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Developing key competency matrices at Central Normal School (archived)

Introducing Central Normal School (CNS)

Central Normal School is an inner-city decile 5 contributing school in Palmerston North that serves a wide ethnic and socio-economic community. It has a roll of approximately 540 students across its mainstream, special education, and bilingual classes. The majority of students are NZ European, and about 40 percent are Māori. A wide range of other ethnic groups are also represented at the school. The school is staffed by approximately 30 full-time teachers, including three RTLBs and one RTLit who also support teachers and students in schools on the western side of Palmerston North. In addition, 22 support staff assist students in the school’s inclusive special education programme.

The fit between existing school practices and key competencies

Staff saw the key competencies framework as being important to education and society, having the potential to provide a continuum from early childhood education through to tertiary education and beyond. “Good citizens”, “capable people”, “well-adjusted members of society”, and “life-long learners” were seen as outcomes. Staff considered that this meant the key competencies had the potential to be seen as “not just as a school thing” and they would “become part of everyone’s understandings about learning”.

In the three years prior to the school’s focus on the key competencies, CNS had a professional development (PD) focus on literacy, numeracy, thinking skills, and social skills. The school management team considered that the key competencies fitted well with these recent initiatives, and wanted to integrate the key competencies within their existing programmes, seeing this as an opportunity to reorganise the curriculum. This re-organisation is described below.

Developing a framework for integrated learning

The staff at CNS saw the introduction of the key competencies framework as an opportunity to adopt an integrated approach to the curriculum. This approach was viewed as more meaningful for both students and teachers. Within an integrated approach, staff planned to foreground the key competencies and therefore increase the priority placed on the skills and processes necessary for life-long learning. Staff suggested that this shift away from knowledge-based study would result in the learning contexts becoming “the vehicle”, and the key competencies “the road”. Within this framework, staff described the key competencies as an “over-riding umbrella that filters into and underpins everything we do”.

Connecting the key competencies with other school-wide approaches

In order to facilitate an integrated learning approach, the staff decided to use inquiry learning in authentic contexts to focus classroom programmes. Therefore PD in inquiry learning was undertaken as a whole staff. To refocus their approach to curriculum, staff also drew on previous PD and school-wide practices that they wished to maintain. These were:

  • the use of assessment rubrics
  • the use of the Habits of Mind
  • the use of questioning techniques and critical thinking tools, for example, David Whitehead’s work, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and de Bono’s Thinking Hats
  • the practice of the Virtues Project.

The process: How the school introduced key competencies

School leaders considered it important that all staff were involved and had ownership in their journey with the key competencies. They began the process of exploring how the key competencies could be integrated into school programmes by gathering information and disseminating it to staff. Following this, a whole-school PD model was used to introduce the key competencies to staff, as outlined in Figure 12.

Figure 12: Steps taken to unpack the key competencies at CNS with staff

STEP 1: Gathering information about the key competencies and integrated learning

School leaders attended the key competency presentation at the Normal Schools Forum and visited another Normal School to learn about curriculum integration, and staff were given readings about the key competencies.

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STEP 2: Whole-school PD

At the beginning of term 1, 2006, a teacher-only day was held. During this day, school leaders shared findings about curriculum integration from their visits and readings. Staff viewed presentations by staff from other schools about their approach to curriculum integration and new staff members shared their experiences of integrated learning. Staff discussed how they could align integrated teaching and learning programmes with their understanding of the key competencies. Whole-school PD on inquiry learning was also undertaken, as this was felt to be necessary for an integrated approach. This PD was provided by a staff member from Massey University.

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STEP 3: Forming a team to develop a key competency matrix

The enthusiasm generated from this PD resulted in the senior school team (years 5–6) meeting and developing a levelled matrix for one key competency: Managing self, ready to begin the school year (see Table 7). The criteria for  Managing self were grouped under three learning intentions for the curriculum levels 1–4:

  1. Exercises Initiative Identifies
  2. Personal Goals
  3. Responsible for Own Actions
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STEP 4: Developing a shared understanding of the key competency matrix with whole staff

The senior team took their levelled matrix to a staff meeting for discussion and comment.

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STEP 5: Building ownership and a shared understanding of key competency matrix at individual team levels

Each team then met to put the matrix criteria into language they felt their own students would understand. They also discussed where they thought their students were now (in relation to their matrix), and what their students’ next steps could be.

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STEP 6: Developing further matrices

A similar process, as outlined in Steps 3 to 5, was used to draw up a matrix for the key competencies focused on in term 2: Participating and contributing.Table 7 shows the matrix of progression developed by school staff for Managing self.

Table 7 shows the matrix of progression developed by school staff for Managing self.

