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Supporting students to unpack the key competencies at TNIS

Introducing Takapuna Normal Intermediate School (TNIS)

TNIS is a decile 10 intermediate school on the North Shore of Auckland that serves a community with high educational expectations for their children. The school has a roll of approximately 600 students, with about 35 different nationalities represented. Approximately one-third of students are Asian and the rest are mostly NZ European. Around 40 percent of students come from homes where English is a second language. The school has about 24 classroom teachers, six specialist technology, drama, and science teachers, and a teacher-librarian who works with staff and students to develop a school-wide approach to inquiry skills. The school is run on a six-day timetable, and when students are with specialist teachers staff have release time for planning and professional development (PD).

The fit between existing school practices and key competencies

Over the last five years staff have been involved in a range of forms of PD that have contributed to shaping current school-wide practices. This PD included contracts with external providers on:

  • inquiry learning
  • catering for the emotional, social, and learning needs of emerging adolescents (including a focus on integrated learning)
  • literacy
  • formative assessment
  • ICTPD (this included the development of the award winning student learning system website called KnowledgeNET, which students and parents can access from home)
  • numeracy.

In addition to these contracts, staff have a history of improving teaching and learning practices through involvement in action research projects. Areas in which staff have conducted classroom research include the development of higher-order thinking skills, differentiated learning, questioning techniques, integrated learning, and transition.

This ongoing PD has supported staff to shift their practice towards increasingly designing programmes that are student-centred and meet the needs of emerging adolescents. Staff saw the integration of the key competencies as part of an ongoing review of the curriculum, and the principal viewed the key competencies as a vehicle that could further support staff to increase their use of student-centred pedagogies and find increasingly authentic contexts for learning. Staff considered that a number of aspects of the teaching and learning programme at TNIS fitted with approaches that could potentially support students to develop the key competencies. These are outlined below.

Self-reflection skills

Staff considered that a school-wide emphasis on developing students’ reflection skills could support students to develop the key competencies. At TNIS, self- and peer-assessment strategies were an integral part of learning. Staff viewed the key competencies as skills for everyday life and noted that the key competencies gave them “a framework to develop the whole person”. They saw this framework as supporting moves to make the process of learning more explicit and to transfer ownership over learning to students as they became increasing able to self-assess and recognise their skills and weaknesses.

Higher-order thinking

Another school emphasis that staff considered was connected to the key competencies was the school focus on thinking skills and higher-order thinking. Staff used a number of thinking tools and strategies to plan learning activities, and had introduced these to students. These included Bloom’s Taxonomy, Thinking Hats, Habits of Mind, Learning Styles, and graphic organisers. To support students to understand and use these, staff had developed a “Thinking Skills Toolbox” which contained information about each tool or strategy. It was hoped that scaffolding of these skills, and students’ increased awareness of them, would support students to intuitively use the relevant skills. Staff saw these tools and strategies to be connected with the key competencies and in particular, Thinking, in that they focused students on the process of learning.

Integrated and inquiry learning

Staff also considered that a whole-school focus on integrated learning could potentially support students to develop the key competencies. The teaching and learning programme at TNIS is structured around overarching themes that students have some say in deciding. In 2006, students were asked to vote on an area from a choice of three. They selected the theme: “Unknown Destinations” which involves exploring aspects of tourism, visiting the community, and the completion of inquiry projects. In past years, some students had used their inquiry learning projects to research and take action on problems of concern to themselves, for example, overcrowding on local buses and bullying. Therefore it was envisioned that students’ inquiry projects, and the authentic learning experiences they might offer, could be one starting point for teachers to integrate teaching and learning about the key competencies into their practice.

The process: How the school introduced key competencies

Developing a team approach

As TNIS is a large school, school leaders decided to use a model of embedding the key competencies into school practice that had proven to be successful in the past. A team of “risktakers” was selected to develop and trial processes for integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning, which would then be shared with the whole school. An existing team of teachers was approached to do this initial exploration. This team comprised five year 7 and 8 teachers who had differing levels of prior teaching experience and lengths of service at the school.

In term 1, with the support of a facilitator who visited about once a month, the key competency team started developing, trialling, and refining approaches. The facilitator supported staff to define their goals in relation to the key competencies. Supporting students to develop lifelong learning skills and attributes was developed as a key goal. To develop understandings about the key competencies, the team started to collect and share readings on the key competencies. To explore school-based models of curriculum review, the team leaders visited Mt Eden Normal School to hear about their approach to school change.

