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Aurora Institute

Gathering the Tools for Designing Competencies

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

In our research for the paper “The Art and Science of Designing Competencies” to be released later this summer, it is becoming clear that there is some variation in how schools develop competencies. I’m sharing this now because we’d like to know if there are other possible starting points.

We appear to be in agreement that competencies are more encompassing than standards. Therefore, it is important for everyone to first become comfortable with the standards—really get to know them. Start by “unpacking” the standards to determine which ones are the most meaningful. Then reorganize the remaining standards to fall under one (or more) of the larger ideas.

The variations we are seeing are caused by what else is brought into the process of designing the competencies. As Kim Carter of the Q.E.D. Foundation explained, “Designing competencies is a creative process. We gather together the tools we will need the same way a painter might choose brushes and paints.”

As innovators described their processes for developing competencies, here are a few of the tools that they use.

Essentials of the Discipline: Gloria Pineda from Diploma Plus referred to this as a “disciplinary habit of mind.” It’s the mindset you need to “attack and achieve rigorous content.” If you are designing math competencies, think like a mathematician; history, like a historian. This is what makes K–12 competencies a bit more challenging to develop than for higher education, which focuses on the competencies needed for a specific occupation.

Rooted in the Conditions of Industry: Tony Monfiletto, co-founder of ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, approaches school design through a community development lens. This means bringing together economic development and youth development. The ACE model starts with the conditions of the industry, issues that are important to the industry such as efficiency in health care. This isn’t an occupational focus—it’s bringing the dynamics of industry into the curriculum. The creative process is to blend real-world projects and standards. (You can learn more here as they design a new school rooted in the health care industry).

Knowledge Frameworks: The language used in competencies and rubrics is important. It can be powerful or bureaucratically boring. It can inspire and challenge, or it can introduce a culture of compliance and checklists. These are two of the knowledge frameworks.

  • Depth of Knowledge, developed by Norman Webb at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, offers four levels: recall, skill/concept, strategic thinking, and extended thinking.
  •  Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives has six levels: remember (knowledge), understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create (synthesis).

Habits of Mind: In competency education both academic and lifelong learning skills, or “habits of mind,” are made explicit. Some schools use the habits of mind to bring life to their competencies and rubrics. Boston Day and Evening Academy’s six habits (reflection, evidence, perspectives, connections, possibilities, and relevance) are designed to build critical thinking skills, as well as resiliency. (Be sure to check out the rubrics for the Habits of Mind competencies developed by Q.E.D. Foundation. We’d all benefit from using them in our lives.)

If you know of any other tools that schools bring to the design process, we want to hear about them!

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.