Welcome to our first From the Field interview, a series featuring expert practitioners of competency-based education.

Dawn Mead, competency-based education teacherName: Dawn Mead

School: Nashua High School North; Nashua School District, Nashua NH

Title(s): Social Studies Head Teacher, Adult and Continuing Education Coordinator, Summer School Principal

What makes her awesome: Student empowerment through individualized learning pathways; accountability and keepin’ it real; 2012 New Hampshire Educator of the Year

As a 28-year veteran teacher, Dawn has cultivated a rare but ultra-valuable superpower: connecting with students.

What sets Ms. Mead apart from the average educator is her commitment to relationship building by supporting her students and staff in any way necessary help them succeed. She believes in hard work, accountability and connections, which makes her a perfect advocate for competency-based learning and a champion of student success.

Dawn has spent the last seven years as part of the change leadership team for her district, leading the charge in the move to competency-based education. She’s learned many valuable lessons along the way, and this interview highlights some of the greatest lessons learned, what it took to get here and what’s ahead for iteration and adaptation.


What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in moving to competency-based education?

The challenge is that some teachers are trying to plug in traditional curriculum and make it fit in the CBE model. We want to fit everything into something that didn’t exist when we created it. Several years ago, we revisited our curriculum model when we adopted the Common Core State Standards. I know, chill out. People hear ‘common core’ and freak out. They are standards. That is all. We have always used standards in curriculum and course design to align what students are learning with various outcomes deemed important by national and state and local education authorities. Anyway, when we revamped curriculum, we asked teachers and curriculum designers to really dig deep into analysis of current methods and be willing to focus more on project-based learning and authentic assessments that were meaningful to our students who represent a diverse socioeconomic population. Ultimately, that has helped us, but there are always those who become deeply attached to the status-quo and fail to adopt best practices when they become available. That has slowed the buy-in for some teachers who seem intent on presenting traditional teacher-centric curriculum and just slapping a CBE label on it.


What have been your greatest success?

There have been many successes, and perhaps even more importantly, many really valuable lessons that we have learned in our first official year of being fully competency-based.  Firstly, and not surprisingly, we found that the most successful CBE course one that was specifically designed for competency-based education. Our Freshman Writing course is a semester-long class required for every freshman student. The course itself is designed around mastery demonstration. Students have to keep artifacts of writing and the progress they have made along the way to their final submission. Students must submit 5 writing assignments at the end of course in a portfolio. It clearly demonstrates what students have mastered in that course.

The other big success was totally unexpected. I’ve found that some people who struggled as teachers within a traditional system excel in competency-based model. People you wouldn’t expect to love it, do. There is a lot of worth in empowering teachers to empower students through CBE. In traditional models, teachers were tasked with the dissemination and learning of knowledge. That is a lot of work and a lot of learning…for the teacher. Teachers should not be working harder than their students. Competency-based education encourages the responsibility of learning to fall on the learner not on the instructor. That doesn’t mean the end of teaching; it just means the end of stand-and-deliver, teacher-centric learning. Listening to our students. Learning with our students. That is the value of competency-based education.


What are the key steps in designing competency-based curriculum?

Curriculum design has to be done through the lens of CBE. If you are trying to cram your traditional course into the learner-centric, outcomes-based, differentiated approach, it’s not going to work. You have to start there, with the student, and determine what they need to know by the end of your course. If it isn’t a skill that is going to make their lives better or prepare them for college and career, you need to assess why you are asking them to learn it. For the sake of learning it? For a test? Both are horrible answers.

Students need to find meaning in what they are being asked to learn. They need to be able to apply what they are learning in the real-world. If they can’t, educators will struggle to engage learners. When we fail to engage our students in learning, we increase the risk of students dropping out.  We need to empower students through education, not kill them by it.


How has competency-based education changed you and the way you interact with students in the classroom?

I don’t “teach” in my classes anymore. The knowledge is already there; they can Google or read in a textbook or OER (open educational resource). I give my students pathways to go out and explore, use inquiry to guide research and find answers. They don’t need me to stand and deliver, they need to discuss and evaluate findings and draw their own conclusions. CBE enables me to incorporate best practices, community involvement and make things like critical thinking, communication and collaboration the base-line of the courses I teach.

The greatest personal challenge I have faced in teaching in CBE is resisting the urge to interject when I’m waiting for the students to respond. I have had to learn to get comfortable with “deafening silences” because we’re asking deeper questions than we’ve ever asked before. Students need more time to process higher order thinking skills. Wait time is a challenge. Sometimes it feels messy or like nothing is happening. That is the most important time of my class: allowing students time to process.


What would make competency-based education more deliverable and more effective in your school? Why?

Most teachers I work with love CBE but they hate the technology they have to report out on.

Our software doesn’t support competency-based education. As we look at finding new technology to support CBE, I am concerned that the people that are making decisions about software purchases for our district have never taught in CBE or used the software we currently have in this capacity. They don’t understand what we need in order to truly measure student progress.

As a department head in my school, we are going to know exactly what we want and need in a few years. I hear a lot of frustration from my colleagues about the technology we are currently using. Everyone is mad at the technology, but nobody knows specifically what they want or need.

We need time to work through the changes competency-based education poses. We are plugging square pegs in round holes, but I don’t know the diameter of the hole I need to drill to fit where we’ll be in 5 years. So whatever software we chose to support CBE, it needs to be flexible enough to handle multiple changes that will happen in the coming years.

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