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Cross-school themes: Challenges (archived)


This next section of the report discusses some of the challenges and debates that came to the surface as the schools focused on the key competencies.

Challenge 1: Utilising the potential of the key competencies to support transformative learning

The initial exploration of the key competencies framework described in this report alerts us to a risk that the key competencies will stay within the realm of the known and familiar. Hipkins (2006a) comments on this risk in her paper about the challenges of implementing new curriculum models such as the key competencies. She calls this the “we are already doing that” challenge.

There is a risk that educators may not see the full potential of the key competencies to support change towards pedagogies that are transformative and student-driven, and which result in students having increased access to opportunities for authentic learning. In this current study, students thought these sorts of experiences assisted their learning and they wanted more of them. Our data showed that some of the practices related to these more complex pedagogies were relatively less valued by staff and were happening less frequently. Staff who perceived the curriculum to be overcrowded found it hard to find time to integrate the key competencies, explore these new pedagogies, or create authentic learning opportunities.

The data we collected in this study suggests that the potential of integrated and inquiry approaches to provide authentic learning experiences could be further tapped. Gilbert (2005) discusses the need for new frameworks and approaches to curriculum and pedagogy that enable all students to have opportunities to take action on real-world problems. She frames this shift as a necessity for preparing students for the demands of the knowledge society. A different but connected frame is suggested by some environmental educators. They see the development of action competence as a necessity for young people to ensure that society is ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable (Jensen & Schnack, 1997; Ministry of Education, 1999a).

School leaders noted that they wanted teachers to take advantage of authentic learning opportunities and further explore the potential of integrated and inquiry approaches. But schools and teachers found themselves operating within a climate of mixed messages. This acted against them being able to take advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves.

This study indicates a need for further national exploration of the “big picture” and ways to downsize curriculum clutter. The current revised curriculum clearly provides schools with the mandate to adopt local school-based curriculum solutions. But will schools feel able to take up this challenge? To a large extent the old curriculum also provided schools with this mandate. Over time it appears that the system became cluttered and overcrowded as curriculum messages were re-interpreted and accountability requirements came to the fore.

To increase the depth of learning experiences, school staff needed to feel that they were not making decisions that were in tension with national accountability requirements such as the NAGs (that require schools to have focused literacy, numeracy, and physical activity programmes) and the Planning and Reporting framework. This is not a new tension. In the 1960s Elwyn Richardson, the author of In the Early World (Richardson, 2001), was vilified for his departure from the norm of curriculum delivery, and then later lauded as being an exemplary teacher!

Schools were finding ways to deal with the tension between coverage of Achievement Objectives (AOs) and initiating student-driven projects in which various AOs could be addressed depending on the interests of students. Most of the case study schools had resolved this tension by setting overall themes to ensure certain AOs were covered, then allowing some flexibility for both syndicate and student-led interests to be followed. The impact of this was to place most schools in the middle of the continuum of student-centred practice in relation to approaches to integrated learning and to remove the potential for greater student input into the decision-making process. It appears that the multiple drivers for curriculum integration (both pragmatic and philosophical) have resulted in a tendency for the intent of curriculum integration to be watered down.

For the full potential of inquiry and integrated models to be utilised to provide authentic learning opportunities, it appears that further shifts towards student-centred practices are required. Central to the model of integration suggested by Beane (1997) are increased opportunities for co-construction of the curriculum by students. Moving away from a teacher-directed approach towards increasing student decision making can be daunting for teachers. However, it seems to be a practice with which the teachers and school leaders in this study were becoming more comfortable. Beane (2006) suggests there are many different ways to incorporate the student voice into classroom programmes. These can be small-scale, for example, students deciding on what resources to use, or assisting in the design of formative assessments. Or they can be large-scale, for example, co-construction of the central theme of a study. Many of the small-scale ideas suggested by Beane were the types of approaches used in the case study schools. Beane considers that starting with these smaller-scale approaches is one way of encouraging staff to increase student involvement.

For teachers to truly be able to take advantage of the authentic learning opportunities that present themselves, and co-construct the curriculum or classroom practice with students, they need support at the school level. It is also important that accountability structures at the national level do not prohibit them from responding to student interests or just-in-time learning opportunities. At the school level, this support could be a planning structure that allows for depth of learning, flexibility, and co-construction, and does not require all planning overviews for the next year to be developed in advance. At the national level, support could take the form of NAGs that are not tightly prescribed, or Education Review Office (ERO) reviews that do not look for all aspects of planning to be completed in advance but instead explore school practice for examples of action competence, co-construction, or ways of responding to student interests.

