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Theme four

Exploring the “front end” of the curriculum

Making sense of the key competencies

Clarifying school values

Translating talk to practice

Implications of this "front end" focus

Aligning the "front end"message with other professional learning

All the case study schools had initially focused on the “front end” of the document. This part of the curriculum is widely seen as very powerful. The addition of key competencies and a redeveloped values statement seem to be particularly attractive to teachers and school leaders.

The front end of the document reinforces what we want to do and that we are going in the right direction. The biggest challenge is the pedagogical shift. It does not involve tweaking existing stuff. We will never get kids engaged if we do this.

Secondary principal

As this comment implies, the front end was seen as a logical beginning point for giving effect to NZC. Nearly all the case study schools had already been working on developing a school vision prior to the release of the final version. Many had also begun exploring inquiry-based learning as a way of more fully engaging students in their learning, and in both these types of activity there was a focus on “lifelong learning”. These types of explorations are further discussed in themes five and six.

Making sense of the key competencies

Most of the case study schools were engaged in the process of developing shared approaches to the inclusion of key competencies in their school curriculum. When information about the nature of the key competencies first became available, many of the schools had spent time exploring them as a whole staff. These collective learning sessions drew on MOE-sponsored presentations and background readings about the key competencies, including Hipkins (2006a) and the first Kick Starts pamphlet pack (Hipkins, Roberts, & Bolstad, 2007). Subsequently, schools went on to explore ways the key competencies could be incorporated into their school vision, as well as planning and assessment practices and classroom programmes.

Notwithstanding the popular focus on key competencies, the manner in which their implementation was being enacted varied considerably. Some primary schools opted to concentrate on one key competency at a time, in which case activities often included developing a shared language for describing what demonstrations of this competency could look like. In these schools it was common to include the selected key competency in planning templates, and the specific competency was chosen for its fit with the inquiry topic or theme for that term (see Theme Six below). Like many of the “early adopter” normal schools (Boyd & Watson, 2006), a number of our case study schools elected to start with a key competency (or in some cases two related key competencies) considered more easily recognisable and connected to existing pedagogies. These were: managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.

Other schools took a more holistic approach, discussing what they thought the key competencies collectively implied for their practice. One primary school began with this type of shared conversation but the principal quickly realised a danger that staff enthusiasm for key competencies would not translate into actual changes in practice unless they were to be interpreted at a deeper level than was currently the case. In her view it was important for staff to “re-think their own knowledge about teaching and learning” and so she took the decision to begin again with an exploration of a learning area (Social Sciences) returning to the key competency focus only once she felt staff were ready for the deeper discussions of knowledge and learning. But this type of strategic thinking about the relationship between key competencies and curriculum “content” did not appear to be common (or at least was not often mentioned).

Clarifying school values

While many schools addressed the values as part of their redevelopment of the school’s charter or vision statement (see Theme Five below), these were of particular interest to the two Catholic schools in this study. In both of these schools staff collectively explored the manner in which their Catholic values and special character fitted with the values and key competencies in the curriculum and they did this early in the implementation process.

As a result of this type of exploration, some schools came to the conclusion that the attributes and values they had previously developed were already well aligned with the curriculum. Others modified their charters to reflect the new understandings they had developed about the intent of the curriculum, and made connections with the language used in the curriculum to describe the values and key competencies. The result was then generally considered to be a good fit between the revised charter and vision and the intent of the revised curriculum.

Key competencies are defined in NZC as integrating knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values:

More complex than skills, the competencies draw also on knowledge, attitudes and values in ways that lead to action. They are not separate or stand-alone. They are key to learning in every learning area. (p. 12, emphasis added)

Despite this connection, values were seldom linked directly to key competencies during our conversations. It could be that this possibility is being missed because the NZC discussion of the part values play in design and review processes is not explicit about what making them “an integral part of the curriculum” (p. 38) could mean, whereas charter statements are explicitly mentioned in this section on implementation.

Translating talk to practice

Many teachers saw the introduction of the key competencies as an opportunity for a closer focus on students’ behavioural and social development and learning skills. They welcomed the use of a shared language to talk about these more general aspects of schooling.

At several schools, staff had designed units of work that appeared to be primarily centred around one or more of the key competencies, with the intention of developing a shared language around learner attributes that had been identified as important. If the aim was to develop a cohesive classroom community, there would typically be a focus on developing students’ social and co-operative skills; sense of responsibility and respect; and self-management skills. A different approach saw some schools focus on the skills and attributes needed by “good learners”. While such units did often connect to one or more learning areas, staff tended to view them as a starting point to introduce the key competencies as a set of related attributes and behaviours that could be built on during the year. In the primary sector it is common for classes to start the year with a topic that aims to develop a cohesive classroom culture and so this type of approach built on schools’ existing practices while adding the new dimension of development of a shared language around key competencies and learner attributes.

Staff at one secondary school also explored the introduction of the key competencies as a support for social cohesion. In this school, tutor groups were changed from horizontal to vertical forms. Resources that focused on aspects of the key competencies such as relating to others and connectedness were developed for use in tutor group discussions. Like some of their colleagues in the primary sector, the teachers in this secondary school saw this as an introductory step, and they were still working out how the key competencies could be woven into the rest of the school programme.

