Teaching and Assessing What Matters: Parts I &II

by Mike Peller, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning

Part One

The world needs healing. The world needs healers. Fires continue to burn throughout the west, and more frequent and dangerous hurricanes hammer the southeast; our country is more politically divided than ever before; the nation is having a long-awaited reckoning on race; and, COVID-19 continues to ravage our country and the world. As an educator, as someone who works with high school students, and as someone who works at the nexus of the present and the future, I feel a need to address these urgent issues. Competency learning creates the space for this important work to happen.

A few weeks ago, I shared with families the why and how of our competency-grading pilot in a webinar. We are currently starting the second year of a pilot program to reimagine teaching, assessment, and grading so that it can become truly mission-aligned. Notice that while we are piloting a grading system, we are, in fact, doing it so that we can align all aspects of the teaching and learning process with our mission: what we teach, how we teach, what feedback we give, and how grades are generated. We are asking important questions. How might a grading system encourage student-driven inquiry and engagement? How might a system of grading inspire students to live lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion? (If you missed the talk, you can view it here). While the presentation got quite granular in exploring the how of competency, the focus was primarily on the why. Why do we care so much about competency learning and the Essential Skills and Habits? 

In terms of the why of competency education, I will share three stories that focus on student learning. This first story illustrates the insidious nature of traditional grading. This is a story about a student named Sam. Sam was my student over ten years ago. She was a hard-working and gritty student. It was nearing the end of the semester. She came to my office hours and said: “Mr. Peller, I have an 89.6%. What can I do to turn this into an A-?” Operating within the system of traditional grading, this is not an atypical question by any means. It is a question Sam had learned to ask in a game of school she had been taught to play. So often, in a case like this, teachers either hide behind the numbers—“Sorry, Sam, the fact is you are 0.4% short of that grade.”—or they create some disconnected extra credit assignment that values compliance over learning. What is so wrong with this?

First, in terms of the 0-100 scale, do we really think humans have the precision to decipher between that many gradations. Just to be clear, a score of 89.6% assumes that humans can distinguish between one thousand gradations in the quality of student work. The research on grading shows vast bias and inconsistency in grading between teachers. Simply put, a score of 89.6% assumes far more accuracy than a human could ever provide. Second, what did Sam’s question about a better grade have to do about learning or improvement? All of the important information about what she needed to improve on was averaged away. 

It was in a collection of moments like the one talking with Sam that I realized the need to confront the grading system. This system is insidious because it sets up the teacher as a gatekeeper or sorter. Sam was not wrong to ask for an arbitrary bump in her grade. She was playing within the system of traditional grading. What I realized then, and what so many educators who truly care about student-driven learning have also realized, is that the system encourages students to act in this way, and thus it is the system that needs to change. Competency learning and competency grading provide an alternative that puts learning front and center and puts the teacher as a mentor versus an evaluator.

Okay, okay. Being student-centered and putting learning first may sound nice, but aren’t we risking something in deviating from how school has always been done? (Imagine asking someone in the tech industry or in marketing or in finance or, for that matter, in any industry other than education: Why are you trying new things? Why change? Just do it how it has always been done). When asked, in the context of diverging from the traditional grading system: “Why do something differently?” I respond: “Because it is best for the students, and best for the world.” Why? Let’s first remember that our educational system is built on an outdated factory model that cares more about efficiency than efficacy, which cares more about sorting kids into buckets of “smartness” than student learning. For too many students, the schools they attend—the very institutions that should foster learning—get in the way of meaningful learning while also stripping away the joy of following one’s curiosity. Why? Almost every school throughout the country is based on a 125-year-old factory model, a model born out of the industrial revolution. Over 125 years have passed since our current version of school was started. New industries have emerged, and the industries that have remained have needed to change and adapt significantly. All except the education sector. All except schools. The impact on kids is rather bleak: rather than flourishing, most students in schools across the country are simply trying to endure school. How devastating!

Instead of enduring, schools must create conditions such that students develop as flexible and creative problem solvers, who find meaning, purpose, and, dare I say, joy in their work. Schools create experiences through which students are actively encouraged to ask the questions: Who am I? What matters to me? How do I make sense of the world around me? Returning to the divided country and world in which we live—with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on our health care and economy, with systemic racism and other forms of oppression that need to be broken, and with such political turmoil that highlights a divided country—we need students to have the intellectual and emotional endurance to solve the truly gnarly problems that are literally right in front of them. Schools need to shift the focus from knowing to doing. Imagine this: Let’s finally see and embrace students for the highly capable thinkers that they are and encourage them to be part of the solution. Therefore, what we teach and what we assess must match the core competencies students need to become the thinkers, leaders, and community members the world so desperately needs. 