Table 7: Managing self rubric

Key Concept Matrix: Managing Self

Level One

Level Two

Level Three

Level Four

Exercises initiative

  • Makes choices
  • Follows an instruction
  • Shows leadership qualities in small group situations

Exercises initiative

  • Makes good choices
  • Follows more than one instruction
  • Shows leadership qualities in whole-class situations

Exercises initiative

  • Makes good choices consistently
  • Follows instructions and routines without teacher direction
  • Shows leadership qualities with increasing confidence

Exercises initiative

  • Always makes good choices
  • Consistently follows instructions and routines without teacher direction
  • Shows leadership qualities effectively and with confidence

Identifies personal goals

  • States that there is something they need to learn
  • Reflects orally

Identifies personal goals

  • Writes personal goals
  • Writes simple success criteria
  • Writes simple reflections

Identifies personal goals

  • Writes specific personal goals
  • Identifies and writes specific success criteria
  • Reflects honestly and realistically on goals

Identifies personal goals

  • Writes specific long- and short-term goals
  • Reflects, evaluates, and modifies goals using measurable criteria

Responsible for own actions

  • Is aware of some rules
  • Discusses own behaviour with support
  • Aware that there are consequences for choices

Responsible for own actions

  • Follows rules
  • Discusses own behaviour
  • Understands the consequences for choices

Responsible for own actions

  • Follows rules consistently
  • Takes ownership for behaviour
  • Accepts consequences for choices

Responsible for own actions

  • Always follows rules
  • Copes with successes and failures maturely

Planning for integrated learning based on the key competencies

As part of their move towards an integrated curriculum, CNS had started to structure their planning around school-wide themes. Each term, a theme has a focus on one key learning area, but also straddles a number of other curriculum areas. To support staff to integrate the key competencies into their planning, the school’s specific targets for 2006 were based around the key competencies. Staff began by weaving one key competency into each term’s school-wide theme. For example, in the school-wide theme of “My Zone” in term 2, the key competency: Participating and contributing formed the basis of an integrated inquiry about an aspect of themselves and their local area. Each team across the school took a different approach to the term’s theme, but in their planning, teachers tied student learning activities to three learning intentions for Participating and contributing that they had worked on both as a team and as a staff, and had unpacked further with their students. These learning intentions were:

  • participating in groups
  • sense of responsibility
  • accepting individual differences.

Table 8 gives an example of how the staff had woven their key competency focus and these learning intentions together in their planning.

Table 8: Example of “My Zone” planning that weaves together the key competency focus and learning intentions

Stages of inquiry

Tuning in

Learning activities

Key competency focus

  • Engaging students in the topic
  • Assessing prior knowledge, interest, & attitudes
  • Assessing gaps in knowledge
  • Refining planning
  • Gathering questions
  1. What represents us? In pairs ask students to draw any symbol that they think represents NZ—try to draw out the Marae, Rugby, etc.
  2. Ask students to draw themselves in their locality. Do they understand that they belong to a larger community other than the Manawatu, or New Zealand?
  3. Ask each student to bring something significant to them and ask them to explain its significance.
  4. Study a television commercial that shows a collection of New Zealand images and decide which one represents “us” and why.
  5. Our flag. What does it mean? What do the symbols represent? What was it created for? Is it still relevant to us (adopted in 1902)? How could a new flag for today’s NZ look? What would be the pros and cons of changing the flag? Do other countries change their flags? When and why?

Working with one other person, sharing and listening to different ideas.

Works independently with guidelines.

Shows tolerance and acceptance of others’ individualities—cultural and social.

Reflects and appraises, considering others’ ideas.

Accepts that others have a point of view.

Integrating the key competencies into classroom practice

To introduce the key competencies to students, teachers set up activities that enabled students to explore what a particular key competency could look like both in specific and general classroom life. For example, in term 2, staff and students worked together to develop class criteria for what Participating and contributing looked like. These criteria were placed on posters and charts around classrooms so that students had access to them. Some classes had also identified how they could demonstrate Participating and contributing in specific curriculum areas as well as in general classroom life. (see Figure 13).

Figure 13: Identifying how a key competency can be demonstrated

Graphic reads: How we participate and contribute during reading by: We help each other by giving each other ideas, we accept each others different ideas and thoughts, we discuss answers together, and show leadership in our groups.

Teachers used similar approaches to introduce the key competencies to students, but depending on the activities they were currently engaged in, took different approaches to further integrating the term 1 and term 2 focus key competencies: Participating and contributing and Managing self into their classroom practice. In term 2, working in groups formed a big part of the “My Zone” work. Referring to the criteria and posters they had developed about Participating and contributing, some staff and students specifically identified the criteria for group roles; that is, leader, recorder, reporter, and member. Staff noted that this involved a lot of class discussion, group work, reflection, and reinforcement.

