Academics
The Punahou Journey

Competency-Based Learning

Competency-Based Learning (CBL) is an academic framework that emphasizes the value of student-centered personalization, with classroom and assessment practices that work to support the unique learning path of every individual student.

These courses employ a variety of strategies including, but not limited to, project-based learning, problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning, centered on students’ questions and curiosity. These courses emphasize what students can do with their knowledge, stressing the acquisition of skills and abilities that they will need for their futures.
As students study the content in each of these courses, they receive continual feedback towards a set of course competencies (or learning outcomes), derived from the Aims of a Punahou Education. The focus on competencies highlights for students the skills and mindsets required to successfully learn and grow in our traditional disciplines; teaching students how to think and act like scientists, mathematicians, historians, authors, artists, linguists or designers. In a competency-based course, the teaching of knowledge and skills are integrated together. As students learn the content of a course, they also learn how to apply it to specific projects, tasks and challenges. This approach helps students acquire the vital abilities and habits of mind that will enable them to succeed in college as well as in their future career paths.

President Mike Latham’s letters to parents about learning at Punahou:

List of 2 items.

  • February 2020

    Dear Punahou Parents,

    In November, I wrote to you regarding the work of Punahou’s Academy in implementing a competency-based learning (CBL) approach in several new pilot elective courses and a few longstanding regular offerings. We believe that this pedagogy holds promise in ensuring that our students develop the critical abilities and skills they will need for the future. We also remain committed to a thorough evaluation of this work and to sharing the results of it with you.

    Since then, we have taken additional steps to assess our progress and provide you with information. I am glad to provide you with an update here:

    • We have established a CBL Frequently Asked Questions section on our website. Here you will find helpful information about this pedagogy as well as updates about upcoming events and talks.
    • On January 17, our PFA Monthly Gathering featured an in-depth discussion about CBL in the Academy. I particularly appreciate the role that our outstanding parent leadership played in planning this event and the constructive dialogue it produced. For those of you who were not able to attend the meeting, you can view a video recording of it online.
    • The work of our students in a “Global Sustainability by Design” course, one of our pilot CBL courses, was recently featured on Hawaii News Now. Watch the segment.
    • Academy Principal Emily McCarren and Assistant Principal Sally Mingarelli will welcome parents to a series of information sessions during the spring semester, where they will be able to observe classes using competency-based approaches firsthand. All parents are welcome!
      Register for a Session
    • Surveys have been deployed to the students who participated in competency-based courses during the fall semester of 2019. Findings will help to inform our next steps going forward and will be shared with families.
    • This spring, Punahou will host independent experts from both K-12 and higher education institutions to evaluate our CBL practices. Insights from these visits will also be shared with parents.
    • Finally, as a reminder, quarterly letter grade estimates and semester letter grades will continue to be implemented in our courses. There are no plans to alter this practice or for Punahou to depart from our traditional letter-graded transcript.

    Punahou’s approach in this area will be measured, careful, and pragmatic. As we review this work, we will define a way forward that fits with our own students, teachers, and learning goals. We will also continue to listen carefully to you. I hope you will take the opportunity to participate in one of the upcoming CBL information sessions. I also hope that you will remain engaged, ask questions, and join us as we continue to deliver the rigorous, innovative, and forward-looking education that Punahou has always stood for. It is a hallmark of our educational community, and one that I am deeply grateful to see flourishing.

    Mahalo,
    Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
    Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
    President
  • November 2019

    Dear Punahou Parents,

    I write with an update on our Academy curriculum. Many of you have heard about Competency-Based Learning (CBL), an approach to education that focuses on the development of key abilities and skills alongside the knowledge of a discipline. In addition to content, this approach emphasizes what students can do with their knowledge, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. In a rapidly changing world disrupted by shifts in technology and economics, those competencies have become vital for future success and will provide real advantages to our students.

