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Developing progressions for the key competencies at Kelburn Normal School (archived)

Introducing Kelburn Normal School (KeNS)

Kelburn Normal School is a decile 10 full primary school, situated in central Wellington, with approximately 20 full- or part-time teachers and 350 students. The majority of students are NZ European. The school has a strong commitment to high standards of literacy and numeracy and providing opportunities to extend students’ creative skills through the employment of specialist teachers in performing and visual arts, music, and second languages. This enables classroom teachers to be released one afternoon a week for planning and professional development (PD). Differentiated learning is a focus at the school. Students’ needs are catered for through ability grouping in classrooms and the provision of extension groups in key areas.

The fit between existing school practices and the key competencies

Staff saw the key competencies framework as centred around ideas of lifelong learning, that is, the skills students need to be a good learner and take an active part in their community. Unlike the Essential Skills, which staff noted were not in “kids’ speak”, teachers saw the key competencies as skills they and students could “put a name to”. Staff considered that this “naming” would support students to be more aware of the full range of attributes they needed to be successful learners.

The school goal for students is to support them to develop the learning dispositions needed to be lifelong learners. As a result of asTTle assessments, which showed that students were not strong in critical thinking, the school identified a need to shift the focus of school programmes towards practices that support the development of these skills. Staff considered this refocusing could potentially provide avenues for exploring and integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning. The refocusing is described below.

Meta-cognition and critical thinking

School leaders identified that the school had strong summative assessment systems in place but needed to increase the focus on using assessment results and formative assessment to feed into learning and to support students to develop meta-cognitive skills. Accordingly, to provide teachers with the tools to be able to do this, staff had recently attended literacy and numeracy PD. This PD included a focus on formative assessment strategies such as setting success criteria and developing student self- and peer-assessments. Staff noted that these formative strategies were aligning with the approach they wished to take towards the key competencies.

Staff were also exploring ways to support students to deepen their understanding of thinking skills models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and de Bono’s Thinking Hats. Staff viewed these models as aligning with the key competency: Thinking.

Inquiry and integrated learning

Along with formative assessment, staff were increasing their use of other student-centred practices. School leaders considered that structuring curriculum delivery around an integrated inquiry-based model would offer more in-depth learning experiences that could be used as a vehicle to support students’ development of critical thinking and meta-cognitive skills. As a result, in 2005, the whole school undertook PD on the Action Learning inquiry model. Following this, school library practices were reviewed to ensure that they were consistent with the school’s emphasis on information literacy. Staff considered that an exploration of the key competencies by staff and students could be integrated within the school’s integrated inquiry-based approach. They also identified the need to continue to separately teach key literacy and numeracy skills.

Visual and performing arts

KeNS has a focus on empowering learners’ creative skills through the visual and performing arts. The school arts programme emphasises students drawing on existing knowledge and experiences to create new knowledge (original art works or performances) and the use of teacher–student dialogue to reflect on this process. Staff considered these student-centred practices aligned with, and could be enhanced by, a focus on the key competencies.

The process: How the school introduced key competencies

School leaders at KeNS considered it was vital that all staff had ownership over the process of developing a shared view of the key competencies, and that the key competencies were approached in a seamless and progressive way as students moved through the school. Therefore, they decided on a whole-school approach to integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning. This process started with activities designed to support staff and students to develop a shared understanding of the key competencies. The process used is set out in Diagram 5.

Diagram 5: Steps KeNS staff took to unpacking the key competencies

STEP 1: Forming a team

A cross-syndicate team of staff with an interest in the key competencies was formed. This team comprised staff with different levels of teaching experience.

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STEP 2: Gathering information

Team members started to gather information about the key competencies or descriptions of complex performances similar to the key competencies. This material included the presentations on the key competencies from the Normal Schools Forum, the success criteria Ohakune Primary developed for self-motivated independent learners, 1 and key points about the key competencies from the Curriculum Project Online discussion forum.

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STEP 3: Whole-school professional learning

At a teacher-only day, staff were given a presentation on the key competencies that was developed from the key competency team’s background research.

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STEP 4: Unpacking the key competencies at syndicate level

At a second whole-school PD session, in syndicate teams, staff brainstormed four key themes for each key competency at their curriculum level. These themes were placed in a chart and cross-syndicate themes highlighted. For example, for the key competency: Thinking, all syndicates suggested “asking questions”. For the key competency: Relating to others, all syndicates mentioned “cooperation and negotiation” as shown below.

Relating to others brainstorm.

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

Note: The number of ticks refers to the number of syndicates that mentioned each theme.

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STEP 5: Developing school-wide progressions

The key competency team then used the themes that spanned syndicates to develop success criteria in the form of a matrix of progressions for the key competencies. Staff suggested what student skills and behaviours might look like at different year levels. For example, what questioning behaviour looked like at level 1 through to level 4.

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STEP 6: Mapping further professional development

The matrix was examined by school leaders to identify any areas in which staff might need upskilling and, as a result, whole-school PD in questioning skills was organised.

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STEP 7: Introducing the key competencies to students

Each teacher then developed a way to introduce the key competencies to students and get students’ ideas about what each key competency looked like. The ideas from each class were collated and taken to a whole-school PD session. Staff worked in syndicates to examine the common themes in students’ brainstorms.

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STEP 8: Combining student and teacher views

For Relating to others and Thinking, staff and students combined their ideas and language together to develop a matrix that could be used by all. This matrix showed what each key competency looked like at each syndicate level.

