On Summer Professional Development at The White Mountain School, and Building a System for Teaching and Learning

What happens when you encourage faculty to explore what they hope students learn and how they hope to teach and assess? What happens when teachers are encouraged to imagine different ways of engaging students in thinking and learning — when those teachers are invited to design a teaching, learning and assessment (and oh yeah, grading) system that meets the needs of each learner. Well, when a group of The White Mountain School faculty opted in to spend an intensive week doing just that, the results were nothing short of extraordinary.

A Circle of Gratitude

I knew the week had been a success when, in our closing circle, each of the faculty — in taking turns to share appreciation for one another — showed so clearly that they knew one another. This resonated strongly because we began the week with the central guiding question: “How can you be sure that you know your students?” This was our guiding question because regardless of what a teacher does, if they are to be truly successful in reaching their students, they must know them. In the appreciation circle, people spoke of the need for optimism, of acknowledging unearned privileges, of interrogating everything for implicit bias; people laughed and people wept. Why? We teach because we believe in capacity of young people, and when this group of faculty began to imagine the possibilities that exist in a competency-based learning environment — where constraints are loosened and teachers have permission to bring in more relevant and meaningful curricula — they saw the potential for truly transformative teaching and learning. However, before hearing from the teachers — about why this new system will provide opportunities for purposeful work — let me explain the tactical outcome of the week.

Build a Tool

Teachers, working off leading research — including but not limited to reDesign, CompetencyWorks and Marzano Research — built a clear tool for turning competency assessment into grades. Why does that matter? While the radical in me would love to stop giving grades altogether, I know that in order for there to be large-scale transition from traditional grading (where kids receive 0–100 scores that average away any details that would provide the “what next?” in their learning) to competency learning, we must keep grades simply because they will provide security for those who might be a bit more trepidatious. Consider keeping grades a concession, a concession for being able to teach and assess in a new system that truly allows us to be mission-driven. In other words, if keeping grades will allow students, families and colleges to allow us to teach in a competency environment, then so be it.

So how does it work? Unlike traditional grading — averaging the averages of tests, quizzes, projects, etc to generate a percentage that we then convert into a letter grade — in this model, teachers identify 4–8 school-wide Essential Skills (transferrable and trans-disciplinary skills, such as communication and critical thinking) along with 3–5 disciplinary skills (such a “Tinker, Play and Investigate” for math or “Text selection and usage” for English). Note: while content remains incredibly important, it is a means and not an end; content is the medium through which students develop confidence and competence in the skills. We prioritize skills because they are transferrable and will be relevant to the student regardless of what they do for the rest of their life.

Once the skills are identified, teachers create learning experiences in which students must use the skills. In an assessment, a number of the skills are assessed. Instead of averaging them all together, our grading system tracks how the student does in each separate skill separately. At the end of the semester, for example, a teacher will know how well a student does in each of the skills evaluated. Using Blackbaud’s new competency grade book (and we are proud to pilot their beta as early adopters), teachers and students will be able to click on each skill and see their score on that skill and all of the assignments that led to that score. Only at the end of the grading period will all of the scores from the competencies be averaged together.

How are the scores for each competency generated? In full disclosure, we spent hours talking about this together, and likely scores of hours individually thinking and wrestling with which model would be more mission-aligned. Despite there being no perfect model — should we us the overall average, n times, decaying average, recent score? — we opted to use the decaying average, which means that the most recent score accounts for 65% of the score for the competency and 35% comes from the previous score. While holes can be poked in this method (as they can be for each method), we opted for the decaying method because it articulates our belief that students will grow and improve over time, and thus how they are doing at the end of semester should be more heavily weighted.

How is this different from traditional grading?

Well, it is quite different! Namely, we no longer prioritize the mechanism through which a student demonstrates understanding (such as tests, quizzes, etc). Rather, we shift the focus to the skills. For example, a student might say in the old system — “I have an 89.4%. What do I need to do to improve my grade?” — whereas in this new system, a student would know (by looking at their scores in the respective skills) — precisely what they need to do to improve. They might say something like: “I am doing great in my written communication, but I need to improve on my critical thinking. Can I do {blank} to demonstrate my proficiency in this?” What is exciting about this model is that at the end of the semester, students might be able — if the teacher empowers them — to design their final project around a specific skill in which they need to show proficiency . Therefore, this system allows for incredible differentiation, and truly puts the steering wheel in the hands of the student.

