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Insights into important aspects of the key competencies

NZC defines key competencies as "capabilities for living and lifelong learning" (p.12). The use of the word "capability" cues a focus on what students are capable of doing and becoming. This has implications for how we think about the types of learning experiences that will really stretch students as they encounter purposeful key competency/learning area combinations.

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Managing self: Being supported to take learning risks

Several of the engaging examples of practice show the importance of supporting students to take risks so that their capabilities really are stretched. A safe and supported learning environment needs to be negotiated, fostered, and maintained over time. There are also important curriculum content/skills dimensions to the teacher’s decision-making: the learning really does have to be challenging in some way or there is no risk to be taken.

Open-ended tasks provide one type of risk. When there is no self-evidently “right” answer or way to proceed, students must invest something of themselves in the ways they respond and this can feel risky. Tasks that require students to do something that is visible others provide a similar level of challenge (for example speaking in another language, thinking aloud to shape an idea as an explanation, creating and displaying a multi-modal text for others’ response and so on).

When task design, classroom culture, and the curriculum all come together to provide opportunities for students to take the risks involved in working at the edges of their capabilities, they experience what it means to be a powerful learner. When teachers make these opportunities available over time students begin to accumulate experiences that support their sense of being a successful learner and knower. They begin to develop a productive identity as a learner: someone who can take the initiative, make sense of, and work on increasingly complex problems. In other words, they can now “stand on their own two feet” as learners, and know that they can go on doing so in their learning futures.

Relating to others: The challenge of “walking in others’ shoes”

Several of the Engaging Examples of Practice highlight the need to be able to imagine oneself in the position of some-one else (or some specific group). This disposition and aptitude for being able to “walk in another’s shoes” is essential for clear communication, for building responsive and reciprocal relationships, and for developing cross-cultural competencies. All of these abilities make an important contribution to lifelong learning goals and skills, where there is always something more to learn.

Knowing when, and being able to ask for and offer help, is an important aspect of this key competency: one that comes into play when faced with a challenging task, whether this task is a collective or individual one.

Different subjects provide different types of opportunities to build students’ competencies in relating to others. All of the following were featured in the engaging examples of practice:

  • Ÿreading and constructing literary texts (English and the arts)
  • Ÿvalues clarification when dealing with a societal issue (social studies)
  • Ÿunderstanding needs for a designed product or service (technology)
  • Ÿshaping communication with a specific audience in mind (writing in English, drawing plans in technology, shaping a performance in the arts, devising fair and clear rules for a sports game)
  • Ÿthinking through to consequences for others of one’s own of behaviours and choices (as in the statistical inquiry in the context of road safety).

 Participating and contributing: Education for democratic citizenship

We want students to be active contributors to routine aspects of learning as a social process: this is the commonplace understanding of this key competency and it is important for building valued knowledge and skills. However the “something more” in this key competency projects learning into a more expansive frame. The intended learning needs to be clear and non-trivial in the moment, and it also needs to matter in some bigger way for the future. In the Engaging Examples of Practice this aspect of Participating and contributing showed up as a strong “so what?” dimension into the intended learning. The ideas, skills, values, and attitudes fostered during the learning were intended to build an aspect of action competence that could be carried forward into life beyond the classroom.

Sometimes the teacher created a powerful way of confronting an accepted way of thinking or a dilemma that students might otherwise avoid thinking about. Sometimes they fostered a kind of procedural (how to) knowing related to more critically and thoughtfully being a citizen (for example being more critical about claims made in advertising). Sometimes they worked on building the confidence to take the lead and proactively show the way forward.

Different subjects potentially provide opportunities for students to experience what it means to be a productive member a particular type of community of practice. For example they could experience what it feels like to be a scientist, an historian or a carpenter. Students need to know what these types of work feel like to consider whether these are (broadly) things they want to do more of. This sense both present and potentially future-focused being is evident in the examples about song writing, food technology, and being a scientist. There are strong links here to careers competencies and—potentially—to pathways/transitions initiatives.

