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Developing exemplars of the key competencies at Hillcrest Normal School (archived)

Introducing Hillcrest Normal School (HNS)

Hillcrest Normal School is a decile 10 contributing school in Hamilton. The school has a roll of approximately 518 students – the majority are NZ European, with small percentages of Asian, Indian, and Māori, and a range of other ethnic groups. Hillcrest Normal School is an Enviro-School, and is currently part of Project Energize, a two-year Waikato District Health Board-funded research programme to improve student fitness and nutrition. The parent community has high educational expectations for their children, supports the learner-centred philosophy of the school, and actively supports their children’s learning.

How did the key competencies fit within existing school practices?

HNS staff saw the key competencies as being about the “whole child”, describing them as intrinsic attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge that thread through all curriculum areas and work together in complex ways. They felt a focus on the key competencies would support students to become lifelong learners who are part of, and involved in, their communities. Staff saw the key competency framework as a timely development that aligned with current school directions, as described next.

Learner-centred practice

HNS has a strong learner-centred philosophy, and for a number of years staff have been exploring teaching and learning programmes that sit with this philosophy. They developed a pedagogy that centred on exploring “rich tasks” (as described below), and incorporated Art Costa’s ideas and a focus on thinking skills through the use of Bloom’s Taxonomy and de Bono’s Thinking Hats. HNS staff saw these focuses as catering for, and challenging, students of all abilities. School leaders noted that developing a school pedagogy had built cohesiveness and consistency, with an outcome that “we are all singing from the same song sheet”. For teachers, these focuses and associated professional development (PD) had resulted in improvements to practice and an increased emphasis on teachers as reflective practitioners.

School leaders viewed the adoption of the key competency framework as an opportunity to re-evaluate and “sharpen up” practice at the school, supporting staff to share “the what” and “the why” of their teaching more with their students, so that power is shared. Teachers echoed this, noting the potential for the 2006 focus on the key competencies to further increase their emphasis on learner-centred practices.

Rich tasks

HNS staff considered it imperative that their teaching and learning programmes met the wide range of student needs at the school: including almost a third of students within any year band being identified by the school as talented and 39 students currently funded as ESOL learners.

Staff believed that learner-centred programmes delivered within an integrated curriculum best catered for this range. At HNS, the delivery of an integrated curriculum was focused around “rich tasks”. 1 Staff described these tasks as carefully planned, integrated, problem-based, investigative units centred around authentic experiences. The tasks included the school’s work on Enviro-School and Project Energize focuses and combined LEOTC with other learning experiences that required students to take responsibility for their learning. Staff noted that the tasks that were selected were inclusive and catered for different learning styles and needs by providing a range of challenges. These tasks were developed utilising ideas from the New Basics initiative in Queensland, learning stories in early childhood education, as well as other approaches. Some tasks arose from “teachable moments”; others were part of year plans. Examples of recent rich tasks were:

  • students learning to plan, budget, and buy food as they prepare for a school camp
  • students being involved in the process and decision making surrounding school productions
  • students planning and enacting how to respond to an earthquake during a “disaster day”
  • students writing, designing, and making books for a local kindergarten that ran out of books
  • students examining and evaluating their school environment, and as a result, redesigning and creating a new garden from a weedy patch
  • students designing and running the “Hillcrest Games” (like the Commonwealth Games)
  • trialling resources from the Bio-learn site, which involved students learning about a farming situation, and working through a challenge.

The staff at HNS saw rich tasks as vehicles to explore the key competencies, so focusing on the key competencies was seen as timely and “integrating perfectly” with existing school directions and practice.

The process: How the school introduced key competencies

To support staff to become more reflective practitioners, and be partners in the development of a school-wide pedagogy, HNS developed a model of in-house PD called an action learning cycle. These cycles involved staff meeting over a period of time, with an outcome in mind, to share and reflect on their individual and team practice. Two action learning cycles were completed at HNS during 2005. During the first cycle staff explored using planning models from Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) as a basis for planning for integrated teaching. The second cycle was designed to support staff to interpret the key competencies. Staff took photos of critical learning events that they then related to the key competencies. In 2006, to further develop staff understandings about the key competencies, the whole staff participated in an action learning cycle where the outcome was the co-construction of key competency exemplars by staff. In this cycle, teachers were given many opportunities for professional dialogue about the key competencies. As a school management team member pointed out, this supported staff to articulate their practice surrounding the key competencies, develop a shared language, and understand which learning situations aligned with the key competencies. The process used during this action learning cycle is set out in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Using an action learning cycle to develop key competency exemplars

STEP 1: Gathering information

Individual staff members

Each teacher took photos of their own students at what they considered to be critical learning moments.

Whole staff

  • Presentation about the key competencies.
  • Teachers were given readings relevant to the key competencies and learner-centred practice, such as an article by James Beane on negotiating the curriculum with students.
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STEP 2: Working in teams (syndicates)

At team meetings, each teacher presented their photos of critical learning moments. The team chose which ones to develop as a possible exemplar of a key competency. Together, the team discussed these photos in relation to the learning students were doing and how that exemplified one key competency. Each team across the school developed one or two exemplars, highlighting how each linked to a key competency (see Figure 11).