That gets into the how. The shift may appear small, though the impact is profound. The competency grading system focuses on skills (critical thinking, research, communication, etc.) versus performance type (tests, homework, projects). Rather than focusing on how a student does on tests, homework, papers, etc., in this pilot, the emphasis is entirely on the skills. For example, the pilot focuses on things such as written and verbal communication, building an argument, or collaborating effectively. Because there is so much choice in our learning and differentiation in the classes, this allows us to differentiate instruction to engage each student in the skill in which they need the most support. Most importantly, these are skills that matter independent of what a student may be doing at White Mountain or beyond, and since measurement is a proxy for values, we must measure what matters.

Let me conclude with the final stories of teaching and learning.

This second story is a story about Dan, a good friend, and former colleague. Dan was a teacher at Nueva, where I worked prior to The White Mountain School. Nearing the end of the semester, I went to visit his class. Students were busy at work. I asked a few kids what they were working on. The first student shared he was creating a podcast to demonstrate “use of evidence.” The next student shared she was writing an essay to demonstrate “argumentation.” I went up to Dan right away. I had never heard students so actively describe what they were doing in the context of what they wanted to show evidence of. Dan said, smiling and humbly: “Each kid is ending the year with different growth areas. They are aware of what skills and competencies—up to this point—they have demonstrated mastery. So they are choosing the skills they’ve yet to master to focus on at the end of the year.” Rather than Sam—the student from the first story—saying, “what can I do to get an A-,” totally removed from learning, these students knew themselves what to do to improve and designed learning experiences to directly provide evidence. That is authentic, self-directed learning! However, if I were to critique this learning experience, it was that it was still quite siloed in terms of disciplinary thinking. We know students will be operating in a highly diverse, highly global, highly connected, and highly interdisciplinary world. What might learning look like that takes that into account?

The third story illustrates an even higher level of self-directed, interdisciplinary learning. For context: to end White Mountain’s school year last year (as we will this year as well), rather than exams, or major projects, we asked students to curate digital portfolios in which students collected artifacts of their learning that demonstrated their development in our Essential Skills and Habits and then ‘defend’ their portfolio in a Presentation of Learning. The third story is about a White Mountain student who, to protect their privacy, we will call Bob. Bob was a junior with aspirations of going to a prestigious university. When I first explained the idea of a digital portfolio, he said: “why don’t we just take exams to show what we know?” He somewhat begrudgingly set forth to build his portfolio. However, when Bob presented his portfolio to a panel of teachers, he quickly saw the value in the experience. To highlight his development in Critical Thinking (one of our Essential Skills), Bob selected his work from an essay he wrote for his English class, in which he answered: What does America mean to me? In addition to the essay, he created a painting (because he is also a talented artist) to illustrate the ways in which he has grappled with understanding the multiple American identities. It was powerful. He then juxtaposed the type of critical thinking he did for this project with critical thinking he did for finding eigenvalues in his linear algebra class. This form of meta-cognition—in which students are thinking about their thinking—and asked to consider the multiple ways across multiple subjects in which they employ our Essential Skills and Habits develops in students a transferable and multi-disciplinary understanding of how one thinks and how one solves problems. Then, during Bob’s Presentation of Learning, faculty asked probing questions about Bob’s work, examined opportunities for growth, and found every opportunity—of which there were many—to celebrate his work.

Bob, like many students, commented afterward that the digital portfolio and presentation of learning was harder than any exam. Why? They had to evaluate what mattered to them; they had to critically examine a body of their own work, and make choices about what they were most proud of; and in doing so, Bob, as well as the other students, were able to name areas where they have excelled as well as areas that they need to improve in.

Thinking back on the three stories of Sam, Dan, and Bob, I believe they show a progression of student agency.

  • Sam was an amazing student stuck in a traditional system. She was motivated to get good grades, but didn’t see how her learning and her grades were connected. 
  • Dan’s students ended their year knowing what they needed to do in that given class to improve, and had the agency to design learning experiences to do so.
  • Finally, Bob pulled artifacts from across all of his courses to curate a set of exemplary work demonstrating his strengths in our transdisciplinary skills. This is a student who knows himself as a dynamic learner with skills that can be used to solve the myriad and unforeseeable problems that he surely will need to solve.

And in thinking about that, let us return to the urgency of and motivation in doing this work. We need students to have the intellectual and emotional endurance to solve the gnarly problems in front of them. How does competency learning support that need?

By focusing on transferable skills over content, it loosens the constraints regarding what we teach, what students read, and what projects they engage in. It enables schools to unapologetically engage in work outside and alongside the canons and focus on topics instead, such as climate change and anti-racism. Competency learning in and of itself does not do that, but it creates the potential for it.

If you are interested in reading some of the articles that inform and support this work, as well as peruse some of the organizations helping to lead it, I provided some links below. 



  • The End of Average, Todd Rose
  • 21st Century Skills, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel
  • Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Charles Fadel, Maya Balik, and Bernie Trilling
  • Earth in Mind, David Orr


Part Two

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

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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