Saturday, August 21, 2010

(Im) Proving Competence

In a recent blog post teacher Joe Bower talks about a new research finding that kids who not only focused on ' proving ' their competence but on' improving their competence 'did better at school.

Competence is one of the 3 needs - autonomy = directing one's life from one's inner core , relatedness –in the context of good relationships , and competence that a person needs

to be intrinsically motivated , self determined and experience life at the highest level of reflection, and endorsement - Self Determined theory

From the blog we see that there are 2 ways of experiencing ' competence' - Proving or improving competence. When a student is improving competence, competence is a process , his learning is a process . When a student is focused on proving competence , the focus is on achievement , on grades and award - objects , something external , so the self becomes an object.

There is a lot of confusion between achievement and excellence. Achievement is about 'proving ' your competence , being competitive while excellence is experiencing competence , often collaborating and learning from each other. Schools focus on achievement which is often to the detriment of student learning especially when kids are younger. ' When teachers are told to improve performance, they talk more, they judge more and they control more' and this message is passed on to kids.

The truth is that students can actually 'prove' their competence to others in a way that 'improves' competence. Instead of testing and giving students grades , teachers can use a different kind of assessment.

Joe Bower says ' There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes when observing and interacting with their students while they are learning .'

Instead of tests students can share their learning with teachers, fellow students and their parents. They can make presentations , share projects , 'construct modern knowledge' and create portfolios of their learning that they can share in student led parent-teacher meetings . Students get the opportunity to share and teach what they learn. One learns the most when one teaches , talks about and shares one's learning. The interaction leads to more learning , the process does not stop. When we focus on traditional ways of proving learning , not only does the process stops , but kids forget everything they have learned except that one got an A for that subject. Proving competence ends up as undermining competence.

There are many of us who are very appreciative of Joe's creativity and leadership in assessing students in ways that improves their competence and helping teachers put into practice the ideas of Alfie Kohn , Deborah Meier and others.

See Joe's blog on ideas on ' Abolishing grades ' so kids focus more on improving competence and enjoying learning on their way to become lifelong learners.



  1. Hi Allan,
    Thanks for this post. It resonates really well with a book I am reading about Teach for America. It is clear that their focus is on proving rather than improving learning and so everything is done with that end in mind. How do you prove learning? On tests, through percentages, through calibrated learning. I am trying really hard to get through the book since I am reviewing it for an online journal but it has been a very hard read. Thanks for putting into words my sense of what I've read so far.

  2. Thanks Elisa

    When education means different things to different people - high test scores or a curious , thinking student we have different policies.

    I came across this blog

    whether teach for america encourages more civil engagement - the answer is no

    I see 3 reasons

    1 not being qualified , teachers lack competence
    2 focus on test scores , not on student's and their learning
    3 - belongs to 2 - a civic commitment is driven by a love and passion for helping people and kids , focusing on test scores undermines connection with kids, treats them as objects , doing to them to get better scores and make civic commitment about achievement rather than passion

    I see this in Nancy's 2nd comment

    Right from the beginning, TFA teachers are made to understand that they are to tirelessly pursue raising scores--that's the goal. Their data will be scrutinized, and the spotlight is shining-- and TFA has millions in private funding to generate PR.

    In our work with TFA teachers, the one thing they wanted most desperately (enough to brave asking for help outside the TFA community) were useful pedagogical strategies--to use immediately. They didn't know HOW to get kids engaged or motivated, how to run a classroom, how to differentiate instruction, how to teach point of view, the Civil War or linear equations.