Engineering, one of the toughest engineering programmes, and he said it was really almost repetitive, he was so well-prepared. And we have students saying it's a step-up.
What we're finding our students struggle with, which we hope that competency-based learning will help us with, is the independence, the initiative, the resilience. Those are the skills that really help you in post-secondary, even more than academics, because students often will go into... We don't offer sociology in high school, but they go off and take that later, so it's those learning skills that are actually helping them do well in those new and unfamiliar courses. But they're hard to track down those kids, once they leave us. They'll visit.
Yeah. We were reminded that, we've not long had a conference here and saw some children, I think that I was reminded of that, that I've taught hundreds of children, but once you say goodbye to them, that's it. Very rarely see them, like you say, maybe anecdotally bump into them and stuff, but we don't really know what happens and were we effective in the long term and that sort of thing, so I was interested in that.
And another question that springs to mind is, have the assessments kept pace? 'Cause you can have this approach, but do the assessments reflect or do they try to elicit those skills? Has there been that hand-in-hand shift?
There's definitely been a shift. There's some courses that are still more traditional assessment-based with tests and quizzes, but they're now bringing in... So we do something that's really popular in Ontario, and it's called, "Triangulation." And triangulation in assessment means you're using observations of students using products, so that could be an essay, a presentation, a test, and we're using conversations, and we use all of those pieces together to do a picture of the student. And we used to do, and a lot of provinces still do, but in British Columbia we don't do averages anymore. We do what we call, "Most recent, most consistent."
So if you're a grade nine in a math class, and at the beginning of the year you really struggled with some of the algebra, but by the end of the year, you're actually using that algebra that you didn't perform on very well at the beginning of the year to do really complex things, we no longer would go, "Oh, you only get an 86 because remember those tests at the beginning of the year you didn't do very well on? They're really pulling your mark down." We actually just look at a picture of all the student learning data, and it's literally sometimes a piece of paper with a map where students can see how well they're doing, and we would say to a student, "How do you think you're doing in this class based on all the different types of assessments that you've had?" And we have a conversation with those students.
So at our school in grade eight and grade nine, prior to any mark going on to a report card, there has to be a conversation between student and teacher. And we're finding our students are generally harder on themselves, to be honest, than the teacher. And then, we have, "Hey, this is why you're actually really good at these things." And we've started that in 10 through 12 as well, because we want our students to know that all these pieces of information that are going into their grade, because they're still worried about it, are things that they own as themselves, and we make sure that they understand that. And when they understand, they don't have questions, actually, about their marks, they're quite good at that. They're very open and honest and reflective, and that's another thing we're working on here, is improving our ability to have students reflect and really know who they are as learners, and where they do well and where they need support.
So Jennifer, when you're looking at assessing using... I don't want to say less empirical data, because that sounds like that's not what's happening, but in a way, as a cynic, you might say it's less empirical, it's more opinion based, how do you filter out teacher bias?
That's a great question. So we have, we call them, "Task neutral rubrics," so if you have a rubric for analysis or reasoning in math, those rubrics are really laid out to students of what those skills look like. So it doesn't matter what content you're applying them to, the rubric is quite, quite clear on the level of skill. So we don't have things like, "It's five paragraphs long," or, "It shows seven steps." We have, "What needs to be communicated," and listed out like that, the type of skill.
And we, here at Collingwood, we actually align our assessments. So we're really lucky, we have collaborative time. So the really major assessment pieces would be cross-marked by teachers. Our teachers have often meet together and they'll mark something and go, "Okay. Do you think this level of analysis is at this level or that level?" So there's a lot of conversations going on with that. And then, with involving the student, they know. They know if their friended something similar to them, and we're really promoting student voice, so, "Speak to your teacher if you have any questions." So we're finding that that's working out for us.
And because we map things, so we have the competencies down, it's a chart, basically, the competencies of that course down one side of that chart, and then we have our four proficiency levels across the top, and each assignment is mapped in based on the skills. So if you were to be doing a science lab, they might be assessing only three competencies in that assessment, and then they would map that out, and the student can visually see over the course of the year how they've performed in the class. So it helps.
It sounds really helpful.
Sounds like a lot of work.
It does sound like a lot of work, but I just keep thinking, from the student's perspective, that it's something that they can see and understand. It's not just, like you mentioned, "I did really poorly on the first test of the year, and now I'm going to suffer all year trying to make up for that. And yet, now I understand the concepts, but I'm still having to go back to that first test and figure out... Now I'm going to have to get 98 just to bring my markup," and all of these things. So it does make a lot of sense, and it's great that they can see the big picture of it, literally see the big picture, and understand how they got from the beginning of the year to where they are now.
And also in that, it also shows where they may still be struggling if they can't verbally talk about it. There must be things too, so it's beneficial both ways. You can see how you have improved, but also where you still need improvement. Would that be the case or am I...?
No, that's true exactly.
And they can also see if they maybe stopped trying a little bit in the class, because we colour code things, so they can see, "Oh, I did less well later in the year."
Or maybe the concepts got harder, so they were a good communicator at the start of the year, and then as the content got more difficult, then they struggled with things. So the visual helps.
This is fascinating. We should continue this conversation, but I think it's going to have to be a whole new podcast.
Yeah. Jen, thanks so much for joining us.
Oh, my pleasure. It was really fun. I can talk about assessment all day long, as you can probably tell, so it's really exciting.
Thank you for joining us on School of School Podcast.