Using languages, symbols and texts: A considered focus on meaning-making 

On one level this key competency speaks to the development of the basic literacy and numeracy skills students need to access learning across all the learning areas of the curriculum. The “something more” in this key competency points to the challenges of active meaning-making in the different discipline areas.

This is the key competency where subject-specific differences are most clearly in evidence. Making meaning in different fields of knowledge-building endeavour typically involves bringing together and working across different representations. Each type of representation will have its own specific way of using the language, symbols, and texts of the relevant discipline (that is, its discourses). Experts in different fields select and use a wide range of multi-modal communication strategies to construct, express, and convey ideas and actions. Thus active meaning-making can be seen as occurring at the intersection of multiple modes which all have their specific conventions, usages, and affordances in different discipline areas.

Knowing which modes and media to select to best express intended meaning can be thought of as a type of meta-representational competence. Deliberately fostering growth of meta-representational competence is exemplified in several of the Engaging Examples of Practice:

  • Comparing different graphical representations of same statistical data set to determine what each type of graph contributes to an overall understanding of safe stopping distances.
  • ŸExploring the meaning made at the intersection of rhythm, tune, and verse when song-writing.
  • ŸDiscussing how feelings are evoked by the skilfully crafted interplay between illustrations and words in picture books.
  • ŸCreating simple sound recordings that evoke an sense of “place” (both now and in the past) while the listener is guided around a site of historical significance.

Thinking: A multifaceted set of competencies

Thinking is so self-evidently integral to learning that this renders it somewhat invisible. At the same time thinking also inherently contributes to demonstrations of every other key competency. For example, none of the other key competencies would have self-awareness/reflective dimensions without thinking. The OECD recognised this co-dependency by making thinking a “cross-cutting” key competency.

However learners also need to be able to explore specific opportunities to focus on different ways of thinking to strengthen thinking as a competency in its own right.

The engaging examples of practice shine a spotlight on a range of different thinking challenges and the specific types of thinking used to address them. All of these examples are legitimate targets for learning in their own right:

  • ŸCause and effect thinking: Shaping explanations that employ relevant [theoretical] ideas to explicitly link events to their causes.
  • ŸEvidence-based thinking: Constructing reasoned arguments where the warrants for the assertions made are clear, and the reasons for accepting the evidence presented are articulated (and convincing)
  • ŸEmbodied thinking: The contribution made to the expression of meaning and “knowing” by parts of the body such as the hands (as for example when working between a manual and a piece of equipment to figure out how it works), or different ways of moving (as for example when communicating/evoking an emotion in an audience during a dance performance).
  • ŸLateral thinking: Looking for non-obvious connections; thinking differently about something familiar.
  • ŸSystems thinking: Recognising the inherent complexity and unpredictability of non-linear, non-mechanistic structures, events and issues.
  • ŸValues clarification: Thinking about the ways that values and attitudes tacitly shape our thoughts and actions.
  • ŸEpistemic thinking: Thinking more deliberately about the features of knowledge-construction processes that render the claims being made more, or less, trustworthy (for example, thinking about the “nature of science” or practising “historical thinking”).

These are the thinking challenges highlighted in a small number of stories. They should not be seen as a definitive list and there will be more to add. For example, none of: futures thinking; ethical thinking; transfer thinking; or re-contextualising happened to arise in these specific stories.

All the ways of thinking discussed in the exemplars also implicate metacognitive thinking in one way or another. Part of the challenge of strengthening thinking as a key competency in its own right lies in drawing it to conscious attention and more deliberately working to get better at the type of thinking that is in focus.

Managing self/relating to others/participating and contributing: A powerful combination of competencies in action

A synergistic combination of these three key competencies is essential for respectful, self-regulated/directed, and interpersonally aware behaviour and interactions in a range of challenging learning contexts. These included:

  • Ÿundertaking peer assessment activities
  • Ÿcreating and carrying out a performance of any sort
  • Ÿworking “in the spaces between” individuals to expand everyone’s understanding (one example is the philosophical chairs strategy in Treaty of Waitangi story).

Published on: 08 Apr 2014