developing competencies

Curriculum, Engagement, Teaching

Don’t Dump the Baby With the Bathwater

Why knowledge is important in developing competencies

With so much knowledge literally at our fingertips, some argue that teaching subject knowledge is obsolete. But Dueck argues that “when it comes to understanding the world around us, exploring new topics and developing competencies, existing knowledge matters a lot.” Moreover, it is the vehicle through which students can develop “21st century competencies.”

Perhaps you’ve heard some version of this line: Knowledge is old-school…just look it up on your phone!

I’ve found this sentiment is all too often uttered in our school and community conversations. The underlying message is that with information so easily accessible through our smart phones, tablets and what’s left of our PCs, people question the value of covering “content knowledge” in the classroom. Further contributing to the downgrading of good old-fashioned knowledge is the shift in focus to “competencies” and their importance in the global economy. There’s an unmistakable emphasis being placed on students’ ability to communicate, problem-solve, think critically and demonstrate a host of other valuable skills. But emphasizing competencies to the neglect of knowledge would be unfortunate. Our choice shouldn’t be to focus on knowledge or competencies, but rather to develop an effective and healthy relationship between the two. As stated in Ontario’s 21st Century Competencies – Foundation Document for Discussion, “Research has identified the importance of developing competencies in relation to specific subjects, rather than as topics for separate teaching.”1 

21st century skills a.k.a competencies

I find the term, “21st century skills,” used to denote this cluster of competencies, interesting for a few reasons. First off, in case no one noticed, we’re almost 20 percent through the 21st century. Considering this reality, we should stop talking about these skills as a future entity. Secondly, these “modern” skills are not actually all that modern. A saunter through the KVR railway tunnels in Hope, B.C., an acknowledgment that humans have likely visited the moon, and 20th-century advances in civil rights all suggest that problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and creativity are not a monopoly of our times. Recently someone told me, “Our students need to develop grit in the 21st century!” Yeah, that must’ve been absent aboard Franklin’s ships, Terror and Erebus, as they sought the route through the Northwest Passage… circa 1845!

Across Canada, and indeed the world, 21st century skills, or competencies as we will call them for the duration of this article, are being rightfully emphasized. However, I do not see them as a sort of new Holy Grail of education. Rather, I think we are finally looking at each learning target, and the medium we choose to achieve it, in the correct order. We’re realizing that we can use our course content to develop much more important, overarching competencies, rather than simply acquiring knowledge for the sake of it.

As we see different iterations of competency-based education adopted by provinces and territories across Canada, whether it’s New Brunswick’s Global Competencies, Ontario’s 21st Century Competencies or B.C.’s Core Competencies, it’s important that we not lose sight of educators’ valuable role in disseminating and filtering content knowledge. In light of some seismic shifts in our educational models, there are three critical ideas for educators to consider in how we balance knowledge acquisition and the development of competencies

1. Knowledge is power

We need to ground our quest for competencies in a knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. Verbs determine depth

The depth of cognition our students experience will largely rest upon the verbs we choose in defining our learning goals.

3. Shared responsibility

There’s evidence to suggest that it’s the responsibility of all educators to develop competent learners by applying curricular content knowledge.

Knowledge is power

At a recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Jack Ma, the creator of the Chinese marketing behemoth Alibaba, was asked for his opinion on the state of modern education. I encourage you to view the two-minute segment on YouTube. 2 I agreed with most of Ma’s arguments, especially that students must be “taught to think differently than machines.” Though my head was mostly nodding in agreement, I was vexed at how he flicked his wrist as he mentioned “knowledge,” and his apparent criticism that we’ve based our education system around it for the last 200 years. I watched the video again and again, each time agreeing with the bulk of it, but bothered by the dismissive hand gesture at the mention of knowledge.