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STEP 3: Whole-staff discussions

Each team presented their key competency exemplars to the whole staff, and staff drew comparisons between exemplars from across the school.

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STEP 4: Developing team key competency exemplars

Each team met and planned a rich task, incorporating a key competency that fitted with the rich task into their planning. The team implemented their plan, recording students’ critical learning moments. Following this, each team met to review and discuss what these photos revealed about the focus key competency.

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STEP 5: Next steps

Following from this action learning cycle, staff planned that each team would write another key competency exemplar. Then staff would review this action learning cycle and decide on a next step for their PD.

Figure 11 shows a key competency exemplar developed for Year 3 students.

Figure 11: A key competency exemplar developed at HNS

 Year Three

Key competency
 Relating to others

Language context
 Electronics (Science and Technology)

Learning intentions:
 Student knowledge of circuits is used when constructing individual models of space satellites.

Cooperative models of learning where students take on different roles to support decision making and problem solving are developed.

Learning outcomes:

  • Specific focus within this lesson: Transferring knowledge of how a single circuit works to how a circuit containing two or more bulbs and a switch needs to be constructed.
  • Working together in groups to complete the task, modelling appropriate role behaviour and cooperative skills.

 Honed technical ability and facility to manipulate electronic equipment for a specific purpose.

Trial and error techniques including:

  • Facilitated /negotiated discussion
  • Consideration of the “ideas” pool
  • Experimentation by students
  • Physical manipulation of equipment

 Huge personal satisfaction for children from successful task completion.

Rich sharing of ideas between children; and modelling within the peer group with all children as contributors.

Ability of the teacher to identify and capture the key science concepts and facilitate wider sharing of these was essential to the process. (building and consolidating the knowledge base)

Issues for consideration:
 Teacher content knowledge was secured through staff PD sessions prior to the teaching.

Organising strategies which support effective, inclusive and productive conversations.

Dealing with dominant children in student-led group tasks. Possible solutions:

  • Attention to role definitions/ each child with a responsibility
  • Grouping like-minded children
  • Provision for increased scaffolding for children who lack confidence

(The exemplar included a photo of a critical learning moment.)

How the key competencies linked to teaching and learning programmes


As a result of the key competency action learning cycle, staff were exploring different ways of incorporating the key competencies into their planning, and were acknowledging the potential of the key competencies to drive planning. Some were questioning whether they were providing sufficiently “deep” opportunities for children to demonstrate the key competencies. One teacher found that she was starting to change the activities she had previously included in her plans as they did not have an obvious connection with the key competencies. Another staff member suggested that the key competencies should be at the centre of planning, and students should be participants in that process:

It will become what I share with my students. A rapport will be developed so that they are more involved in their learning journey.

Introducing the key competencies to students

At the time of the school visit, teachers were still developing their understanding of the key competencies and had not “given it a name for the children”. Staff were considering ways to construct the key competencies with students.

Although teachers had not formally introduced the key competencies to all students, they reported using the language of the key competencies incidentally with students. This was supporting them to make the processes of learning more explicit. Examples heard during informal class visits were: “You have to learn to work together on this task”; “You are thinking about your actions?”; “What could you do to solve the problem?”; and “You have three choices…you have to decide.”

Some student groups had been more formally introduced to the key competencies and related language. The year 6 student leaders had participated in group brainstorms about what each key competency might look like. They had been asked to relate their thoughts about the key competencies to their camp experiences. Photos from the camp were then used for students to identify which key competencies were happening and how they were being practised. The intention was for students to transfer these understandings to school situations and to make up a display for the school foyer, thus educating a wider audience.

One teacher described how she worked with an ICT extension group to link students’ perceptions of the senior school camp with the key competencies. Three themes were evident in her class’s retrospective brainstorms about the benefits of the camp. These were challenges, success, and cooperation. Using the pages from the draft Curriculum Framework that defined the key competencies, the students lined up their brainstorms with these descriptions of the key competencies. Students noted that to cooperate effectively they needed to accomplish something together, communicate, trust, encourage, participate, and lead. In doing this students noted that they drew on Relating to others, Participating and contributing, Thinking, and Using language, symbols, and texts.

Another way school staff had approached introducing the key competencies to students was by interviewing the year 6 student leaders and junior students about their perceptions of their learning environment. Questions asked included:

  • What counts for success at HNS?
  • What does the principal say is important at this school?
  • What are your dreams for yourself?
  • What does a good teacher do?
  • What makes a good teacher?

Students’ responses were used by school leaders to further their understandings about how students viewed their learning environment, and to inform PD around the key competencies. Staff noted that older students viewed teachers more as facilitators, in contrast to younger students whose comments showed the importance of the relationships they had with teachers.

Assessment and the key competencies

In HNS school reports the Essential Skills (ES) are reported on in tick boxes. All staff agreed using this format was not appropriate for the key competencies, and they would have to consider how to replace the ES section in reports to parents. Staff expressed a need to reposition parents and educate them about the key competencies, which could mean bringing the language of the key competencies explicitly into student–parent–teacher conferences. One teacher was already informally reporting on aspects of the key competencies at these conferences.