This study suggests there are two questions that could be further explored: “Is the education system coherent at the national level?” and “Do schools have the ‘big picture’ or programme coherence at a local level?”

Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, and Bryk (2001) assert that ideas about “coherence” are helpful in assisting us to reflect on the educational “big picture”. Newmann et al. discuss the importance of programme coherence in underpinning school improvement attempts and improving student achievement. They define programme coherence as:

a set of inter-related programs for students and staff that are guided by a common framework for curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning climate and that are pursued over a sustained period of time (p. 297)

Newmann et al. contrast this model of coherence to the adoption of a wide range of programmes, or non-connected programmes for different types of learners. One example of non-coherence they describe is various forms of professional development (PD) or facilitators working in schools in ways that do not connect with each other. A challenge for the New Zealand system is that, although the various forms of PD currently available are aligned philosophically, it is up to teachers and schools to make explicit connections between the different PD contracts. A further exploration of the idea of national and local coherence has the potential to assist with planning and dealing with some of the concerns about “clutter” in the system.

There is of course a tension in the views of Newmann et al. If programmes are too coherent there is a risk that planning could become too tightly prescribed and not allow space for individual expression by schools, teachers, or students. This returns us to the planning dilemma discussed above.

In this section of the report we have explored some of the more challenging aspects of creating rich learning opportunities for students. There is a caveat to this discussion. It is important to acknowledge that aspects of the key competencies can be infused within all learning situations and therefore it is vital not to ignore the significance of smaller-scale opportunities, for students to develop the key competencies and for teachers and students to discuss the key competencies, that present themselves in the context of everyday interactions and activities in and outside of the classroom.

Challenge 2: Process and strategy cluttering

Along with debates about curriculum coverage and overcrowding, another concern expressed by staff at some of the schools was about “process” overcrowding. Many staff noted that their school “did” the Habits of Mind and used a variety of tools and strategies such as de Bono’s Thinking Hats, graphic organisers, Bloom’s taxonomy, learning styles, the Virtues Project, and various approaches to critical thinking. Many of these tools and strategies were used as a way to make the process, and the desired outcomes, of learning more explicit to students. Most thought that developing a shared key competencies language with students also supported them to make this process more explicit. Some suggested that the key competencies, therefore, fitted well with the existing tools and strategies that had this focus. Other teachers talked about the fads that swept through the system and “process overcrowding”. They expressed concerns about the overlap between some of these approaches, and whether they could “fit them all in”.

One common example was the overlap between the Habits of Mind and the key competencies. Some staff had done matching exercises to examine how these two frameworks were interrelated, or had used Habits of Mind terminology in their exploration of the key competencies. Other teachers thought the key competencies framework could replace their school’s focus on the Habits of Mind.

Newmann et al.’s (2001) argument about programme coherence can be applied to reviewing the purpose of the range of tools and strategies available for schools to use. The situation described above points to a need for schools to have “process” coherence so that teachers are clear about how the tools and strategies used at their school fit into the bigger picture of curriculum delivery and pedagogy. Using the key competencies framework as a starting point, and selecting a few key tools and strategies that complement this framework, could be one way of achieving process coherence. Another approach is suggested by Beane (2006). He described how staff and students at a school he worked with used the Habits of Mind framework to develop a smaller number of dispositions that connected with their overall vision.

Challenge 3: Interpreting the key competencies framework

Interpreting Understanding languages, symbols, and texts (ULST)

  • Across and between schools there was variation in how staff interpreted the five key competencies. Teachers found the key competency: Thinking relatively easy to interpret. This key competency was viewed as relating to existing approaches to critical thinking and the various thinking tools and strategies already used in the schools. Teachers and students also found the three most socially-orientated key competencies ( Managing self, Relating to others, and Participating and contributing) more familiar and therefore easier to interpret and recognise than the key competency: Using language, symbols, and texts.
  • Hipkins’ (2006a) challenge that “we are already doing that” or that the key competencies are “business as usual” is particularly relevant to Using language, symbols, and texts. Hipkins (2006a, b) suggests that this key competency is potentially the most different from the Essential Skills, and therefore may need more “unpacking” than the other key competencies. The findings from this study support Hipkins’ view. Some saw this key competency as an “outcome” that was assessed via existing literacy and numeracy programmes. Others considered that it could potentially support them to be more aware of literacy across the curriculum, but had yet to devise ways this could be achieved. At the stage we visited the schools, most had started to add the three more socially-orientated key competencies into their planning, but had yet to fully engage with ULST. This suggests that more support is needed to assist teachers to interpret and integrate this key competency.