I’m concerned that in our ever-expanding digital prowess, we will be tempted to throw the baby out with bathwater – namely to toss knowledge to the curb as being old-school. Thankfully, I don’t think this will happen, and that’s largely due to the best educators out there finding ways to use their curricular content to build competencies. They instinctively recognize that knowledge plays an important role in authentic and contextual learning. We can ramble on about creative thoughts, but if they’re not grounded in something, they’re likely useless anywhere but in a philosopher’s circle. While I agree that knowledge is at our fingertips, that it’s everywhere, free and instantly accessible, that too is part of the challenge. Our students will more effectively sift through the mountains of information out there with the mentoring, guidance and structure of our learning spaces, educators and curriculum.

Decades of research focusing on human memory are also supporting the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum. In his book, Creating the Schools Our Children Need, Dylan Wiliam argues that a well-stocked inventory of long-term memory is thought to increase agility in our short-term memory – the space used to grapple with ideas and solve immediate problems.3 Wiliam cites the work of Anders Ericsson, William Chase and George Miller in looking at how we best remember lists, the assortment of chess pieces or phone numbers. In short, we “chunk” items in long-term memory and pull these pieces into short-term, or working memory, when we need to solve problems, comprehend text or communicate ideas. To illustrate this point, I’ve put a Canadian twist on an example used by Wiliam. Can you make sense of this:

Due to the pressure of the fore-check, our team lost control of the puck, found ourselves running around in our own zone, and we were forced into icing. The resulting face-off led to a goal and we were off to overtime!

 Did you recognize this as a hockey situation? If you did, realize that I never mentioned the term “hockey” but rather a flurry of terms like zone, icing and face-off. I mention “running around,” though people were on skates. The point Wiliam illustrates is that only with background knowledge of these terms does the reading make sense. I found this argument by Wiliam, though he used a baseball example, to be very insightful. We make sense of our reading, conversations and interactions by drawing on a wealth of long-term memory chunks. Like me, you may have watched countless games on Hockey Night in Canada and acquired ample doses of CBC’s Coach’s Corner. Or perhaps your knowledge came from playing, coaching or attending minor league hockey games in your community. Some readers may recall Howie Meeker’s magic pen. Whatever the method, your knowledge of the game of hockey helps you make sense of what non-hockey literate people would hear as gibberish. For this reason, when it comes to understanding the world around us, and exploring new topics and developing competencies, existing knowledge matters a lot. 

Verbs determine depth

When I was in school I hated any discussion of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. To this day I cannot tell you what a dangling participle is and I don’t care to find out. Trust me, I would only entertain the topic of verbs if I really, really thought it was important. And it is.

I recently started working with the Alberta Assessment Consortium and I’ve come to appreciate the fantastic document entitled, Assessment Conversations: Engaging colleagues to support student learning. In it Bennett and Mulgrew discuss the anatomy of a learning outcome and argue that “It is essential to focus on the verbs within the outcome in order to be clear about the skills students will need to demonstrate.”4 Simon Sinek, in his book Start with Why, argues that verbs, unlike nouns, are actionable and give us a clear idea on how to act in any situation.5 When I recently sat down with Dr. Lorin Anderson in South Carolina, he became animated over the topic. He considers the shift to the verb in defining what students should do as a “revolutionary direction in education!”6 Clearly I’ve been missing out on the importance of what my Grade 3 teacher called “action words.”

Dr. Lorin Anderson teamed up with Dr. David Krathwol in the late 1990s to design Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. These two former students of Benjamin Bloom reconfigured the original 1950s edition of the taxonomy to achieve two things:

  1. It bases the levels of cognition on verbs rather than nouns: knowledge becomes remember; synthesis becomes create, and so on. (See Figure 1)
  2. It recognizes that knowledge moves from the simple to the complex, and adds a second dimension of the taxonomy to encompass this hierarchy.

The result is a framework like the one in Figure 2. This is a fantastic tool for teachers to self-assess the extent to which a unit, activity or assessment reflects a well-rounded approach to knowledge and a variation in cognitive levels. I caution that educators not look at any cell being better than the other, but rather that we strive for a healthy balance of knowledge levels and cognitive domains. In the end, verbs are very powerful in helping us design learning opportunities that use knowledge in order to build competencies.