Building Capacity

While building the tool gave us tactical confidence in how we would convert our knowledge of the student into a letter grade, we each recognized that the tactical solution was likely the least important aspect of our work. More important, we — anyone involved in piloting this new grading system — each needed to be able to tell the story of why this matters. Any change requires a compelling reason to move from the safety of a conventional and known system to something new and different. We opted to, as suggested by Eric Hudson from Global Online Academy, have our change-leaders write a public narrative. Why? Writing a public narrative makes the change-process personal. Through the process of writing, one becomes empowered to become the agent of change. Furthermore, through writing, the author develops a deeper understanding of the process and product. Take some time and read the following five rough drafts.

Read how this teacher — with the utmost vulnerability — models their own growth while discussing the need to interrogate our current grading system.

I grew up in a family of teachers. My maternal grandparents and great grandparents were professors of music, chemistry, and physics. On my paternal side, my aunts, uncles, and cousins are educators, coaches, advisors. My parents raised my two siblings and me on boarding school campuses, and the three of us are now all teachers. Educators raised me: from my aunts, uncles, and grandparents, to the babysitters and friends who hung around our home. I feel it in my blood, and in the hum underlining all my days.

Here’s a story I love telling: when my siblings and I were young, my mother initiated an hour of “quiet time” during the summer months. From 5–6 in the evening, we were to find our own space and quietly reflect, read, or create. At six or seven, I used my quiet-time to explore the depths of my father’s recycling bin which contained piles of discarded paper. I must admit that I don’t actually know what the papers contained, but in my version of the story, I remember them as old assignments and student work from his math class. I spent the hour pretending to “grade” these random papers, circling words I couldn’t read and drawing an “x” through them, covering the paper in check marks or smiley faces; and for papers that certainly didn’t “get it”, I drew a big old x through the middle. But one detail was always consistent: the number I drew at the top, enclosed by a circle. That final, irreversible, and defining circle. In my early years of teaching, when folks would ask if I had always wanted to be a teacher, I said yes and told them this story as proof of my love and dedication to education.

Here’s a story that I don’t love telling: a student in one of my classes had been struggling to complete their work and had wracked up a number of 0’s in the grade book. When I sat down with the Dean to talk about their failing grade, he suggested that I turn the 0’s to 50’s. My gut reaction was: no way. How could I possibly give credit when the student put in exactly 0% effort to complete the assignments, just as my grade book reflected? How could all of the work that I had been doing to create learning experiences for my students be so quickly undermined by giving credit where it was not due? This story quickly turned to one that made me defensive of my work and allowed me to distance myself from a struggling student.

Here’s another story that I don’t love telling: It was routine in my classroom to take a quick, five question reading quiz at the beginning of class as a way to check completion of the homework. One time, a student answered one question (incorrectly) and left the other four blank. I put an x through the blank answers, did not write a note to her about checking in about how the reading was going, and then handed it back the next day. When another student groaned about missing a question they swore they knew, this student exclaimed: well at least Kim didn’t just throw an x through your work and call it a day. She looked at me when she said this, totally straight faced. It would later become a joke in our class, but it was always a joke that made me uncomfortable. I apologized to that student after class, but it didn’t stop her from making the joke whenever she got into complicated situations with her learning. Maybe we should just drawn an x through this paper, Kim, she’d say.

These are not the stories I like to tell when I talk about why I went into education, but they are the stories that will help me make sense of why I will stay in education. And here is the real tension: those moments of “grading” failures do not adequately represent the deep learning that I’ve seen occur in my classrooms. They do not encapsulate the hard questions we wrestle with, the ten minutes of journaling at the beginning of each class where we all write to the rhythm of scratching pens and pencils, the hours of revision trying to get their truths just right, the risk taking, the exploration of humanity and individuality and how all of those pieces fit together. Those “grading” failures do not adequately describe the joy I feel when reading and writing beside young students as they find their voices. Where is there a system of assessment that validates that messy and imperfect and beautiful process of learning? Enter Competency-Based Learning and Grading.