Moving beyond social skills

Teachers acknowledged the importance of the social skills embedded within the three more familiar competencies: Relating to others, Managing self, and Participating and contributing. However, the meta-cognitive aspects of these competencies are not clearly apparent. This alerts us to a trap for schools. In the original OECD (2005) framework, reflectiveness is at the “heart of the key competencies”. This framework explicitly weaves thinking (meta-cognition, reflection, and critical and creative thinking) through three competencies. This suggests that without this interweaving, prominence needs to be given to the meta-cognitive and reflective aspects of the key competencies to ensure that they are not viewed solely as a set of social skills or as a behaviour management tool. Hipkins (2006a) notes that it is important that the complexity of each competency is not lost. For example, she suggests that there is a risk that Managing self could be interpreted as students behaving well and being ready to learn, and that the thread about identity (knowing who you are and how to “be”) that runs through this competency could be downplayed. An associated risk is that this competency could be framed in the classroom as a tool for behaviour management rather than for student empowerment.

If teachers are to move towards a deeper exploration of the key competencies, there is a need for a shared language for this exploration. The schools in this study had started to develop this shared language. A next step could be reviewing this language to ensure that it allows both students and teachers to explore the full complexity of the key competencies including the meta-cognitive aspects.

Challenge 4: Whether and how to assess the key competencies

At most of the schools, teachers were informally assessing students’ development of the key competencies using formative assessment procedures. Some teachers found this was leading them in new directions and talked about the dilemmas they initially experienced as a result. Some expressed discomfort as they felt they were assessing “dispositions” or “personality”. These teachers were unsure about what to do if students did not have a realistic idea about how they had performed and consistently rated themselves in a higher position than teachers, or their peers, did on self and peer assessments. Some teachers negotiated with students using evidence (such as peer and teacher ratings, and students’ performance on recent tasks). They found that students responded well to this, and they were surprised at students’ frankness and willingness to discuss their key competencies development. Other teachers felt uncomfortable about suggesting to students that they were not performing as well as they thought. These teachers were concerned about the potential impact of these discussions on students’ self-esteem. Consequently they tended to leave students to decide how they had performed.

The experiences of these teachers show that they were at different places in regard to their comfort with, and knowledge about, offering students direct feedback about their performance. Following from recent PD in literacy, numeracy, or formative assessment, this area of practice was being developed at the schools. The focus on the key competencies had brought a need for a shift in practice into sharper relief.

School staff were debating the more formal aspects of assessing the key competencies. Most were approaching this task cautiously to avoid the “tick box” approach that had occurred with the Essential Skills. Staff were also concerned that ERO and the MOE would expect assessment of the key competencies, given the appearance of the following statement in the draft curriculum:

The competencies should be assessed in the context of tasks that require students to use their knowledge and skills in new ways (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 29).

Staff were debating whether there was a need to summatively assess the key competencies, and how to formally report on the key competencies. Some staff considered the key competencies should not be formally assessed. Others considered this to be vital, otherwise there was a risk that the key competencies would be sidelined. This is discussed by Hipkins (2006a) as the “if they’re not assessed, we’ll just ignore them” challenge.

At the case study schools, most staff were planning to use their shared key competencies language at three-way conferences to introduce parents to the key competencies, and were also planning to replace the Essential Skills and behaviour sections of school reports with comments on students’ performance in relation to aspects of the key competencies. Teachers were less sure about whether they would make a global judgement to inform these comments or have a more formalised system of assessing student progress. Some schools had developed rubrics to chart progression in the key competencies within and across year levels. They were planning to use these rubrics to “level” students and report to parents. In general, school leaders and teachers considered that expectations surrounding assessment needed to be clarified at a national level.

Next steps for key competency assessment

International literature supports teachers’ use of formative assessment strategies to assess the key competencies and suggests that new assessment models are needed that move us away from the types of standardised testing that is often used for assessing progress in literacy and numeracy. From a review of issues surrounding the implementation of the key competencies, Hipkins, Boyd, and Joyce (2005) found considerable overlap in approaches used to assess similar concepts to the key competencies. In their paper, Hipkins et al. drew on Delandshere and Petrosky’s (1998) work to develop the idea of the key competencies as a “complex performance”. Delandshere and Petrosky note that complex performances integrate many components. As the key competencies are an integration of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values, this suggests that they need to be viewed and assessed as “complex performances”.

