Three Lessons From New Hampshire’s Effort to Expand Deeper Learning

By Jon Vander Els and Kathy White
November 24, 2020

In 2019, Aurora Institute released the new definition of competency-based learning. This seven-part definition was developed with extensive support from practitioners, researchers and leaders across the country.

definition of competency based learning
Image courtesy of Vander Els and Stack, 2019

This updated definition reflects a deeper understanding of key issues and developments in the field. This is certainly true for our work in New Hampshire, particularly as it relates to the seventh design principle above. The “transferable” skills we have prioritized—problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration—have been an important and evolving area of our work.

In New Hampshire, we call these skills “Work Study Practices,” and for the past five years, we have supported teachers to design new forms of instruction and assessment that inspire students to develop these competencies. The framework that we used to guide the articulation and implementation of these skills can be found in the Essential Skills and Dispositions.

Our learning during this time has been extensive. Across our multi-year journey, three lessons stand out:

  1. Metacognition plays a foundational role in students’ (and adults’) development of WSPs.
  2. Assessment is for learning.
  3. Teacher learning leads to student learning.

We needed a way to extend these initial observations and help other educators and leaders experience similar leaps in understanding, reform and equity. So we built a research-practice partnership. In doing so, we wanted to do something better than the typical idiosyncratic and isolated professional development approaches that are often scattered across our state.

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we made BEST: Building Essential Skills Today. The BEST model is designed to scale deeper learning competencies (work study practices) across New Hampshire. It represents a unique collaboration of two domains of expertise: researchers and practitioners.

Working in conjunction with our research partners, we engaged in an iterative process with teachers and students to design, pilot and refine a set of self-direction tools (rubrics, a student-self-direction self-assessment tool, and a student self-direction roadmap tool) that have both face and construct validity, because they have been developed by teachers and have been shown to work in the classroom. Through this collaboration, our understanding has evolved and deepened, leading to an even greater focus on the three lessons above.

Metacognition plays a foundational role in the development of work study practices.

Teachers are finding great value in focusing with students on the metacognitive practices of self-awareness and monitoring and adapting. Jess Tremblay, a social studies teacher at Souhegan High School, shares her thinking about students and the metacognitive process in this video.

“You have to slow down and model for students what it means to be metacognitive. So we can't just say reflect on this. We have to model for them how you reflect on this and what specific elements to be thinking about, particularly in regard to this notion of monitoring and adapting, their learning.”

Jess has her students self-assess on their self-direction and collaboration skills using the rubrics. Jess guides the students to consider a roadblock they encountered and asks, “What’s one strategy we use to adapt to that roadblock?” Sophia, a student at Souhegan High School, shares that the rubrics are helpful in “all the different categories we have and everything kind of enables you to know exactly where you went wrong and exactly where you need to improve.” This is supportive evidence of what we are hearing from employers and post-secondary admissions personnel. These skills are what allows students and employees to excel.

Assessment is for learning.

Self-direction and collaboration are essential skills in the formative assessment process and metacognition is deeply embedded in these skills. The BEST self-direction rubric identifies collaboration as a component in goal-setting and planning where students “independently seek input on a project-based learning goal and plan that pushes my learning beyond the task, and use feedback to improve the plan.”

Collaboration is seen in the classroom and in student exhibitions such as student-led conferences. Jon Vander Els shares his observation of an Epping High School student who demonstrated growth in self-direction while applying his metacognitive skills through self-assessment.

A student, who in the first year of the student-led conferences was hesitant to speak about his learning, shares “Now I am the one that says, here’s where I am and very importantly, here’s what I’m working on to get better because this is where I want to be.” This reflects how students, when responsible for collecting their own evidence and artifacts, and when it’s done in a non-punitive way, can demonstrate meaningful growth and ownership of learning.

Teacher learning leads to student learning.

In the BEST project, teachers engage in deep professional learning about what work study practices are, how research informs their articulation and implementation and when and where to incorporate them into existing performance assessments. A critical finding by the teachers during the task development was the importance of designing the process specifically to enhance students’ experience and practice of self-direction and to develop tools to capture evidence of self-direction during academic activities.

When teachers and students focus on the work study practices and engage in the collaborative process they don’t just build competencies — they build relationships. Students recognize the benefits of the work study practices and the collaborative relationships they experience in school as an underpinning to their success. As Solari, a student from Laconia High School, points out that moving from a traditional learning system to deeper learning presents a challenge for students. However, she notes that such struggle “is a good struggle because when you trust your students it shows them what it is in real life.”

Developing these critical skills takes time and as Sarah Barbato, a teacher at Souhegan High School, shares “These are the things that kids need to be prepared for college and to be prepared for the jobs that they’re going to have.” Even more importantly, students who engage in the work study practices recognize the value in developing these skills and dispositions. Sophia, a Souhegan High School student, identified the impact on students’ future when she explained thatDepending on your job and depending on what you decide to do after high school, you [still ] need to have good speaking skills and need to be able to work well with others. … It helps that we’ve had that foundation since we started.”

BEST has evolved significantly over the past three years and demonstrates how researchers and practitioners can effectively work together to develop tools and resources that support students’ development of the work study practices. Our understanding of the foundational importance of having students actively thinking about their learning (metacognition), the role of assessment as part of the learning process (assessment for learning), and how teacher learning leads to student learning have all come into greater focus. 

Taken together, these lessons and approaches implemented across New Hampshire demonstrate what can be done when adults and students work collaboratively to reinforce essential skills and dispositions our students need to be successful in college and career.

About the Authors

jon vander els portrait

Jonathan directs innovative, competency-based projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and is co-author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work (Solution Tree, 2018). Formerly, Jonathan was a principal in an elementary school recognized nationally as a model PLC and competency-based school. Jonathan has consulted, coached, and presented at conferences and Institutes throughout the United States, and lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast.

kathy white portrait

Kathy directs innovative, competency-based projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative Formerly, Kathy was a dean of faculty at Souhegan High School, a school committed to student voice, mastery learning and performance assessment as core principles of curriculum and instruction. Kathy has presented regionally and nationally on technology integration in the classroom, mastery learning and scaling deeper learning competencies in schools and across NH.

Authors Jonathan Vander Els and Kathy White of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, are members of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative where they are currently leading the study Deeper Learning and Diffusion of Innovation and Scaled Impact of New Hampshire’s Work-Study Practices.

You Might Also Be Interested In


    Skip to content