Here at The White Mountain School we are engaging with the extensive research surrounding Competency-Based Learning and Grading as we prepare to transition into that system. We started by taking a brave look at ourselves in the mirror and asking if we truly are inspiring our students to live lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion, as we say in our mission. If our system of assessment says to a student that they will only ever be the average score of all their attempts, aren’t we only calling them all ‘average’? And will that inspire courage? If our system of assessment says to out students, four times a year, that they are a B student, will that really inspire their curiosity about a learning experience that won’t label them as “B”? And if our system of assessment says to our students that our observation of their classroom behavior and participation will be included in their grade, despite our biases that will inevitably further marginalize the marginalized and launch the privileged forward, are we truly inspiring — or modeling — compassion?

With Competency-Based Grading, we aim to create learning experiences that inspire teachers to value equity over tradition, and for students to value skills over content. After all, it is not a student’s supreme ability to identity metaphor or recite the quadratic formula that will make them successful outside of the classroom; it is their ability to critically think and problem solve that will make them flexible thinkers and positive contributors to society. At The White Mountain School, we are committed to honoring that truth. We are currently dreaming about and planning for an “Inquiry Summit” at the end of the year, an event that will replace our week of dusty exams. We are envisioning students lining the hallways and populating our open spaces as they share the story of their questions, their research, their innovations, and their learning. They will be proud of their final products and not ashamed to talk about the ways they failed-forward in the process. They will talk about the essential skills they acquired and refined in the pursuit of content-based questions. It is our task as teachers to guide them to that sort of paradise, and we believe the first step toward that is changing the way we assess and give feedback.

Our world does not have time for us to be fraudulent educators perpetuating a fraudulent system. We do not have time to graduate intensely grade-focused and intensely apathetic students into our communities. We need to believe in our students more than that. We need to believe in our world more than that.

In this public narrative, the teacher names clearly the issue about teaching math content at the cost of teaching students to be mathematicians:

I struggled to find meaning in the mathematics that was being taught to me in high school. The content seemed to exist in a space outside of my experience and thus became a hurdle to get over. Skip ahead to college when I started taking math courses again and I saw peers who were creative problem solvers; they didn’t give up on a challenging problem; and they used their skills to solve problems that exist right in front of them. I realized then that the content of mathematics is much easier to learn than the skills associated with becoming a mathematician.

This is part of a larger conversation not only about mathematics but all education. A calculator/quick google search can solve 90% of problems that would appear on traditional math test. This is not the purpose of math in high school curriculum; we should be preparing our students to think critically, creatively, and to be curious. These skills are not acquired through a questionably put together assignments that have 30 even numbered questions to hurdle through. Rather they arise from continued attempts on assignments specifically targeted at essential skills that are embedded in a school’s philosophy. This idea gives a sense of purpose to an institution as we can point to exactly what we want our students to accomplish by the time they graduate. I want to be a part of a community that pushed forward pedagogically in order to change education for the better, just as we want to have our students change the world.

Notice how this teacher captures the importance of purpose and choice:

In high school, my brother and I used to sit down the night before the final exam in Latin class and calculate the lowest possible grade we could get on the exam without losing our A in the class. If a B- would do the trick, we figured that was enough. Why keep working if you know that, once all the grades are averaged, you will still have your beloved A?

Years later, when I was in my early twenties, I went to the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. There’s a scene in this play where the students in a Latin class break out in a song whose lyrics are pulled from the first lines of the Aeneid. They joylessly chant these lines of Latin as a demonstration of the rigid society they live in and the rote memorization that characterizes their education. Meanwhile, a soloist sings of all that he truly longs for as a young man growing up and figuring out life. To my Latin teacher’s credit, I still remember those lines from the Aeneid. Unfortunately, I also recognize the rigidity of the students’ learning environment and their feeling that they were learning for the sake of performance.

Spring Awakening takes place in the nineteenth century. The work we do with students today should not resemble the work that took place in schools back then, but our reliance on a traditional grading method makes it difficult to break with outdated methods of instruction.

At White Mountain, we see students owning their education. They ask questions, and we empower them to find the answers. A student curious about Pompeiian frescos may find herself looking up Latin verbs in order to read the ancient graffiti written by the citizens of this seaside town. She might even memorize a few lines of the Aeneid if the music of dactylic hexameter speaks to her aesthetically. What she won’t do is mindlessly tread through grammar exercises in the textbook.