Delandshere and Petrosky suggest that there are differences between models that underpin the assessment of academic achievement and complex performances. For example, the measurement theory on which standardised tests rest assumes that attributes such as numeracy skills are in a relatively steady state. Any variations between assessments could be described as the result of error, not a unique response to a specific context. In contrast, the key competencies are context-bound. For example, how a learner demonstrates Relating to others could vary substantially depending on their level of comfort in different situations. Delandshere and Petrosky (1998) suggest that different assessment models are needed to capture this complexity.

This suggests that the key competencies have the potential to lead us towards new assessment territories. Hipkins et al. (2005) found that there was considerable agreement among commentators and researchers about the purpose and types of assessment best suited to the evaluation of complex performances like the key competencies. Most suggest that:

  • a key purpose of the assessment is to empower students to become lifelong learners rather than for accountability purposes (although assessments can fulfil both these functions)
  • new forms of assessment are needed to assess complex performances. These forms of assessment move us away from standardised testing towards forms that promote co-constructed formative assessment
  • the learner should be involved in discussion about progress or in making decisions about selecting the evidence. Some suggest that the learner should be involved in decisions about judging the evidence
  • more than one form of assessment is needed to adequately deal with issues of reliability and validity
  • more than one task is needed to adequately deal with issues of reliability and to give learners the opportunity to show how they have adapted the complex performance for use in another setting
  • portfolio-type self-assessments or observations of complex performances grounded within authentic learning situations are suggested as methods that are well suited to supporting learners to demonstrate complex performances and for validly assessing these performances.

Commentators and researchers also agree that complex performances are performed holistically (for example, more than one key competency is drawn on in any given situation) but have less agreement about whether aspects of this performance should be assessed holistically or discretely. Most propose assessment and reporting systems that are standards-based. Some comment that charting progression in complex performances can be a complex endeavour.

This summary of the international literature supports the current direction the case study schools are taking with assessment and also suggests a need to progress cautiously with the more formal aspects of assessing the key competencies. This study points to the need for a process that supports the development of system-wide understandings about this area. For example, practitioners, MOE personnel, and assessment specialists could work together to further develop ideas about how assessment of the key competencies could be achieved.

Where to next?

The schools in this study were at the start of a journey to incorporate the key competencies framework into their teaching and learning programmes. Almost without exception, all of the staff and students we interviewed found exploring the key competencies a fascinating and positive experience. The in-depth discussions in which staff and students engaged as part of this process were supporting schools to review curriculum delivery, further develop leadership capabilities in a range of staff, develop a whole-school language to talk about the key competencies, and further develop whole-school pedagogies and assessment practices.

Some of the key writers in the area of school change (for example, Stoll et al., 2001) discuss how school improvement initiatives have traditionally focused on assessing achievement in areas such as literacy and numeracy. They suggest that the challenge for this millennium is to shift the focus to understand more about how individuals learn and to find tools that give information about deep learning in relation to the competencies required of the knowledge society.

The unpacking of the key competencies in these schools is a step towards addressing this challenge. The schools’ experiences have shown that the current educational environment, which is characterised by curriculum as well as tool and strategy overcrowding, and national accountability directives (NAGs, the Planning and Reporting framework, and ERO reviews), poses some challenges for schools as they attempt to make this shift.

The draft revised curriculum explicitly gives the mandate to schools for school-based curriculum development (Ministry of Education, 2006). The schools in this study welcomed this flexibility as a way to move away from the current cluttered system. This study identified a number of challenges for schools in clarifying a “big picture” for themselves within the current environment. These were the need to:

  • find ways to fully utilise the potential of integrated and inquiry approaches to provide space for rich and authentic learning opportunities and support teachers to move towards unfamiliar pedagogies
  • review the use of various tools and strategies to ensure that they fit with the ‘big picture’
  • develop processes that ensured that the language used to talk about the key competencies captures their complexity
  • develop processes that support teachers to interpret ULST
  • develop new models of assessment for the key competencies.

These schools were at various stages of a journey towards this clarification. Having time to debate the challenges that arose during the course of their exploration of the key competencies, both within and between schools, was assisting staff to address some of the complexities of the new environment they were entering. This study suggests that if teachers are to take further advantage of the opportunities the key competencies framework presents they will need ongoing support at the school level as well as national messages that align with the framework.

