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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.

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