Content still matters, but it is a means not an end. Our goal is not to produce students who have memorized material but students who are curious and have the academic skills and habits that will allow them to pursue work they genuinely care about.

Why is this important right now? We no longer live in a world where it is difficult to access information. We have information at our literal fingertips. What we need is the ability to use information. We need to be able to discern what is true and analyze what is significant. In a world where information is everywhere but consensus is hard to find, students who can think critically are the ones who have an edge.

By evaluating students in terms of competencies, we give them a chance to develop the skills they need right now. Each assessment is designed as an opportunity for students to demonstrate their abilities in certain competencies, and they are given a score of developing, proficient, or exemplary. For example, a student producing a painting might be evaluated on her aesthetic communication, her technical skills, and her ability to engage with feedback. What she paints is her decision, and in that sense the content of the course will vary from one student to another. By the end of the semester, however, all of the students will have shown improvement in the competencies emphasized in that course.

Had my brother and I attended a school where students are evaluated in terms of competencies, we wouldn’t have spent the night before the final Latin exam figuring out the absolute minimum amount of work we had to do before our grades would drop. We might not have even been working on the same thing. I like to imagine that as someone whose interests lie in art and design, I could have been doing a project related to Roman mosaics. And maybe he, who loved astronomy, could have studied how the architecture of the Pantheon was designed to interact with the light of the summer solstice. Ideally, both of us would have been doing something we cared about, and so we would have had other reasons, besides the almighty grade, to keep working. We might have even done work more closely related to the careers we have found ourselves in as adults.

Another teacher addresses their students, sharing the high standards that will be held while also sharing the belief in the capacity for all students to meet these.

From my experiences as both a student and a teacher, I believe that we can only think, write, design, create, and collaborate well when we feel safe enough to bring more of our whole selves into this classroom and our community at large. This safety will be relative, and it will be easier for some to feel than others — for reasons I hope we can all be curious about, attentive to, and respectful of. In part, though, I believe we can only feel safe enough to truly learn when we are invited and excited to “fail” and grow from those “failures.” But for you, as students, especially as juniors with college applications on the horizon for many of you, it is only safe for you to learn from failure when you are not being penalized by bad grades. We want to mitigate the impact of grades as a penalty for not yet having mastered a skill. This doesn’t mean we won’t hold you accountable for your work by giving you feedback on how to improve; in fact, we will continually push you to develop your skills. Nor does it mean you won’t earn grades for your work. But it does mean that the grades you earn early in the semester — grades that reflect your developing understanding — won’t be weighted as heavily as the grades you earn later in the semester when you are getting better at those skills.

In order to encourage our class to focus on developing our reading, writing, communicating and critical thinking skills, you won’t be getting one grade for each individual assignment. Instead, you will be getting feedback and — at times — a grade on your performance of specific skills you performed while completing that assignment. Each assignment will function as evidence for those skills. We will engage in dialogue about how your work functions as evidence for those developing skills so that assessment is transparent and so that you know what skills you need to work on as we go. Over the course of our year, we will look back at all of your work and see, across writing assignments and creative projects, how your writing developed, how your analytical thinking sharpened, how you got better at organization and planning, and so on.

Assignments will be challenging at first, and you will be encouraged to find your own growing edges. I know grades matter, but I hope that in basing your grade more heavily on where you end up, you will be able to focus on what you need to do to get better at the target skills rather than the points you earn for each assignment. I hope you will feel freer to experiment and explore, to get things “wrong” and to discover how you learn, how you get better at something over time.

Lastly, one of our teachers creatively imagined describing competency-learning to a group of visiting prospective families. They write this as if it is a script from a play. Witty but spot-on, enjoy this!

Here is what I might say about the course…

World History 1 uses essential questions, inquiry-based projects and discussions, and competency-based learning to help us navigate world history content. There is so much material within the discipline of world history, it would be absurd to try to cover it all. Instead, we take on the role of historian and scholar, looking deeply and carefully at particular events and movements in history. While we look deeply, our efforts are guided along the way with a framework of guiding essential questions that are, by design, challenging and multi-faceted. A few examples are “What do we do when we study history?” and “How do innovation and error impact human history?” These students are looking at empires and dynasties that rose to great power, maintained that power for a period of time, and then, for a variety of reasons, fell. The shorthand for it is the Fallen Empires project. The students right now are researching, reading from sources that provide information on the critical events and circumstances that fueled those power dynamics.

