This is an exciting time to be involved in education. During the last few hundred years, schooling has been characterized by discipline-based and content-focused studies whose success has been measured, by and large, by students’ ability to recall the information from the canon studied. However, times are changing. Over the last fifty years, there has been an increased interest and call for focus on the development of transferable or 21st century skills. In 1958, Theodore Yntema, who worked with the Ford Motor Company, challenged educators to teach and equip students with “the basic skills and abilities that are widely transferable from one field to another.”1 Since then, recognition of and acceptance for the need to emphasize the development of skills and competencies has grown and is now an integral part of the British Columbia Ministry of Education’s BC Ed Plan. The revitalized British Columbia curriculum is aligned with current research and what we know about how people learn, and compels educators to pedagogically direct their focus on the development of students’ “core competencies.”2

“Core competencies are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning.”3 Six core competency areas have been given priority within the BC Education Plan: communication; creative thinking; critical thinking; positive personal and cultural identity; personal awareness and responsibility; and social responsibility. While many other areas of competency development could have been included, these six areas represent some that might be considered critical aspects for being good or educated citizens in the 21st century.4 British Columbia is not alone in pursuing this focus on developing competencies in students. Other curriculum systems have also increased their focus on developing essential abilities or competencies. For example, in 2007 the Association of American Colleges and Universities published an excellent collection of sixteen rubrics5 intended to help faculty assess essential undergraduate competency outcomes. While some of the AAC&U rubric areas are in common with the core competency areas identified by the BC Ministry of Education, the AAC&U set of rubrics also include areas such as global learning, integrated learning, problem solving, and information literacy.

This is exciting. British Columbia’s education plan is mandating that teachers facilitate the development of core competencies in all learners. Just think about this – a mandate to intentionally develop students’ abilities to think creatively and critically, communicate more effectively, and to be aware of themselves and consider the needs of others in the process. On one hand, this is revolutionary. On the other hand, this is what really good teachers have been doing for years. Still, there are many seasoned teachers who are nervous about the change and there is good reason for that. In the traditional understanding of what it meant to teach, content knowledge transfer was the goal. Now, breaking out of the content-first mindset presents a major challenge and many teachers don’t know how or where to start in their work of planning for the development of student competency.

As the educational focus shifts from one where content was king toward one focusing on development of learners’ competencies, our frame of reference for what constitutes good planning and effective teaching also moves. The natural method of lesson planning, which hinges on content required to be covered, is no longer good enough. We must figure out what it means to plan and assess for competency development. Not knowing what this might look like or even where to start can be very unsettling. So where does one start?

For those struggling with this question, allow me to outline a simplified methodology for planning a lesson or unit while maintaining core competency development as your primary goal and learning target. Your version of this will be far more insightful and will take into account your understanding of what your students need, but for now, let’s imagine a blank slate. All we know is that we have students coming, and we need to create a lesson plan that focuses first and foremost on developing core competencies areas.

As we already noted, there are six core competency areas we are responsible for in the new BC Ed Plan. Further, each of the core competencies have three or four sub-parts called facets that help better define narrower particular focus areas. In total, there are twenty core competency facets that schools are responsible for intentionally developing in students. There is no way you can intentionally develop and track all these areas at the same time, so, instead, you could use the following procedure:

Step 1 – Select a core competency to focus on. Imagine a dartboard where each target number represents one of the core competency facets. Throw a dart. Congratulations, you have a core competencies facet of focus. Write it down on the top of a sheet of paper.

(Example: Communication: connect and engage with others to share and develop ideas.)

Step 2 – Brainstorm as many pedagogical methods or learning activities as you can that will serve to intentionally develop the core competency facet you are focusing on. This is NOT the time to filter your ideas. Write down every idea you have, the good ones and the bad ones.

(Example: Have small groups engage in a peer critique protocol: the “like” and “I wonder” feedback circle. Have students in small groups create an “everything I know about ______” mindmap as an introduction, and follow up with class “arising questions” activity.)

Article First published in The Link, May 2016

Step 3 – Steps 1 and 2 did not require knowing what content area you are working with. The pedagogies and activities you thought of could be used in a lesson about butterflies, trigonometry or poetry. They are adaptable for all areas. But now, go ahead and consider your content area and the big ideas you will explore as a vehicle for developing the core competency. Refine, add or delete some of the activities you brainstormed in Step 2.

Step 4 – Add another core competency facet to focus on and repeat Steps 1-3. You will probably find that two to three core competencies facets of focus are entirely manageable.

Step 5 – Make a record of your intentional core competencies focus areas. If you’re not sure what that might look like, you could create a tracking grid like the one found at This would help you track the core competencies focus areas your team has worked to develop intentionally throughout the year.

Obviously, throwing a dart as a methodology for choosing core competencies to focus on lacks some intentionality and acknowledgement of your students’ needs, but it does illustrate that planning can be completed with the development of core competency at the forefront of intention. To make it intentional, think of your students – you know them. Replace Step 1 by considering the core competencies facet areas that should be addressed for development with this group of students. No dartboard needed. Target acquired.