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Key competencies: Is anything different?

June 15th, 2009

There is something niggling at me about the key competencies – but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. This somewhat rambling blog is an attempt to clarify my thinking. Any comments/ insights will be most welcome – I do hope my confusion isn’t infectious though!

When the revised New Zealand Curriculum first appeared I was really enthusiastic about the key competencies and excited by what I saw as their potential to transform education in NZ but now I’m not so sure about how powerful they really are.  The key competencies are described in the NZC as “capabilities for living and life long learning”. As such they are closely connected to the vision, “Confident, connected, actively involved life long learners.”  This presumably means that the development of these competencies should be the goal of education and if they are the goal then may be we need to think  differently about what we are doing in schools.

It seems to me, that we don’t really have a way yet to think and talk about the key competencies without treating them either like another content area, or a set of generic skills. What is the relationship of the key competencies to the learning areas? How are they really different from the Essential Skills of the previous curriculum? We talk about competencies being broader than skills – that they embrace attitudes, knowledge, skills and dispositions – but do we think about them differently from how we think about skills? We talk about including key competencies in planning, and incorporating  them into or weaving them through learning areas as though they were objects. It seems to me that regardless of the intent of including these competencies in the curriculum, the result is that the only way we can make sense of them is to make them fit with how we currently think about what we do in schools. Perhaps the key competencies are taking the shape of the container they have been poured into (and now I am treating them as things!)

If we were to ask ourselves how each learning area contributes to the development of confident, connected life long learners  and focus our teaching on that wouldn’t we be developing key competencies (even if they didn’t appear in the curriculum document)? After all, the essence statements (in the curriculum document) for each learning area seem to embrace the competencies people need to function effectively in society. Does it matter then whether they are developed through science, or social studies or art? My gut response is that yes a broad curriculum is important for all students, and that each learning area will contribute in a particular way to the development of the key competencies, but is that more important than learning something in depth? Does breadth or depth better serve the purpose of developing the capacity of an individual to participate fully in society? If the purpose of public education is to develop these competencies in all students, might it be that different students would develop these competencies through different pathways? Are there really core subjects (learning areas) that all students need to be exposed to?

I do think that all the different learning areas have the potential to develop the key competencies as long as we are teaching them for that purpose. What I’m not so sure about is how comfortable I really am with the idea of a learning area simply being the vehicle for developing key competencies! I seem to carry within me some deeply held, but barely conscious beliefs about what’s valuable in education. These beliefs are sometimes in conflict with what I know at another level to be important ideas. I know these beliefs are there because they sometimes surface when I think about new ideas about education in relation to my own children!  I doubt that I am alone in carrying these deeply held, yet seldom accessible beliefs. Perhaps it is these belief systems that are the real barrier to educational change as we subconsciously subvert new innovations to  fit with what we already know.

If this is so, perhaps the real function of the key competencies is to remind us of what should be important in our teaching. I think the challenge  is how we use them to help us think differently, rather than squeeze them into something that is familiar to us.

Shifting schooling , , , ,

  1. Rose
    | #1

    sorry Christopher – I didn’t mean to tell you how to suck eggs! (only to scope the current extent of your problem solving which is obviously considerable). The sense of frustration that comes through so strongly in your most recent post is a great reminder of just how hard it is for individuals to stand out against the flow of such a deeply entrenched self-perpetuating system (I’m just writng some stuff on systems and how to leverage change in them – maybe – so this is in the front of my mind right now)

    How do we get momentum and traction here when there are such clear pointers emerging about what the changes could look like if there were not so many obstacles in practice?? If you have any ideas about that, from the point of view of a teacher who is caught up in trying to make meaningful and deep changes, I’d love to hear them.

  2. | #2

    [If this comment doesn't add to the discussion I won't have a problem with it not being approved for posting.. I just wanted to air a response]

    You’re so right.

    I, personally, feel totally encouraged by what Rosemary wrote above, as much as I do the general tenor of this entire website. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, I don’t feel that the senior programmes that we have constructed in the English domain here in Wanaka demonstrate a slavish adherence to English learning area content statements, nor NCEA to define our learning programmes. We start from a place of passion and engagement and with the thrill of embracing the new.


    Yet, a system which demands that the teachers in a school lobby their subject association, search the entire qualifications framework, debate and argue with their senior staff about deviation from the norm or the de-emphasis on NCEA assessments that prove “Literacy” to the universities BEFORE they can validly assess their students’ podcast.. is not exactly an environment that encourages innovation and responsiveness.

    Huge rafts of our learning programmes are not assessment-driven as it is. I’m currently producing subject reports for all my students at the moment, as yet we have no summative information from our senior programmes as ALL the assessments are still ‘in progress’ – and this is tough. The system will change, over time, but it takes enormous energy and vision..