There are a few features about how student work is assessed that are unique. Here’s what I mean by that.

The White Mountain School has identified a set of essential and transferable skills and habits. You likely have heard of them by now. Feedback is directly, consistently, purposefully connected to the selected skills and habits. For this class, here are the strands by which students will be assessed by all year [points to chart on wall]

One of the essential skills strands related to the work going on right now is communication. A sub-strand within communication is ‘create,’ and students will be assessed in alignment with these competency statements:

C4 Create

*I can create a physical or digital product that can be explained to an audience.

*I can create a physical or digital product that communicates complex ideas to an audience when they interact with it

“I can create a physical or digital product that can be explained to an audience” is a statement that would be used to establish a competency that is developing. It is on its way, but more practice, revision, and assessments are in order to move toward proficiency.

The statement next to it “I can create a physical or digital product that communicates complex ideas to an audience when they interact with it” underscores how a student has demonstrated proficiency with this particular skill strand.

Over the course of the school year, students will be doing all kinds of creating of physical and digital products for an audience. We begin the year with this somewhat quick chronology you see here [points to one of the students] and will end with a much larger exhibition, an inquiry summit, in May when students will share the results of a project making a new periodization.

I just brought in some content-specific terminology there: chronology and periodization. These are some of the ways that historians communicate their findings and synthesize complex historical movements. Students are also assessed in terms of content-specific skills, skills that are unique to the discipline of history. They are here on this chart next to the essential skills [points to chart]

I can use historical thinking skills such as comparison, contextualization, continuity and change over time, and causation.

I can use and analyze historical frameworks and tools such as maps, data sets, periodization, and chronologies.

I can thoughtfully and empathetically consider and appreciate the existence of multiple narratives of the past, including narratives of voices that have been silenced or marginalized.

I can ask questions about the past that can be applied to contemporary issues.

You may recall the essential question “What do we do when we study history?” That question drives this kind of work, and the content-specific skills help us know how and when we are gaining proficiency with these kinds of skills. With our work right now, we are looking at item 2 because they are crafting an annotated chronology, a timeline of the period they have researched.

There is another chart here with habits, which you likely have also learned about. In a similar fashion to the skills, this class will focus in on a few of them. One such habit is reflection. [Points to chart] The sub-strand on reflection is feedback.



I accept and incorporate teachers’ comments into the next draft or version of my work.

I seek, synthesize, and incorporate feedback from multiple users to create significant improvement into subsequent drafts or versions of my work.

Students will get regular feedback on all their work, and the assessment of the skill strands such as “create” with communication and content-specific skills such as “using and analyzing historical frameworks and tools” will go toward their grade for the course. The habits are aspects of their work that will be assessed but not go toward their grade. I like to think of this feedback as something an athlete would hear at a practice or an actor would hear at a rehearsal — it instructs at times that are not performances.

So, this habit strand of “feedback” is all about how well a student responds to feedback, how he or she seeks it out, how he or she incorporates it, and how his or her work then improves. For example, I can give feedback on the fly, and students will be giving and receiving peer feedback on these chronologies in the next class.

Taken together, I hope you can see how these three assessment items — an essential skill about creating work, a content-specific skill about using historical tools such as chronologies, and an essential habit about feedback are linked and mutually reinforcing.

The work on this research project is being assessed by a handful of other strands, and they learned about those strands at the outset of the project. Here is the handout of the project that describes it and what strands are brought in.

They will get assessed on all of these strands and those will be entered into the grade book using this scale [points to scale on wall] that indicates their level of competency. This project, then, results in multiple scores, if you will. Over time, the different scores on the skills will be converted to a letter grade. My grade book has categories of all the different skills that will be assessed over the semester and year. There will be a Communication — Create category, for example, with multiple scores. There will be a Use and Analyze Historical Frameworks category. Under each of these categories, this Fallen Empires Project will have a data point. There won’t be a single entry that says Fallen Empires Project, as you might see in a more traditional grade book.”

Needless to say, I am feeling particularly thrilled to be part of The White Mountain School faculty. What a brave and caring group of educators!

Please reach out if you have questions or thoughts about the work we are doing!

Interested in reading some of the articles we read before launching into the PD work?