Shared responsibility

The importance of shifting to a competency-based model of education, and utilizing our content to do it, cannot be understated. In light of this shift, we need to consider that for too long we’ve tended to put the cart before the horse – namely to use competencies (say the ability to create) to cover content (math knowledge). Let me illustrate the need for a paradigm shift with a personal example. During my first years of teaching at a rural school in Morris, Manitoba, I designed a kite-building activity for a group of Grade 6 students to whom I was teaching both Math and Science. My students and I were excited to create kites of various sizes and designs. One boy built a 10-foot tall sled kite and the local paper arrived to take pictures. The Grade 6 students solved problems, thought critically and communicated in teams, but this was not the end-goal. Rather my purpose for designing an engaging activity was that they learn the content material: scale, angles, measurement, area, ratio and the basics of flight. There’s no question that back in 1996, I wanted to teach content via a creative process.

The paradigm shift that I am observing globally is that this process is being reversed. We are moving towards using content and our means of covering it (mathematical angles, story-writing, science labs, etc…) in order to develop competencies such as communication, critical thinking and problem-solving. It’s just looking at the process in a different light. Consider the shift in my goals, and the medium used to achieve them, from 1996 to present.

1996 model:

Goal: Students to learn ratio, scale, flight basics (content)

Medium: Create kites in teams (employing creativity and communication competencies) 

Present model:

Goal: Develop problem solving, communication and digital literacy competencies.

Medium: A kite-building activity that builds on students’ knowledge of content: ratio, scale, flight.

What’s essential is that we all own the development of competencies in each of our curricular areas, and it turns out research supports this notion. In the past, we’ve tended to compartmentalize competencies, tasking whole departments to take the lead on certain areas. You’re after creativity? You’ll find that in Ms. Field’s Art class – room 22! Oh, and if you’re after communication, our English department is on the third floor. It seems that this approach is misguided. As human beings, we are quite context-dependent in our development of skills. With the exception of collaboration, Wiliam contends that all other competencies actually do not easily transfer from one context to another, and he cites studies to prove it. People who learn something underwater better recall that learning when they’re back underwater.7 When we learn something in a certain room, we better recall it in that room8 and, interestingly enough, when we learn something under the influence of alcohol, we test better once we are again… slightly inebriated.9

Wiliam and others argue that if we want to develop critical thinking in Math, we need to teach critical thinking in Math. If we want students to communicate in Science, we need to purposefully teach communication in Science. The development of competencies is everyone’s responsibility, and only when students develop them in separate curricular areas, while interacting with separate content, will those competencies be expressed across the curriculum.

While I once agreed that knowledge was on the way out, that technology would render it a dinosaur, I no longer believe that’s true. In our quest to develop competencies, we need to use knowledge to anchor our development of enduring skills. While tackling knowledge, we must harness the power and variety of verbs to bring depth to the learning experience. And finally, we cannot rely on some other staff member to develop competencies – that’s on all of us.


Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2019


1 Towards Defining 21st Century Competencies for Ontario. 21st Century Competencies: Foundation document for discussion (Queen’s Printer, 2015,) Winter 2016 Edition.

2 Jack Ma, “Jack Ma on the Future of Education (Teamwork Included)” (2018).

3 Dylan Wiliam, Creating the Schools Our Children Need (Learning Sciences International, 2018).

4 Sherry Bennett and Anne Mulgrew, Assessment Conversations: Engaging with colleagues to support student learning (Alberta Assessment Consortium), 7.

5 Simon Sinek, Start With Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action (Portfolio, 2011).

6 Lorin Anderson: personal communication June 19, 2018.

7 D. Godden and A. Baddeley, “Context-dependent Memory in Two Natural Environments: On land and underwater,” British Journal of Psychology 66, No. 3 (1975).

8 Steven Smith, Arthur Glenberg and Robert Bjork, “Environmental Context and Human Memory, Memory and Cognition 6, No. 4 (1978).

9 G. Lowe, “State-dependent Recall Decrements with Moderate Doses of Alcohol,” Current Psychology 1, No. 1 (1981).

Meet the Expert(s)


Myron Dueck

District VP: Communicating Student Learning

Myron Dueck has been a teacher and administrator in both Canada and New Zealand, developing assessment strategies in his classroom, school and district. His bestselling book, Grading Smarter, Not ...

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