Teachers in the key competency team considered that the process of unpacking the key competencies needed to reflect the school’s student-centred philosophies. Accordingly, the team decided to approach the task of deepening staff and student understanding of the key competencies by setting up a programme that supported students to develop an understanding of the key competencies and explain them to staff and their parents. Each teacher initially introduced the key competencies to students in a slightly different way. The commonalities in the approach used across the team are described in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1: Unpacking the key competencies with students at TNIS

STEP 1: Introducing the key competencies to students

Each teacher in the key competency team introduced the key concepts underpinning the five key competencies to their class and initiated discussions and brainstorming about the key competencies.

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STEP 2: Developing reflective diaries

Students were asked to develop reflective diaries about the key competencies (either hardcopy or digital). The diaries could include text provided by the teacher about what each key competency looked like, students’ text about the key aspects of each key competency from their perspective, a drawing of an aspect of each key competency, and students’ descriptions of instances when they had displayed this key competency. Students added to these descriptions once a month.

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STEP 3: Seeing the future relevance of the key competencies

To encourage students to see the key competencies in the context of lifelong learning, and to introduce the key competencies to parents, teachers developed a key competency homework exercise that was also posted on KnowledgeNET. Students were asked to describe the key competencies to their parents and interview them about how they used the key competencies at home, at work, and during their leisure time.

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STEP 4: Using a jigsaw approach to developing a shared understanding within the key competency team

With the facilitator, teachers designed a series of five lessons to assist students to further develop a shared understanding of the key competencies. Each teacher in the key competency team was designated an expert on one key competency. The students in each of the five classes were split into five groups and sent to one teacher. Each group contained a mix of boys and girls and students of differing abilities. With this teacher, each class group used a number of strategies such as group exercises and brainstorming to develop and refine a set of criteria for one key competency. In small groups, students then developed a presentation about this key competency in a format of their choice, e.g., posters, drama, PowerPoint, or oral presentation. All groups then returned to their original class to do their presentation. This approach resulted in each class having a group of students who were an expert on each key competency. After this exercise students completed a self-assessment sheet about how they had developed their presentation and used feedback to improve it.

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STEP 5: Developing a shared school-wide understanding

In order to support a shared understanding of the key competencies to develop across the school, some students presented about the key competencies to a staff meeting. Students’ presentations were also videoed so that they could be shown to other students and teachers.

Teachers considered that the approaches outlined above had been very successful. They were impressed with the criteria students developed for the key competency they were working on. An example of the criteria developed by one group of students for Managing self is shown below.

Key Competencies - Managing Self (What we think it means)

Act appropriately

I will be able to:

  • think before I act
  • treat people the way I want to be treated
  • be sensible and responsible.

Prioritising and self-monitoring (time management)

I will be able to:

  • make a list and prioritise talks in order of importance
  • manage my time.

Taking responsibility for myself

I will be able to:

  • know my boundaries and consider consequences
  • reflect on my actions.

Planning and goal setting

I will be able to:

  • write and use smart goals
  • plan ahead.

Making appropriate choices

I will be able to:

  • make decisions I will not regret
  • ask for advice or help.

Being responsible for your learning

I will be able to:

  • listen and accept new ideas
  • stay on track
  • use my initiative.

Teachers were also impressed by the quality of many of the students’ presentations. An example of one of the slides from a group of students who developed an oral presentation and PowerPoint about the key competency: Participating and contributing is shown below.

Why should you contribute and participate image.

If you cannot view or read this diagram, select this link to open a text version.

Staff noted that they and students now had a shared language to talk about the key competencies. At the point we visited the school, teachers were “quietly embedding” the key competency language into their practice and conversations with students. One teacher had developed a Managing self poster to assist this process:

I look at the section on the poster and link it into the current activity…I use the poster to give feedback each day.

Other teachers were using the key competency language to support students to finalise their inquiry projects as they held discussions about how to plan, and manage time and behaviour. Teachers also reported hearing students using the key competency language with each other in the playground and in classroom contexts.

The key competency: Using language, symbols, and texts appeared to be the most difficult for both staff and students to interpret. Discussing this key competency in relation to students’ interests such as texting and chatroom communications had assisted in deepening understandings about this key competency.

Exploring the key competencies with the whole staff

To ensure that all the staff were aware of the new key competencies framework, they were introduced to the key competencies at a teacher-only day at the start of 2006. Staff examined the key competencies in small groups and used a jigsaw approach to collect all the groups’ ideas together. Further staff meetings were held during the year as staff and students from the key competency team updated their colleagues about the approaches they and students were using to develop an understanding of the key competencies. It was envisioned that all staff would eventually use these approaches. School leaders considered that a whole-school approach to the key competencies would be best initiated at the start of 2007 with a new intake of year 7 students. These students would get an initial introduction to the key competencies, which could then be built on in their two years at the school.

