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Cross-school themes: Managing change

This section of the report discusses the main cross-school themes that emerged from this research. These themes are also related to insights from relevant literature. Details about the approaches used at each school are provided in the individual school case studies that follow this section.

Managing change: Commonalities in schools’ approaches

Reviewing the big picture: What were the drivers?

School leaders saw the key competencies framework to be a timely development as it offered them a lens through which they could view and evaluate school practices. These schools were engaged in a period of reviewing their practice in respect to curriculum delivery and pedagogy. One key driver of this review process was a desire to reduce what many perceived to be “curriculum clutter”, with the overall aim of increasing the coherence of school programmes. A second driver was an interest in further exploring approaches such as curriculum integration. Recent national and school professional development (such as AtoL, and literacy and numeracy contracts) emphasised whole-school approaches, reflective practice, and student-centred pedagogies such as formative assessment. For these school leaders, greater curriculum integration was seen as a way of achieving this wider set of reforms. Related to this was a desire to further develop pedagogy and practices that were unique to their school environment to create a strong school identity.

School leaders noted that a focus on the key competencies supported the foregrounding of a “hidden curriculum” of attitudes, values, and social skills. They saw the framework to be aligned with the student-centred practices they were currently developing. The NSA also saw the trialling of approaches to the key competencies as an opportunity for the schools to become more involved in or take a leading role in national education initiatives.

Professional leadership

At all six case study schools the principals and/or the senior management team were involved in setting the direction for the exploration of the key competencies. These leaders worked collaboratively with staff, but also saw their role as a key learner and professional leader. The school change literature notes that focused leadership is central to developing, nurturing, and sustaining change (Fullan, 2005; Hargreaves & Fink, 2004; Harris, 2002). This literature emphasises professional and pedagogical leadership as a key support for change (Sammons, Hillman, & Mortimore, 1995; School of Education: The University of Queensland, 2001a; Stoll & Fink, 1996). School leaders were enthusiastic about this opportunity to develop their role as a professional educator rather than as an administrator. The NSA forums provided a valuable place for them to engage in professional discussion with their peers. These meetings supported those involved to develop a shared understanding of the key competencies framework across schools and build on each other’s ideas and experiences.

School leaders also used this opportunity to develop leadership capabilities in their staff. At all schools, a range of staff were encouraged to take on leadership roles in developing school approaches to the key competencies.

Developing processes for unpacking the key competencies

At the case study schools, a variety of models were used to introduce the key competencies to staff and students. These models are described in each school case study. School leaders were aware of the importance of using processes that developed a collective view and that ensured that all staff were aware of, and had ownership over, new initiatives such as the key competencies framework. As one school leader said, it was important that all staff were “singing from the same song sheet”. To this end, all of the schools had initiated some form of ongoing, inhouse, whole-school professional development (PD) about the key competencies. Processes such as these, which enable a shared vision to be developed, are noted in the school change literature as facilitating change (Russell, 2003; Sammons et al., 1995; Stoll & Fink, 1996).

At some schools, an in-depth exploration of the key competencies was undertaken by the whole staff; at other schools, teams of “early adopters” trialled ideas that could then be shared with others. The whole-school or team PD organised at the schools had a number of features in common. These are described below.

Providing information

To start the PD, school leaders provided staff with information about the key competencies. This included summaries from presentations delivered as part of Curriculum Stocktake meetings or at NSA forums. School leaders also provided staff with relevant readings about the key competencies or curriculum approaches. Some staff visited other schools to hear about their approaches.

School leaders also attempted to connect the key competencies with ideas about lifelong learning. Some presented staff with information about the knowledge society and the need to prepare students for this future. Others linked teacher brainstorming about the key competencies to ideas about lifelong learning.

Staff noted that, given the newness of the key competencies framework, there was a dearth of resources available for them to use. They identified a need for support materials and background reading to assist staff at other schools to go through this process.