Staff noted that the thinking behind the development of learning story-style exemplars for the key competencies arose from concerns about an assessment system that they were philosophically opposed to (such as a matrix of progressions across year levels). For a number of reasons, staff were concerned about the rationale for developing a matrix. They considered this could lead to summative assessment of the key competencies resulting in generalisations being drawn from context-specific situations. Staff also felt uncomfortable about the idea of “assessing personality”. As a form of assessment, staff saw the key competencies as more amenable to ongoing peer- and self-assessment, and to teacher observation. The intended use of the school key competency exemplars was as a moderation tool to support teacher observations.

Connecting with pre-service trainees

The school had not organised separate formal training about the key competencies for pre-service trainees. Trainees who were working at the school attended staff meetings about the key competencies, and participated in the work that was being done in individual classrooms.

Student perspectives

Learning about and demonstrating the key competencies

At HNS, the student focus group was made up of some of the year 6 student leaders. These students perceived the key competencies to be the “skills” they needed for a “good life”, and saw the importance of learning them when young:

Managing self and relating to others are two things that everybody needs to know. Thinking is part of everyday life…

If we [children] learn the Key Competencies when we’re young, then when we grow older we will be able to get better jobs, and be able to do things better.

When asked how they had demonstrated the key competencies, students in the focus group initially talked about the more obvious social aspects of the key competencies Relating to others, and Participating and contributing, such as comforting someone who was homesick at camp, being in mixed teams and working on a problem together, knowing people’s boundaries, and being able to communicate personal needs to an adult.

Students described the benefits of Managing self, especially when they set their own goals, did self- and peer-assessments, and got purposeful feedback from their teachers and others so they would know what and how to improve.

Students also described how the key competencies were interwoven in specific subjects. For example, in maths, Thinking was about learning different strategies. Understanding how you use different languages in different subjects was part of Using language, symbols, and texts.

The wider learning environment at Hillcrest Normal School

Students at HNS were aware of new approaches their teachers were trying and strategies they were learning across a range of areas, and how these related to the key competencies. When asked what they had learnt the most from this year, they responded:

Strategies [in maths]—we are learning different ways of doing things.

Working as a team to solve something.

From discussions with others and learning from my mistakes.

Doing drama: It teaches me to be more confident.

In the work that teachers had done with groups of students, it was interesting to see how students had identified the importance of taking risks, and of the power of learning if you go beyond your comfort zone, whether it be in the social, emotional, academic, or physical arenas. When reflecting on why they were given cooperative activities at camp, students responded:

People have different fears and strengths.

You need to work with different people better.

You get a better understanding of teamwork.

You accomplish things you couldn’t do by yourself.

Overall, students identified that when activities were fun, new, and different, they engaged better and felt that they learnt more. The rich task experiences they had had outside the classroom were seen as particularly significant learning times. Students had obviously enjoyed working and learning about real things in the outdoors. Being given explanations so that they knew the purpose behind what they were doing was also seen as important.

In commenting on the aspects of their education that could be improved, students, like their teachers, were reflective practitioners. They did not want to be passive recipients of information. They commented that spending too much time listening without breaks was not helpful to their learning. Some students expressed a concern about why they were learning Māori, and noted that they did not understand the purpose for this learning.

In summary, students’ comments reflected the shifts the school was making in becoming more learner-centred. Students’ descriptions of the connection between the key competencies and the cooperative and self-management behaviours they were learning, show how the school’s direction was aligned with pedagogies that are likely to support students to demonstrate the key competencies.

Where to next?

Across the school, staff at HNS felt excited about all the possibilities that working and moving forwards with the key competencies presents both to themselves and to their students. They identified a need to continue extending their boundaries to ensure that their work was learner-driven and offered all students real experiences and appropriate scaffolding. They noted that all students needed to be given opportunities to develop the key competencies, not just GATE students, or those who were part of specific extension or withdrawal groups.

Staff discussed the importance of consistency across the school about what each key competency looks like, and getting the balance right in planning. To support this consistency to develop, a number of areas for future exploration were suggested. Staff noted that all the key competencies could potentially fit with most rich tasks, therefore there was a need to discuss whether they would highlight one or two key competencies or incorporate them all. Making the language of the key competencies accessible for younger students was also considered important. Staff also saw the need to explore and unpack Using language, symbols, and texts together, commenting that this was the most difficult key competency to interpret. Once a sense of consistency had been achieved, staff would explore ways to formally introduce the key competencies to students and parents.

Staff saw the benefits for themselves and students of continuing their work on integrating the key competencies within school initiatives, including the GATE model, Project Energize, and their Students as School Leaders programme. They hoped this would continue to build resources and exemplars for staff, students, and parents around the types of successful practices in current use. At HNS, exploring the key competencies was an iterative process as the key competencies were continually being made visible, and current practice was evaluated to ascertain alignment between the school focuses and the new key competency framework. Staff considered this iterative and “measured” approach would facilitate their continued exploration of the key competencies.


  1. Some aspects of numeracy and literacy are taught separately from rich tasks.

Published on: 20 Sep 2007