Integrating the key competencies within teaching and learning programmes

Planning

Staff in the key competency team had discussed where the key competencies fitted within their team philosophy and how the key competencies integrated with the values and ideas within this philosophy. The key competency team had also started to integrate the key competencies into their term plan. For example, in the unit “Unknown Destinations” students were asked to reflect on what key competencies would be used by people planning a trip. Staff considered that incorporating the key competencies into the term plan went smoothly as they already had a similar structure for integrating one or two relevant Habits of Mind. Staff and school leaders noted that they would need to locate the key competencies within the school’s two-year overview.

Assessing key competencies

Classroom assessment

Staff in the key competency team were in the process of developing ways to assess the key competencies. They primarily saw assessment as being located within the school’s existing formative assessment procedures. Staff in the key competency team were adding the key competencies into these procedures, that is, setting learning intentions for the key competencies, giving feedback and feedforward about students’ development of the key competencies, and adding sections about the key competencies into self- and peer-assessment sheets and plenary reflection questions. For example, students were asked to reflect on how they had displayed the key competencies during learning activities such as their cycle tour of Waiheke Island or their work on the integrated unit on “Unknown Destinations”.

A number of teachers commented that the shared language they had developed with students supported them to give feedback about the process of learning. One teacher made a comment that summed up others’ views: “I like to think that I was doing that anyway, but it probably makes me more aware of it.”… Another stated “It makes it easier for us to talk to kids about what they need to do to succeed.”

Staff would like to work towards students setting personal goals for themselves in relation to the key competencies. Some suggested that students could use their key competency diaries to self-assess their ability to demonstrate the key competencies and to identify next steps.

Reporting

TNIS already had a strong self-assessment system in place for more formal reporting, for example, students, staff, and peer-completed assessment sheets about particular aspects of work for inclusion in students’ portfolios. Staff were in the process of considering how the key competencies could be incorporated into students’ portfolios.

Staff also noted that they would have to consider how to replace the current Essential Skills section on self-management and social skills in written reports to parents. Teachers thought it is important for parents to know about their child’s development of the key competencies in the context of school, and were starting to informally use the shared key competency language with parents. Staff were planning to use this shared language during student-led three-way conferences. Staff were less sure about if, or how, to approach summatively assessing the key competencies and whether they should use more than a global judgment as evidence for reporting to parents. Some staff were concerned that they did not want to see the key competencies over-assessed or “rubricised”, as the school already had 12 school-wide assessment rubrics. One teacher commented:

I can see it as being another assessment to be perfectly honest—which is a shame… it takes the gloss off it.

Others noted that getting this balance right required more exploration and national direction. Like their colleagues, these teachers were also concerned that the key competencies were not over-assessed, but considered the potential of the key competencies would be lost if they were not emphasised enough (as had occurred with the Essential Skills).

Making key competencies visible in school life

Presenting and displaying: Using ICT to explore the key competencies

Along with students’ digital diaries, teachers also planned to use the school’s KnowledgeNET website discussion forum pages to engage students in debates about the key competencies. School leaders also planned to develop a series of posters for the key competencies that were similar to existing posters for the Habits of Mind.

Sharing key competencies with parents

To introduce parents to the key competencies, students completed the homework exercise outlined in Diagram 1. This homework exercise and an information page about the key competencies had been posted on the parent section of KnowledgeNET. Parents were also told about the key competencies at a meet-the-teachers session held in early 2006.

Connecting with pre-service trainees

To introduce the key competencies to the school’s current group of trainee teachers, school leaders ran an introductory session on the key competencies and trainees were invited to the students’ presentations about the key competencies at a staff meeting. If these trainee teachers were working with a member of the key competency team they participated in the school’s work on the key competencies. These teachers informally discussed the key competencies with trainees.

Student perspectives on the key competencies and schooling

Learning about and demonstrating the key competencies

The students in the focus group at TNIS were very positive about their school experiences in general and about the school’s initial approach to the key competencies. They had enjoyed learning about the key competencies for three main reasons. Firstly, they could see the relevance of the key competencies to their current situation and future:

The key competencies touch so many aspects of your life: yourself, community, your thinking…

They also liked to mix with other students who were not in their class as this gave them opportunities to develop new relationships and self-confidence. The third reason related to the in-depth nature of the key competencies exploration designed by teachers. Students noted that they had covered some similar ground when they learnt about the Habits of Mind, but more superficially.