    I have the imagination and the drive to make an assessment plan for my New Media project. I can find at least four other teachers who will participate in it; but, I still say – my heart breaks that the NCEA English assessment standard for speaking may not be used to assess the presentation of a podcast. As a teacher of English, I can’t deny feeling a little thwarted by this. NZQA simply won’t allow a standard for this – or anything else that embodies the key competencies and not the subject learning outcomes, I know our subject association is trying very very hard to battle this, but their proposed standards for things like “Collaborative Projects” have been rejected and omitted from the official consultation.

    Neither the NCEA nor the establishment determine our learning programmes – it is the students, the teachers, the school community – but this sense of it always being a fight against the establishment, that is a shame.

    Which is why I love this website so much – and the opportunity to engage in dialogue such as this as my students watch a film in my class in their own time to enrich their lives and learning.

    Thank you for being here – and don’t worry, my subject association also hears from me. But, often, my mother doesn’t…

  3. Rosemary Hipkins
    | #3

    Time for me to jump into this debate on a matter which is dear to my heart! What should be the relationship between the learning areas and the key competencies?

    Ally I was interested to see that you framed the question as being about breadth or depth – and about key competencies or disciplinary knowledge as a learning focus. That either/or thinking is so ingrained in our intellectual toolkit – a bit like the existing webs of conceptual links for our words to which Rachel refers. I’m trying to make conscious shifts to both/and perspectives in my personal thinking, even though it’s hard. I want to ask “why can’t we have both breadth and depth?” Is it so impossible? What would it take? Similarly, do we have to set the key competencies in opposition to the disciplines? I also have a deeply held view that disciplinary knowledge is important though I would like to see less of slavish “content coverage” for its own sake and it isn’t immediately clear how to reconcile those thoughts. Perhaps that’s where there is an important role for the Essence Statements? They send strong signals about the learning that really matters in a discipline area and I don’t think you could help students really achieve the spirit of what is signalled there without strengthening their existing competencies in all sorts of ways. But it certainly requires rethinking of basic assumptions about the really important purposes for both teaching and learning.

    That’s where Christopher’s comments about what’s happening in his school inspired me – through the research we’ve been doing on curriculum implementation it’s very clear that NZC should be a tool to get schools thinking about the “how and why” of what they do – not just the “what”. The trouble is, as both Ally and Rachel’s comments illustrate, trying to pour very new ideas into old containers creates a lot of tensions – for example the changes to achievement standards that, for Christopher and his colleagues, haven’t yet got there in terms of their exciting future-focused conversations. Do we really have to defer to NCEA to set the direction for all learning in the senior secondary school? Is this another area where some both/and thinking might help us get past what can seem like impossible obstacles? Could it be that learning that strengthens students’ key competencies can at the same time deepen the knowledge they will need to tackle at least some of the available achievement standards? Some research from USA found that when teachers were brave enough to teach for deep understanding their students actually did better, not worse, in national tests, compared to students who had been drilled to pass them. But it did take courage and the teachers were not at first convinced it would work – it’s hard when the stakes are high!

    I really like your idea for a New Media subject Christopher. Can you find enough achievement standards across that range of traditional subjects to create an assessment plan? As I understand the process, it’s up to the subject associations, not NZQA itself, to determine how the content of standards should change – although there will be restricting guidelines to follow. Do you know who represents your subject on the standards review? Can you lobby them? (They will almost certainly be hearing the views of those who want nothing to change…). I have a niece who is studying “Writing for the Media” in year 10. I’ve seen how engaged and excited she is by her learning. I wonder if some of the engagement issues with NCEA would abate if students could more immediately see purposes they valued for their learning – such as the sheer joy of deepening their personal knowledge in an area that matters to them! It’s engaging for adults at a dinner party – why not for kids too?

  4. | #4

    The Key Competencies, With Zombies.

    I’ve got some thoughts from the coalface. They’re fragments really – but I think they might add to the discussion of the true nature of the Key Competences a little.

    I think of the Key Competencies and Effective Pedagogies and all similar notions in the New Zealand Curriculum as something like a license, or even an exhortation, for us to begin to look at learning as a bigger picture.

    I just had the most interesting evening of conversation at a friend’s place. They have teenage children, one who, at 14, is just on the cusp of the decision to ‘join facebook’ and one who has left home and was visiting town with his girlfriend. The mother came back in from the other room after digesting the notion that photos of her were available on facebook via her son’s page and that potentially anyone could be viewing them.

    Earlier in the evening we’d all been having the most wonderful time imaginable eating curry and reading excerpts from the novel “Pride and Prejudice, with Zombies”

    Tonight felt important. We talked of our love of Jane Austen. Magical Realism. Our love of the modern world. How a parent could/should be involved in their daughter’s initial forays into the world of social networking. How I am using these tools as a teacher more and more to connect with my students and also to gain an insight into their lives and concerns – and I daresay they into mine.

    Our school has just set up a “Future Learning” group and a surprisingly large number of the crew have jumped on board. We have the brief that we have to respect the established values and vision of the school, acknowledge its history and culture, but after that, everything is fair game. We’re not just going to talk about Key Competencies, we’re going to talk about everything – and I sincerely hope that the conversation will be as rich, humorous and wide-ranging as tonight’s dinner. It’s a conversation for us all to be involved in – parents, teachers, students, others in the community. The New Curriculum was the catalyist for this, and I suspect that it has been created with just enough open-endedness and in sufficient good spirit to encompass almost anything that might arise from these conversations we are all beginning to have.