Managing change

A comparison of the experiences of the schools in this study to the school change literature reveals that many of the supports that are likely to support positive change were in place. The following list of conditions for change was developed from an overview of the school change literature and the experiences of the schools in the Curriculum Innovations Projects (Boyd et al., 2005). Most of these conditions were evident in the schools in this current study:

  • There is strong leadership.
  • A shared vision is developed.
  • Change is planned for and the plan considers the interplay between curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.
  • Good practice pedagogy is used to support students to become lifelong learners.
  • New forms of teacher communities are developed (such as learning communities).
  • Varied types of professional development are offered.
  • External collaborations are developed.
  • Students are involved.
  • Goals are monitored.
  • Alignment with school structures is considered.
  • Extra funding and resourcing are provided to seed the initiative.

This report concludes with a series of suggestions about how to manage change at a national and local level. These suggestions stem from an amalgam of the study findings, the ideas suggested by school staff during interviews, and the literature.

Managing change and promoting coherence at a national level

One way of managing the risks associated with curriculum change is to ensure that new models are presented in ways that support their uptake. Hipkins el al. (2005) note that if models of competencies are to be appropriately used by the wider education community they need to be framed in a way that is coherent with the pedagogy and assessment purposes they promote, and presented in a manner that is easily understood and interpreted, and that supports a shared understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of the model to be developed.

Internationally, a lack of conceptual clarity, resulting in inconsistent understanding of generic skills or competency models similar to the key competencies framework, has been suggested as a main reason for the variable uptake of these models (Blom & Clayton, 2003; Kearns, 2001). To ensure conceptual clarity, Oates (2001) suggests that carefully planned PD is needed to sit alongside the introduction of new models. The school leaders and teachers in this study also held this view. Staff also noted that clear messages at the national level were very important, for example, clear implementation time frames and expectations.

To support staff to take on board the key competencies framework, school leaders considered that staff needed to have access to PD or material that outlined the conceptual framework of the key competencies. This included the rationale underpinning the framework and how this connected with ideas about the knowledge society and lifelong learning. School leaders also noted that staff needed practical ideas about what each key competency looked like and how this linked to classroom practice. This would ensure that each key competency was fully explored and would support the development of a shared language about the key competencies.

Senior staff in the case study schools had attended background sessions, such as a MOE briefing about the revised curriculum including background on the key competencies framework, principals’ conferences, or the overviews about the key competencies provided at NSA forums. They felt less in need of PD than those who did not have this big picture.

However, many teachers also wanted information about the background to the key competencies. As one said, “as a teacher we deserve to know the [underpinning] thinking”. School staff also noted that School Support Services and other teacher providers needed to be on board so they could offer PD to schools.

Suggestions as to the future format of key competencies information included DVDs, accessible readings, educational TV programmes, education community debates, presentations, and information resource packs on the new curriculum in print or located on a website.

One particular concern was a lack of clarity about national expectations for assessing the key competencies. From their experiences, school staff suggested that it was vital to give teachers time to experiment with integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning and not mandate forms of assessment too soon. But they also wanted clarity about whether they would eventually be required to assess the key competencies and, if so, when and how.

School leaders suggested that more debate about national directions was required at a regional and school level. They considered that opportunities for clustering and sharing of ideas between schools was necessary to support schools to explore changes that might result from the curriculum revision, and the new key competencies framework. School leaders and teachers considered release time for PD and time for “teachers to talk to teachers” was vital. Teachers wanted time to share practical ideas with other teachers, either in cluster groups, or through visits between schools.

Managing change at the local level

Although the school staff in this study would have welcomed more resources about the key competencies framework, on the whole they found the mostly in-house PD processes they designed to introduce the key competencies to be an effective way of exploring this framework. The following is a summary of ideas suggested by school staff and this research about introducing the key competencies framework within a school environment:

  • Ensure the foundations are in place. (Do current school curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and planning practices align with approaches likely to support students to develop the key competencies? Do changes to the “big picture” need to be made?)
  • Provide teachers with information about the background to the key competencies framework including information about learning for the knowledge society.
  • Make the key competencies a whole-school focus (with not too much other PD).
  • Unpack the key competencies with staff first before going to students.
  • Connect the key competencies with the known so that staff do not see the key competencies as “another added extra”.
  • Make connections with other schools to hear about their approaches.
  • Find ways to give ownership over the process to teachers.
  • Give teachers time to work as a team, develop a shared language about the key competencies, trial ideas about how to integrate the key competencies into planning and classroom practice, and reflect.
  • Develop a shared language with students by involving students in the process.
  • Make the key competencies real for students by connecting them with their in- and out-of-school lives.
  • Give teachers time to experiment before formally assessing the key competencies.
  • Take time to explore the unknown. (This study suggests that the key competencies framework has the potential to lead schools towards new curriculum, pedagogical, and assessment territories.)

Published on: 19 Sep 2007