Posted in Teaching and Learning

Competencies over content

I have been thinking and hearing a lot about competencies lately. Today, a cardboard box made it ‘click’ for me about what this means for my teaching and learning programs, and I am thankful I had probably been focussing a lot on competencies without even realising it. But now I have been doing more reading and thinking, it is starting to make sense.

Some background. I have a super bunch of yr 10’s who have been ‘streamed’ (my thoughts on streaming are a whole other kettle of blog posts) into a ‘L5’ class. This is the low band for our school. There are some challenges, and sadly they are occasionally a handful, but so long as a I plan for them carefully and keep lots of practicals on hand, they are an AMAZING, fun class to teach. They think outside the box, are willing to give things a go and, like me, they love setting things on fire.

We have been working on a research task on how a thermos flask works. They need to explain what they different parts of a thermos and how they prevent heat loss via limiting convection, conduction and radiation. These ideas are pretty abstract, and the students have at times struggled with what they mean, and to explain there observations from the practicals we have done. The research task is a common one, that is, all the Yr 10 students complete it and it goes on reports. I did tailor it a little for this class and say they didn’t need to ‘write a report’, but they could submit anyway they liked so long as they could show me they had processed the ideas and not just copied and pasted from the webpage into a document.

Which is where this class shines!! Some are working on a group powerpoint, and so by using 365 they were all working on the same doc at the same time and super excited about it. The collaboration was exceptional, they planned their slides, assigned tasks, and they got on with it. I just watched. Easy teaching right there 🙂 Others are making a cartoon (hand drawn) while another group or 2 are making the inevitable poster or brochure. And one chap is writing a report.

Another group is making a model thermos flask out of cardboard. Then they are going to film themselves explaining the parts. So the hacking and slashing of cardboard began and cellotape was flying everywhere. I was a little apprehensive, but it wasn’t until they started discussing why it had to be round, and what shape the lid had to be that I realised they understood the key concepts. To quote a student ‘the lid can’t just be a flap, that would let the heat out, cause the hot air rises’. Awesome proud teacher moment right there. I joined in and we went on to a discussion about pots boiling on the stove and how a lid can bump around when the water is boiling, and talked about pressure due to the gas particles ‘taking up more space’ than the liquid particles because they have more heat energy. So we came to the conclusion a screw top would be better for the thermos (although that was a little hard to make out of cardboard, so they settled for a cork!)

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There was some frustration when they couldn’t get the model to work how they wanted. One wanted to just not worry, and in slightly colourful language got told to stick at it by his mates. So while they were building their model, the were collaborating, problem solving and being resilient.

A Colleague (who is also a like minded but critical friend) came in after this, and we talked about it for a while. About how when the focus is on NCEA only, we can lose site of the competencies. And how NCEA should not be the be all and end all of teaching and learning, especially for students who struggle. They don’t need to write a report to express their understanding. So why do we keep asking them to do it? When so few of our students go to university, why is it driving? What skills would employers really want? If we are going to stream, why do we insist on having the same standard tasks?

We drew this picture trying to sort our ideas about it

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We feel that our current curriculum has too much focus on content/NCEA, even in the juniors. But if we could shift the focus to competencies, then the understanding for NCEA comes along anyway. As well preparing the students to have more ’employable’ skills and be ‘better citizens’. But also, when they students are working on tasks they engage in, they can get the content in a different way.

Despite having heard about competencies and thinking about them, I had never really seen them in action as clearly as I did today. All it took was for me to change the outcomes of the task from the literacy heavy written report to a format the students had agency over. The discussions and sharing of ideas from this group building their own model thermos was more that I could have hoped, and also were better expressed during the discussion than they will be during their ‘standard’ assessment they need to take. The groups working together on a shared document delegated tasks and managed themselves much more effectively than if I had tried to assign them tasks. Today my class of ‘loveable rogues’ probably wouldn’t have noticed if I had left the room, there were that into it. About ideas that are hard and by my own admission pretty dry.

So it was a light bulb moment. Now that I have seen it in action it isn’t actually that hard to place more value on the competencies. And if they are in place, the content knowledge will follow. I am going to do some more reading and thinking about how I can make this explicit in my planning and thinking. Because today rocked. I want more of it

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