In their work on “My Zone”, teachers in a junior class used ideas about Participating and contributing and Managing self to support students to gain an overview of the activities they were undertaking and to reflect on these. Teachers constructed an action plan for their study on the classroom floor as a hopscotch. Each number marked a stage in their study, so students could see the progression they would make in their study. The hopscotch was actively used as students sat around it to either reflect, to review, and/or to foresee the stages of their action plan. One of their classmates threw a beanbag onto the appropriate number/stage, and hopped the action plan/hopscotch, picking up the beanbag from the highlighted stage. This was backed up by a class journal that documented in more detail the events of each stage and student findings along the way.

The RTLBs, RTLit, and support staff working in the school special education programme supported students by using the key competency criteria vocabulary of the class their students were working within. In addition to this, the special education staff drew up a pre-level 1 matrix to use in setting Individual Education Programme (IEP) outcomes for their special needs students.

Assessing key competencies

The matrices that staff developed were used as formative assessment tools. In general, staff saw the development of the key competencies happening on a continuum, so felt assessing them in a formative way was more appropriate. This would mean an increase in student self- and peer-assessment, as well as an increase in reflective time for both teachers and students. Some teachers incorporated either the key competency matrix or a breakdown of this into a school “sharing book” that each student takes home. In this book, students self-assess where they think they are currently at, and identify their next steps. One teacher commented that as these books went home, and with students if they moved schools, they were starting a process of communicating with parents and colleagues about the key competencies.

Staff plan to assess the key competencies, within the context of a particular school theme, using the matrices they had developed. A curriculum achievement level for each of the three identified learning intentions will be given to each child. This achievement level, together with a 1–5 progress indicator, will be shared with parents and caregivers in the end-of-year report.


Staff acknowledged that the format of their current formal report to parents did not fit with the integrated curriculum nor the key competencies. Senior staff intended to form a committee of teachers and parents to discuss their report format. As they moved away from a focus on specific curriculum areas, many staff also favoured a move away from formally assessing and reporting on these, towards assessing and reporting on the key competencies, as well as literacy, numeracy, and physical education.

For some students with special education needs, learning was documented digitally to share with parents and others. Staff planned to align these assessments with the key competencies, as the key competencies formed the basis of IEP learning outcomes.

Teacher reflections on the school’s exploration of the key competencies

In reflecting on their exploration of the key competencies to date, staff acknowledged that changing teaching practices was a challenge. They noted that they were all at different stages along a continuum, and that time and support would keep them moving. A couple of staff expressed concerns about keeping up with the pace of curriculum change and whether or not students were benefiting. In bringing students with them on “yet another wave of curriculum development”, they wondered if students would become “guinea pigs…lost between two worlds”.

However, most staff had already noticed how shifts in their practice were having benefits for students. They saw the perceived low achievers participating more within the classroom programmes and having more opportunities to shine. They thought this was because the key competencies were more about the whole person and everyone has strengths they could share and offer others.

When more relevant local content was added to the school programmes, staff felt that students were positively engaged in learning. Staff outlined examples of authentic projects they considered engaged students and supported their development of the key competencies and ability to take action in their environment. In their “My Zone” work, the juniors were evaluating a local playground and were actively engaged in putting a proposal together to present to the City Council about how to improve this playground. As part of developing their understandings about the role of playgrounds, students visited some local playgrounds. In so doing, concepts about playgrounds were explored as was their potential for offering a wide variety of physical challenges. These ideas were reinforced back at school where students had many opportunities to construct playgrounds using blocks, to discuss their ideas, and to record their constructions. As a result of this work, staff felt that students were well-prepared for working on the proposal they were going to present to the City Council.

Another authentic project around local content was undertaken by the middle school. They were working in consultation with Department of Conservation staff on the replanting of a local beach. This involved research and learning about native coastal plants. The teacher described how her students also took control of the practical planning side of their project when they did the costings, the first aid, and the risk analysis for their beach excursion. The teacher reported that her students felt a high degree of personal ownership in the project.

Making key competencies visible in school life

Sharing key competencies with parents

Staff at CNS were starting to share the understandings they had developed about the key competencies with parents. At the start-of-year parent–teacher meeting and through newsletters, the principal had provided parents with an overview of the key competencies. Since then, all students had taken home their sharing books with a self-assessment of a key competency. An end-of-term school celebration time for parents and students was planned which would extend and reinforce any learning that all members of the school community had done about the key competencies.

Connecting with pre-service trainees

For the teacher trainees on section at CNS, the key competencies were an unknown, so they learnt alongside the staff, witnessing any changes in thinking and practice. When pre-service trainees return for their sole charge later in 2006, they will start to fit into the school and class models for the key competencies.

Student perspectives

The year 6 focus group we interviewed for this case study was drawn from the school’s Young Leaders group. These students had recently taken part in the Young Leaders conference in Wellington. This had given them insights into the importance of leadership, and what it meant to be a leader. Steve Maharey (Minister for Education, and the local MP) had also visited the school and spoken to this group.