Connecting the key competencies to the known

To avoid staff feeling overloaded with “another add on”, school leaders took care to link the key competencies with aspects of existing school practice. During PD sessions, teachers completed tasks that supported them to examine how the key competencies aligned with current practice. For example, some staff brainstormed the sorts of student outcomes they were expecting by exploring questions such as: What skills do we want a school leaver to have? What does an effective learner look like? The responses to these brainstorms were compared to the key competencies and a close fit was found in most cases. School leaders noted that these exercises were important as they gave staff a sense there were aspects of the key competencies they were “already doing”.

As part of their PD school staff also explored the fit between the key competencies and the existing tools and strategies they were using. Common strategies included approaches to using thinking skills (such as Thinking Hats/Bloom’s Taxonomy), Learning Styles, the Habits of Mind, and co-operative learning strategies.

Locating an exploration of the key competencies within an integrated or inquiry learning framework

The schools in this study were all in the process of organising curriculum delivery around school-wide themes, or examining curriculum coverage. They were interested in using the key competencies framework as a tool to support this reorganisation. Because integrated or inquiry learning programmes were centred around “big ideas”, staff considered they had the potential to provide rich learning opportunities that were likely to support students to develop the key competencies. They therefore started to incorporate the key competencies into current thematic integrated/inquiry units.

This was another way the key competencies framework was connected with existing school practices. Some of the schools were redesigning their planning to foreground the key competencies. Others added the key competencies into existing planning templates. At most of the schools, a school planning overview or teachers’ different ways of including the key competencies into planning were discussed during PD.

Whilst acknowledging the key competencies are intertwined, most schools selected one or two key competencies that were most relevant to the current theme, to focus on in each term. Staff reported that this approach had supported both themselves and students to deepen their understanding about each key competency, but in some cases, it had also resulted in the “teaching” of the key competencies separate from the curriculum. In the future, once a shared understanding had been developed about all the key competencies, staff realised they would have to find ways to address the complexity of the key competencies in their planning.

Developing a shared language

Developing a shared language between staff

Staff used the information they had collected and staff brainstorms to assist them to unpack the varied aspects of each key competency and develop a description about what this looked like in their environment. At some schools this work was undertaken in syndicate groups and then compared. These processes supported staff to develop a shared language to talk about the key competencies across different year levels. Across the schools, the development of this shared language stood out as being a key aspect of the exploration of the key competencies. These conversations supported staff to interpret the key competencies and develop a deeper understanding of the framework.

Getting the key competencies into “kids’ talk”

The schools in this study were also interested in using the key competencies framework as a tool to support an examination of pedagogy. At most of the schools, teachers individually or jointly devised learning activities to support students to unpack the key competencies and to work with teachers to develop school views about the key competencies. The successes and challenges of these experiences were then discussed at PD sessions. This co-construction of the key competencies was a key shift in practice that was commented on by many staff. They noted that this contrasted to their prior approaches to the Essential Skills which were, on the whole, completely invisible to students.

Staff found that a student-centred pedagogical base was necessary to co-construct the key competencies with students. For many teachers, co-construction was a next step from the AtoL, formative assessment, literacy, or numeracy PD they had recently attended. These PD contracts had all emphasised making the processes and outcomes of learning more “explicit” to students.

The learning activities that teachers devised for students were designed to promote student ownership of the key competencies and the development of a shared language to talk about the key competencies:

The most essential component is kids unpacking it as well—because they have to buy into it and see the relevance of what they are doing… (Teacher)

Staff considered that the development of a shared language supported students to develop an understanding of the key competencies, increased students’ awareness of the need to consider the process of learning and not just content outcomes, and assisted students and teachers to set learning goals and success criteria for the key competencies. All of these supported students to self-assess and recognise their strengths and weaknesses.

Teachers found that students responded very well to discussions about the key competencies. These discussions allowed teachers and students to talk about individual differences and needs and therefore to recognise their diversity:

The kids are finding it quite exciting… It’s about them and who they are… They have to think more about themselves in a focused way… (Teacher)

Teachers were surprised at how well students were able to unpack the essential elements of each key competency and how they responded to conferencing about the key competencies, including discussions about what they could do next.

Incorporating the key competencies into formative assessment procedures

Whether and how to assess the key competencies was a subject of debate. At most schools, teachers were using their knowledge of formative assessment practices to informally assess the key competencies. Again, for many teachers this was a natural next step from recent PD that emphasised the importance of formative assessment.