    Punahou has a long record of innovation in teaching, and we have constantly sought to achieve deeper levels of understanding as we fulfill the Aims of a Punahou Education. In recent years we have incorporated our knowledge of the brain into an expanded approach to experiential education, launched a design thinking curriculum, and revised courses to promote the competencies we believe are vital for our students’ future success. This school year, Punahou piloted a more intentional competency-based design in approximately 6% of Academy classes. These include several elective courses (Global Sustainability by Design, Bias Studies, Ka Hālāwai Hou – Hawaiian Voyaging, Visual Storytelling, Anatomy of Major Systems, Cognitive Neuroscience, and AP Statistics) and three core courses (Biology, Biology Honors, and Chemistry).

    We have achieved significant successes with several of our initiatives. Our Global Sustainability courses, for example, have proven particularly popular and demand for them has exceeded supply. Many students also report receiving high levels of valuable feedback from their teachers. We recognize, however, that the implementation of a competency-based approach has led to some confusion and unease. Some of you have also raised thoughtful questions about the pedagogy and our plans. Let me be as clear as possible about where we stand:
    • Punahou is and will always be a college preparatory school committed to academic rigor and excellence.
    • Punahou has no plans to replace its graded transcript with an alternative model. Grades are not going away at our School.
    • Punahou has no plans to drop Advanced Placement courses or to move away from our work to prepare students for standardized testing, including the SAT or ACT.
    • We will continue developing electives, but we do not currently plan to add more core courses using a CBL framework. We will fully study our experience with the current core courses before considering any further steps.
    • We will ensure that all students have a clearer understanding of how they are being graded, including the implementation of estimated quarterly grades and regular updates along the way.
    • We will evaluate our efforts through independent research and use our forthcoming strategic planning process to determine the best way forward.
    • Any further plans in the area of CBL will be clearly communicated and discussed with parents first, and we will provide opportunities for parents to learn more about this pedagogy.

    As someone who has worked as a professor, dean, and vice president at the college and university level for more than twenty years, I can confirm that the goals of this pedagogy are widely valued in higher education. In addition to strong transcripts and test scores, colleges value evidence of creativity, original thought, leadership, and innovation – precisely the attributes we seek to encourage.

    The world has changed in ways that demand educational innovation. In a future shaped by rapid technological, social, and economic shifts, students will need to pair their knowledge of key concepts and ideas with the vital ability to explore complex problems. In a very real way, we must prepare students for fields of study and career paths that do not yet exist. To do that, we need to ensure that they have the acuity and habits of mind necessary to learn, relearn, and pursue creative opportunities. By giving students different pathways to acquire these abilities, we also aim to increase the personal nature of a Punahou education.

    As we continue to evaluate this approach, we will adopt what works within the framework of Punahou and reject what doesn’t work with our culture. Our School’s outstanding faculty will play a vital role in that process in collaboration with the leadership of our two principals, Dr. Emily McCarren and Dr. Paris Priore-Kim. At 178 years old, Punahou is truly a unique institution, combining the best traditions of the past with the brightest ideas of tomorrow. I believe we can do both, as long as we strike the right balance.

    Finally, I want to express my gratitude to you, the parent community here at Punahou. I have listened carefully to your questions, concerns, and perspectives and they matter deeply to me and to our School. We look forward to discussing this subject further with you in the weeks and months to come. We will also continue to listen carefully, as one thing is abundantly clear – Punahou parents across the board want the very best for their children’s futures. We couldn’t agree more.


    Sincerely,
    Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
    Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
    President

Enjoy this video from our PFA gathering on January 17 at the President’s Pavilion.

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding CBL

List of 11 frequently asked questions.

  • Is Punahou getting rid of grades?

    No – Punahou has no plans to replace its graded transcript with an alternative model. Grades are not going away at our School. Students in all CBL courses will receive quarter and semester grades and regular feedback on their performance.
  • What about Advanced Placement courses and standardized tests?

    Punahou has no plans to drop Advanced Placement courses or to move away from our work to prepare students for standardized testing, including the SAT or ACT.
  • What about the transcript?