Learning about and demonstrating the key competencies

The students thought that learning about the key competencies was different from other aspects of their learning. They described the school approach to learning through the key competencies as exciting and more challenging and said it had made them really think and question. Approaches that the school and teachers were putting in place, like the matrices, were being noticed and appreciated by the students. On being asked to rate how this year at school was going, one student who selected “Very well” noted:

I’m working harder, learning more, being more interactive, feeling happy and safe at school, and because I’ve been chosen for some exciting things that have influenced me.

Like the staff, students saw the key competencies in terms of life skills, and were able to see how they applied them in other areas of their lives; for example, helping out at home, doing and getting their homework done. One student saw the key competencies as “different strategies to have a good life” and that knowing about them and practising them will “help us to do what’s right”.

Students thought learning about Participating and contributing was not just about their own learning, but also about learning as a team. They described the need to take on others’ points of view, whilst also recognising that people are different, that they learn in different ways, and have different things that they can offer. Students acknowledged the benefits of learning about Participating and contributing, from both personal and societal points of view:

When I write…with my buddy, we have to participate and contribute to the story, share tasks, and compromise with each other.

We are doing more learning as a team. In our work on ‘My Zone’, it was about us, but we were working with others, and learning from different people’s points of view.

Hopefully more people will care about more things.

In describing their understandings of Managing self and Relating to others, students talked about the social aspects of learning that they now felt more aware of, knowing about different situations and how to handle them, knowing about people’s boundaries, and learning about strategies to help others:

I help them out in hard situations and make sure they’re happy and safe.

I can turn things around and help someone get over a bad situation. If someone is upset, I ask them what’s wrong, then I change the subject and they end up happy again.

Students’ descriptions of learning about the three more familiar key competencies ( Participating and contributing, Managing self, and Relating to others) was in contrast to how they described the two other key competencies. Students did not give examples of how they demonstrated Using language, symbols, and texts. They described aspects of Thinking as strategies to manage their integrated theme work:

When I do my theme [work], I try to think as hard as I can. Sometimes it’s hard to know which information to use.

Questioning has helped me to learn [in theme work].

The wider learning environment at CNS

When students were asked what they had enjoyed and learnt the most from this year, their responses showed that fun activities and being provided with challenges were high on their list. The challenges students mentioned included the physical challenges of camp, the challenges of increased expectations of them as year 6 students, the emotional and social challenges they meet every day, and the intellectual challenges of specific subjects. Students thought that when school activities were more practical and fun, they were more likely to remember them and learn from them.

When asked about how their learning could be improved, students suggested that learning could still be made more fun. Examples for how this could be achieved included learning through games or plays. Students also thought that they spent too much time passively listening, and that teachers did not have a lot of time for one-to-one explanations. They suggested having access to more interactive computer programs could make up for this. Classroom management on the part of teachers was another area that students thought could be improved. Students considered that too much of teachers’ attention was focused on disruptive students.

In summary, students’ comments during the focus groups and from the surveys show their support for the approaches taken to the key competencies at the school, and the school’s shift towards an integrated curriculum, increased access to authentic community-based learning such as through the “My Zone” work, and use of collaborative learning strategies. These approaches align with the student-centred pedagogies that underpin the key competencies. Students were able to make connections between the key competencies, what they had learnt from their experiences as members of the school’s Young Leaders, and what they were doing in class in their theme work, as well as the greater responsibilities, expectations, and challenges they now had as Year 6s, and the importance of being a good role model for the school’s younger students. This was illustrated by one student when relating his learning about teamwork and leadership skills. He read out a quote he had noted from their meeting with Steve Maharey: “Don’t take credit yourself, acknowledge the team.”

Where to next?

All staff felt positive about how their work on the key competencies, alongside their PD on inquiry learning and the integrated curriculum, had impacted on their practice. They and students expressed enthusiasm and a sense of ownership over this work. Even though some staff had found the change initially daunting, they enjoyed working as a school, realising that the exploration and learning they had done both as professionals and with their students, was more personalised to their community, and was building a greater sense of community. To build on this sense of learning being more personalised, and to support students to make further links to real-life situations, staff planned to continue their emphasis on sourcing authentic learning opportunities. One teacher reflected that this necessitated looking at classroom programmes from a different angle, identifying and being driven by the needs of students. Staff saw the need to continue to monitor themselves, both individually and collectively, and to accept that their work on the key competencies and integrated learning was an evolving process, so it would continue to change and they would have to be flexible to allow for that to happen.

Overall, staff considered their focus on the key competencies had formed the basis for a more holistic way of teaching and learning and were enthusiastic about the shifts that had occurred at the school. They saw the potential for further change as they continued their exploration of the key competencies.

Published on: 20 Sep 2007