The most commonly used forms of assessment were very similar to those suggested in the new draft curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2006). These included:

  • student goal setting
  • the co-construction of key competency success criteria with students
  • self or peer assessment
  • conferencing with students about their development of the key competencies
  • the use of reflections or reflective diaries
  • portfolios.

One school had developed key competency exemplars as a tool for teachers. These drew on the learning stories approach used in early childhood settings (Carr, 2001), and other schools were developing matrices of progression in the key competencies.

Discussions about assessment were part of the PD process at the schools. At some schools, teachers shared the approaches they had developed with their colleagues. At other schools, these approaches were developed collectively as part of the PD process.

The task of formally assessing the key competencies was seen as an area of complexity. Staff were approaching this task more cautiously (see Challenge 4: Whether and how to assess the key competencies).

Developing a professional community

Ongoing, iterative conversations that included many opportunities for professional discussion, experimentation with ideas, and time for reflection were key features of the PD organised by the schools. These processes increased staff ownership over the key competencies framework. The professional communities developed by teachers had many of the hallmarks of a professional learning community. Timperley (2003) identifies the main characteristics of these communities as having:

  • shared norms and values and collectively agreed on professional beliefs
  • a clear focus on student learning
  • processes which support collaboration between teachers
  • processes that support teachers to engage in reflective dialogue in relation to student achievement
  • an emphasis on deprivatisation of practice (through some form of sharing such as discussion of information about progress or through observation of practice).

Timperley and Parr (2004) note that “evidence-based learning conversations are at the heart of professional learning communities” (p. 127, emphasis added). Timperley and Parr’s work explores literacy—an area in which ‘achievement’ can be clearly defined and where standardised and individual student data about this achievement is available to be scrutinised. Data in this form is not available for the key competencies. Therefore the communities that developed could not be as “evidence-based” as those suggested by Timperley and Parr (2004).

At this stage, the teachers in this study were still developing their ideas of what the key competencies looked like and were using a range of formative assessment practices to explore student achievement. A future step could be some form of sharing and discussion between teachers. Conversations could focus on using joint student–teacher assessments or student self-assessments or reflections as evidence for students’ development of the key competencies. This would more closely align the work these teachers were doing with Timperley’s (2003) definition of a learning community. This form of sharing of practice was occurring at some of the schools.

Interpreting the key competencies: Key competencies versus essential skills

The teachers, school leaders, and students in this study were almost unanimous in their enthusiasm for the proposed key competencies framework. For school staff, this was a marked contrast to their views on the Essential Skills. Many teachers talked about the difficulties with the implementation of the Essential Skills that had resulted in them being sidelined. For example:

  • no theoretical background to the Essential Skills framework had been presented
  • the Essential Skills had been introduced to teachers but not explored
  • there were too many Essential Skills for teachers to cover in a meaningful way.

These difficulties resulted in the Essential Skills being approached as discrete skills that could be “ticked off” on a checklist. A number of teachers noted that they had not felt passionate about the Essential Skills, perceiving them as an “add-on”.

The majority of teachers perceived the key competencies to be different from the Essential Skills as they were linked to ideas of lifelong learning and were about the “whole child” and their disposition. The nature of the key competencies framework, with its smaller number of areas that teachers perceived to be highly relevant, and the in-depth exploration of the key competencies undertaken at the schools in this study, supported staff to develop an enthusiasm for the key competencies and integrate them into their practice.

Bringing all staff on board

All schools had put in place PD and support for staff as they attempted to integrate the key competencies into their practice. After some initial discomfort with the newness of the key competencies framework and the lack of resources to support them, teachers were becoming increasingly comfortable with developing their ideas about the key competencies and incorporating the framework in their planning and classroom practice. Many valued the opportunity to be at the forefront of curriculum change.

Although all staff had been introduced to the key competencies, at the larger schools it was the early adopters who were adapting their programmes to align with the key competencies. Some teachers were not sure about what they should do next. A future challenge for the schools was bringing these teachers on board, and spreading new practices or planning methods to all staff.

Published on: 19 Sep 2007