Some schools were already exploring ways of assessing key competencies, usually for formative rather than summative purposes. Other school leaders preferred to delay making decisions about assessment until they were clearer about what might be involved.

Where assessment was being explored, the whole staff or smaller delegated groups, sometimes with student involvement, had often invested considerable energy in developing rubrics to enable feedback on key competencies to become a learning focus. This could be associated with students’ involvement in goal setting and reporting processes and three-way, student-led conferences, were replacing the more usual parent–teacher interviews in some instances. In one primary school where the principal had an academic interest in self-regulated learning, the staff had gone to considerable lengths to develop processes for creating digitally-stored records of evidence that students were demonstrating greater self-regulation as an aspect of the key competency managing self. One of the intermediate schools was similarly considering the use of digitally-stored Learning Stories (Carr, 2001) for documenting key competency development. Some teachers were also experimenting with giving students more say in the tasks selected for inclusion in portfolios.

Most school leaders and teachers considered they had enough access to in-house or local professional expertise to assist them to unpack the curriculum and re-design school practices and processes to meet its intent. However, the question of whether and how to assess key competencies was a notable exception, and the focus of much debate. Many participants said they were still developing assessment approaches, and that they would like more models, examples of progression, and general guidance around this aspect of the revised curriculum.

Implications of this "front end" focus

Beginning the implementation journey with a focus on the “front end” has both benefits and possible drawbacks. The approaches outlined have the potential to: increase social cohesion; support the development of a shared language between teachers and students; and support students to set goals and develop strategies around the behavioural, social, and meta-cognitive aspects of the key competencies. Research in the area of school-wide coherence suggests this continuity of pedagogies is likely to benefit students (Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, & Bryk, 2001) and so this is clearly a useful thing to do.

One potential drawback of beginning implementation with a main or sole focus on the key competencies is that this could encourage the narrow interpretation of them as “social skills” or “thinking skills”, to be taught separately from the wider school programme. Hipkins (2006b) notes that it is important that the complexity of each competency is not lost and that they should be embedded in learning content. For example, she suggests that if managing self is interpreted as being about students behaving well and being ready to learn, the potential identity thread that runs through this competency could be downplayed or overlooked. Yet development of specific aspects of one’s personal identity is included in the one-page “essence” statements of four of the eight learning areas of NZC and it is a clear focus in the overarching vision, values and principles statements. Significantly, very few teachers made explicit reference to the one-page learning area statements, but neither did we ask a direct question about them. We will do so in the second round of field work.

A number of teachers said that weaving the key competencies into curriculum areas would be their next challenge. The management of this process is likely to have a bearing on whether teachers increase their understanding of the learning potential inherent in the key competencies— for example exploring the connections between competencies, identity development, and curriculum content. If this opportunity is missed, the transformative and participatory intent of the key competencies is unlikely to be realised in practice. A number of teachers asked for models that showed how the key competencies could fit within learning area content, reinforcing the implication in our findings that there is a need for well thought out and clear exemplars of what this could look like.

Weaving together curriculum content and key competencies also has implications for assessment. With hindsight, it seems that the curriculum uses what Allan Reid describes as a “name and hope” approach to assessing the key competencies (Reid, 2006). That is, the competencies are named, and schools are told they will need to assess them, but little guidance or practical support in the form of tools or models is provided. This is another area of obvious need for greater implementation guidance.

Aligning the "front end"message with other professional learning

As already noted, most of the primary and intermediate, and some of the secondary, schools in this study had recently taken part in whole-school professional learning programmes such as Assess to Learn (AtoL), literacy (LPDP), or the numeracy contract. These programmes all have a focus on supporting teachers to make the process of learning more explicit to students, through discussions about learning intentions, goal setting, success criteria, or learning strategies.

While the types of activities developed for putting key competencies into place could be seen as paralleling the processes embedded in these other professional learning programmes, this type of connection did not appear to have been made by some teachers in those schools that were slower to begin implementation. For example, a few teachers commented that they hadn’t spent much time on the curriculum yet because they were “still doing” literacy, numeracy, or an ICTPD programme. By contrast, in schools where greater progress with the curriculum implementation had been made, the school leaders had encouraged the teachers to notice and build on strong connections between previous school-wide professional learning and the directions signalled by NZC.

Typically, the connection between other professional learning and NZC was expressed via the idea of “student-centred” curriculum practices, linked to the idea of supporting students to become lifelong learners. Practices linked in this way included: assessment-for-learning practices; ways to co-construct learning experiences with students; and practices that promoted thinking skills, self-regulated learning, or meta-cognition, which are more directly linked to key competencies.


    These are: English (Ministry of Education, 2007a, p. 18); Learning Languages (p. 24); Social Sciences (p. 30); and, by implication, the Arts (p. 20).

    The vision of young people who are “positive in their own identity” (p. 8) aligns with the imperative to shape a curriculum underpinned by principles of inclusion, cultural diversity, high expectations, and that honours the provisions of Treaty of Waitangi (p. 9). Relevant values here include diversity, equity, and respect for self, others, and human rights (p. 10).

Published on: 15 Apr 2009