    There are no changes planned to our transcript or our system of reporting.
  • How many classes in the Academy are CBL?

    While all of our Academy courses have elements of project-based and inquiry-based learning in them, this school year we piloted a more intentional competency-based design in approximately 6% of Academy classes. These include several elective courses (Global Sustainability by Design, Bias Studies, Ka Hālāwai Hou – Hawaiian Voyaging, Visual Storytelling, Anatomy of Major Systems, Cognitive Neuroscience, and AP Statistics) and three core courses (Biology, Biology Honors, and Chemistry).
  • Why CBL? Why now?

    Over the years, Punahou has sought to adapt its teaching to respond to our growing understanding of the brain and a child’s cognitive development. The world, too, has changed in ways that demand educational innovation. In a future shaped by rapid technological, social, and economic shifts, students will need to pair their knowledge of key concepts and ideas with the vital ability to explore complex problems. Schools that wish to stay at the forefront of education must prepare students for fields of study and career paths that do not yet exist. To do that, they need to ensure that their graduates have the acuity and habits of mind necessary to learn, relearn, and pursue creative opportunities.
  • Is Punahou’s approach to CBL the same as other schools?

    Punahou is a truly unique educational institution, and so is its approach to CBL. Rather than a “one size fits all” approach, we will evaluate and adopt what works within the framework of Punahou and reject what doesn’t work with our culture. For example, Punahou’s distinctive approach to CBL maintains letter grades and the traditional transcript in addition to the robust personalized feedback that students get from CBL. Punahou’s approach may differ from the ones taken at other institutions, just as our students, teachers, and overall educational approach differ.
  • What do colleges think about CBL?

    We know from our longstanding partnerships with colleges and universities that the goals of this pedagogy are widely valued in higher education. In addition to strong transcripts and test scores, colleges value evidence of creativity, original thought, leadership, and innovation – precisely the attributes we seek to encourage. By maintaining our graded transcript and our commitment to prepare students for standardized testing, alongside our commitment to inquiry-based and applied learning, we aim to help our students attain the best and most competitive preparation possible.
  • Is CBL eventually going to take over the entire curriculum?

    While we will continue to develop electives, we do not currently plan to add more core courses using a CBL framework. We will fully study and evaluate our experience with the current core courses before considering any further steps. Any further steps will be fully discussed with our parent community as well.
  • What chance do I have to give feedback?

    All parents of students in CBL courses will receive feedback surveys at the conclusion of the first semester or at the conclusion of the course. In the meantime, we encourage families to contact their child’s CBL teacher, their dean or Principal for anything they might want to share or any questions they might have.
  • Why is Punahou a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) if it is not pursuing a mastery transcript?

    Punahou is a member of many national and international educational boards and committees, and the MTC is just one of them. There are many important discussions happening around the future of education and we believe it is vitally important that Punahou be aware of them and have a seat that the table. This allows us to contribute to important conversations and maintain our knowledge of the educational landscape. As a leader in education and a school committed to thoughtful innovation, Punahou needs to be able to share its experience and learn from the work of other schools.
  • How can I learn more about this?

    Punahou will provide continuing opportunities for parents and students to learn more about our curriculum. At the present we are planning:
    G-Term for Parents, January 7 – 9 at Punahou. Parents had the opportunity to learn about CBL and observe G-Term experiences that highlight these teaching practices. Additional learning opportunities for parents will be announced shortly.
    A PFA-sponsored event on Friday, January 17, 11:15 a.m. – 1 p.m., President’s Pavilion. We will also videotape this event and make it available to parents who are unable to attend live.
    Sessions for parents will be held during the spring semester of 2020, to be held in the early evening hours. Information about times, places, and dates will be announced soon.
    The regular orientation for all eighth-grade parents will include curricular information.
    Our course catalog and registration materials will include descriptions related to CBL, and CBL-based courses will be clearly designated.