When asked to describe times they had demonstrated the key competencies, a number of students talked about how they drew on more than one key competency at a time. Certain types of learning experiences seemed easier for students to recognise as times they were demonstrating the key competencies. One was Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC); with many students talking about how they had demonstrating the key competencies while on the school cycle tour of Waiheke Island:

[I used Using language, symbols, and texts] when I was riding. You have to know what the road signs and symbols mean so you understand who gives way to who etc…

The key competencies were also easy to recognise in the context of sports activities:

I showed Relating to others during my inline hockey match by knowing how my team members play to set up the best strategy.

A number of students talked about how they demonstrated Managing self when organising their time, competing priorities, or homework. Students also mentioned the key competencies in relation to in-depth studies:

[In our study on tourism I] had many activities to complete. I used Managing self to ensure I had completed them all.

Fewer described how they demonstrated a key competency when they were studying particular curriculum areas:

[I used Using language, symbols, and texts] in mathematics. We have to know what the signs and symbols mean to complete the questions.

The wider learning environment at TNIS

At TNIS, students considered that overall, they tended to learn more from work that was in-depth and cited the exploration of the key competencies, inquiry projects, and various forms of formative assessment (self-assessment and teacher feedback) as the main aspects of their school programme that assisted them to learn. Students were able to use the language of self-directed learning and formative assessment. They found the use of learning intentions, goal setting, and success criteria helped to focus their learning. Formative assessment strategies such as reflections, feedforward, and plenary questions (What went well? What do you need more help with? What was difficult?) increased their understanding about what and how they were learning. Students also thought the various tools and strategies used at the school supported them to understand the process of learning (for example: Habits of Mind, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Learning Styles). They could see the value of learning about the sorts of processes, such as how to plan and how to think critically, that are an integral part of the key competencies.

In terms of the general learning programme at TNIS, information from the focus group interview and surveys indicated that students liked the variety of activities on offer at the school and most enjoyed sports or music electives, technology, trips, and the school’s use of ICT for learning. Students enjoyed their specialist classes because of the hands-on subject content of many of them and because they “got to experience different teachers’ ways of teaching”. Students perceived most of the learning they were doing as relevant to themselves but noted that their programme was mostly teacher-driven: “it’s all what the teacher says—except for electives”. Students considered their learning and the teaching programme would be improved if:

  • they were offered more choice over both curricula and co-curricula options
  • learning was differentiated more (especially in maths to avoid repeating already covered content)
  • class sizes were smaller and more specific one-on-one feedback was offered. (Students wanted more encouragement from teachers and more explanation of exactly what they were doing well or not so well. For example, Why was their work not marked highly? and, What could they do to make it better?)
  • they were given more opportunities to work with their peers. (Students noted that they did a lot of individual work in English, maths, and social studies. They would like group work to be arranged in different ways. For example, sometimes with their friends, and sometimes in ability, cross-ability, or cross-class groups. Students thought they needed more strategies for managing group work and peers who did not want to cooperate.)

Students comments about what they liked about the learning environment at TNIS and what they thought could be improved aligned with the school’s shift towards increasing the use of student-centred practices and with pedagogical approaches that are likely to support students to develop the key competencies. These approaches include the use of formative assessment strategies and offering students increased ownership over their learning.

Where to next?

The initial unpacking of the key competencies had been a highly successful and enjoyable experience for both staff and students at TNIS. The school’s existing focus on increasing the use of student-centred practices had supported staff to design a student-centred method of co-constructing the key competencies.

A future challenge for staff was embedding the key competencies throughout the school programme. Staff talked about a number of tensions they would have to manage as they continued their focus on the key competencies. One was curriculum overcrowding: “We do a lot, but how well do we do it?” Teachers considered that TNIS had a busy curriculum, and accountability requirements took a lot of time. The school had been through a number of cycles of separating, and then integrating, science and social studies in an endeavour to manage coverage concerns.

Another challenge was the overlap of the key competencies with existing tools and strategies and the associated challenge of overcrowding students with too much “process”. An overlap between the Habits of Mind and the key competencies was identified by some. The key competency team decided that they would need to work on paring down their planning to make the key competencies the key approach while also incorporating aspects of the Habits of Mind. An associated tension was the holistic nature of the key competencies. Both staff and students noticed that students tended to draw on more than one key competency in any given situation. This caused staff to query whether they should focus on all the key competencies or select one or two to have a key focus on each term. The latter was the preferred option for manageability purposes and to ensure that the focus was in-depth.

Once students and staff had continued this initial work to deepen their understanding of the key competencies, it was planned that a curriculum team that included student representatives would explore whether aspects of whole-school practice needed to be further changed to provide learning experiences that supported students to develop the key competencies.

Published on: 20 Sep 2007


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