    I have never been more excited about being in education.

    However, on giving feedback to NZQA on their NCEA Standards alignment with the New New Zealand Curriculum for English, I was impressed on one hand with their success in wrangling a very convoluted system of assessment into something with much greater clarity and sense of purpose – but I was also a little saddened at how much even the language within these proposed assessment standards looked back rather than forward.

    There was not a mention of New Media in the English domain, let alone any recognition of the “Front End” of the Curriculum document. Is NCEA really aligning with the New Curriculum at all if it is simply massaging existing assessment practise to meet the demands of the new Achievement Objectives? We all know national assessment like the NCEA has a huge influence over the shape and scope of learning in our senior schools and my heart breaks when I discover that as an English teacher I may not give credit to a student who, for example, produces his own podcast..

    Next year I want to set up an online new media company. I want to blend Graphics, Computing, English, Media Studies, Drama, Enterprise into a super-subject that allows students to select the New Media option as a massive multi-subject project. How can I do this if I have to assess the students’ speaking in the context of a class speech?

    I think my point here is: “What’s the point in us having this conversation as a school, if the national institutions, such as NZQA, to whom we must defer, are not prepared to have such conversations of their own?” Do they not have to consider the key competencies too? The Effective Pedagogies? Does their proposed assessment practice explicitly encourage such functions as the learning-as-inquiry? (The word “explicit” is important here)

    Really, if Elizabeth Bennett can be a Ninja, ANYTHING can happen!

  5. Ally
    | #5

    Thanks for your comments, Rachel. They made me think some more about what is really worrying me. I think, having re-read an article by Alan Reid, that one of the things that is worrying me is that we are seeing the new curriculum as a thing to be implemented, rather than an opportunity to think and talk about how we might do things differently. If the key competencies are really the capabilities that everyone needs to be able to function effectively in society, perhaps we need to be thinking about how these competencies apply to adults, what opportunities do teachers have to strengthen their own competencies, do the competencies differ from one community to another? Perhaps the competencies the area where we should be engaging the community in debate about what matters in education?

    Ref: Reid, A. (2006). Key competencies: a new way forward or more of the same? Curriculum Matters 2:2006

  6. | #6

    Hi Ally. At some level I think it’s inescapable that we think about ideas as “things” or objects. After all, we are embodied beings and from the earliest stages of our life, we learn to understand the world in terms of things, objects, bodies, that we perceive as being in some kind of spatial relationship with one another (the cup is on the table, you are in front of the table, etc). We carry these ways of thinking into our language as our “primary metaphors” for making sense of the world (I’m reading a book by Fritjof Capra* that talks about these things – I hope to blog about it sometime soon:)). So naturally it’s hard to get away from talking about conceptual categories (like “science”, or a “key competency”) as if they were things or objects, and hence we work with metaphors like weaving together, incorporating “into”, etc. They are actually quite useful ways of communicating with one another as well, as we all have these kinds of primary metaphors within our experience.

    I guess your concern lies in the danger of thinking that one “thing” is simply a means to achieving the other “thing”, or mybe the problem is when we see these “things” as having clearly defined “edges”, or maybe the problem is with thinking that any new “thing” has to fill a space that we have already carved out in between our other conceptual categories, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to re-negotiate those existing spaces. But if we shift towards a complex systems way of lookng at it, what matters is what emerges from the interactions between these two “things”.

    We’re getting into fairly philosophical/abstract territory here, which is fun but (for me at least) can easily lead to lying awake and thinking about proverbial angels dancing on pinheads!

    I’d love to hear some specifics from you to put these ideas into a context. I’m quite interested in the last idea you mentioned – about KCs being a way of reminding us what is important to teach. Recently I was doing a bit of work around Education for Sustainability which led me to think about a particular way of thinking about the KC of “relating to others” that I hadn’t really thought about explicitly before. When I thought about “relating to others” through an education for sustainability lense, I started to think about the importance of people developing the ability to “relate to others” whom they will likely never meet. For example, from a global sustainability point of view, our lives, actions, choices and interconnected with those of people on other parts of the planet. Unless we can see these connections, and be able to think about the lives and experiences of those others, I can’t see how we can truly engage with becoming more sustainable societies and communities.

    Thinking about relating to others in this way helped me to see beyond some of the more familiar/everyday ways we think about this key competency in school environments – for example, being able to get on well with others in a group, collaborate, take turns, and have empathetic relationships with the people we actually interact with and communicate with at a personal level. I started to wonder whether the two are even necessarily connected – for example, I think many people are good at relating to the “others” around them, but does that necessarily mean they can relate to others who are different from them, distant from them, and so on? And do we think that matters? (NB. I’ll put up my hand at this point to say I think it does!)

    * Capra, F. (2002) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

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