Integrating the key competencies within teaching and learning programmes

Integrating the key competencies into whole-school planning

At KeNS the teaching programme is structured around whole-school themes. Staff decided that one or two key competencies that most related to each theme would be focused on each term. In term 1, 2006 a whole-school inquiry unit on the Commonwealth Games was used as a vehicle to start integrating the key competencies into teaching practice. The key competency: Managing self was selected as the focus to support students as they completed individual projects on interest areas such as drugs in sports, country profiles, or training programmes, and prepared for the school-wide Commonwealth Games sports day. In term 2 the key competency: Relating to others was selected as the focus to support students as they worked in pairs to develop projects for a science fair. Teacher and student brainstorms were used to select four themes that were integral to Relating to others. These were:

  • accepting different ideas
  • being a good listener
  • sharing ideas
  • working in a group.

At the time we visited the school, the key competencies had not been formally integrated into longer-term planning.

Weaving the key competencies into teaching and learning in the senior school

Once staff had developed their initial ideas of what the key competencies looked like, students were then brought on board. Depending on the age of students and their personal teaching style, each teacher used a different strategy to introduce the key competencies to students.

With older students, teachers introduced the five key competencies and explained where they had come from and how they related to what was already happening in class. To support students to take ownership over the key competencies and talk about them in their own language, over the period of a week or so, most teachers facilitated a brainstorm about each key competency and asked students in year 3 and above to do a similar homework exercise.

As they supported students’ work on individual projects for the Commonwealth Games unit, senior teachers started to weave the language they and students had developed for Managing self into activities and conversations.

Integrating key competencies into formative assessment practices

Staff considered it vital that students were part of the assessment process for the key competencies and therefore saw the key competencies as being assessed mainly via formative strategies such as student reflections and self-assessment, peer-assessment, and teacher–student dialogue. As part of the Commonwealth Games unit, teachers started to develop assessments for the key competency: Managing self. One teacher designed a pre- and post-self-assessment sheet to be completed by the student, a buddy, and the teacher, as shown in Figure 14. The Managing self criteria used for this assessment were developed from brainstorming and discussion with students. Teachers noted that having these criteria supported them to use evidence to discuss each student’s position on the self-assessment sheet. To support students to reflect, during conferences with students they asked questions such as, “Did your project go as you planned?” and “Did you finish your project?”

Figure 14: Commonwealth Games pre- and post-self-assessment

Figure 14: Commonwealth Games pre- and post-self-assessment.

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

Once this self-assessment had been completed, students filled in a next steps sheet to identify an aspect of Managing self they wished to progress.

In Term 2, teachers started a focus on Relating to others. Some teachers facilitated a class brainstorm about this key competency using the four key themes developed by staff as headings. Class groups then put the common themes from these brainstorms into “I” statements and developed posters that showed the class criteria for each key competency. The “work in a group” aspect of Relating to others developed by some senior students is shown in Figure 15.

Figure 15: Example of senior school Relating to others criteria

Relating to others

Work in a group

  • I can be a team player.
  • I am an approachable team member.
  • I can be fair.
  • I include others.
  • I am a trustworthy person.
  • I can take turns.
  • I can take on responsibilities.
  • I know how to compete fairly.

Introducing the key competencies to students in the junior school

In the junior school, a teacher-directed approach was selected to introduce each key competency separately to students. Some teachers initiated discussions about what each key competency looked like; others organised role plays about aspects of each key competency. Like teachers in the senior school, some staff in the junior school developed posters that showed class criteria for Relating to others written in the form of simple “I” statements. The “work in a group” aspect of Relating to others for a junior school class is shown below in Figure 16.

Figure 16: Example of junior school Relating to others criteria

Relating to others

Work in a group

In the junior school I am learning to cooperate and work as part of a group.

Junior teachers noted that in order for students to understand the behaviours relating to the key competencies they needed to be constantly reinforced. They commented that a developmental approach, focusing on attributes similar to the key competencies, had always been part of their work. Younger students needed a lot of skill teaching as they learn to function independently, and relate to and work with their peers. These teachers considered the whole-school focus on the key competencies could result in increased recognition of the role of this skill teaching in preparing students for the senior school.

Teacher reflections on introducing the key competencies to students

Teachers commented that students responded well to the focus on the key competencies because they enjoyed talking about the key competencies, and because the approach taken had similarities with the way learning intentions were set at KeNS, and the language used to talk about the school’s inquiry approaches.

A number of teachers considered the way they had introduced the key competencies, and woven them into their practice, had supported students to take more responsibility over their learning. They also suggested that talking about Managing self and Relating to others at the beginning of the year could be very useful in supporting the set-up of class processes and routines.

Other teachers were unsure about what to do next and were looking for direction. Following the initial introduction of students to the key competencies, these teachers were not sure if they should be “teaching” the key competencies separately, if they should be weaving them into their practice, or if they were covered within existing curriculum areas such as Health and PE.


To include the key competencies within more formal reporting processes, staff had started to incorporate the key competencies into a section in the school report about behaviour and work habits. A paragraph that briefly introduced the key competencies to parents had been included in the report template. The mid- and end-of-year reports showed selected aspects of the key competencies, and students were rated using three levels (beginning to; proficient; achieving to a high standard). Staff planned that, once they had further developed the key competency criteria, these reports would be further amended. Teachers were also starting to put key competency self-assessment sheets, such as the one shown in Figure 14, in students’ portfolios.

Staff were also planning that the key competency criteria would be used as part of students’ three-way conferences. At the start of the year, as part of target setting at these conferences, students currently set academic and social goals. It was planned that students would start to use the key competency criteria to set some of these goals.

Sharing key competencies with parents

Although school leaders planned to spend time consolidating staff views about the key competencies before sharing their ideas more widely with the school community, some information sharing had started with parents. The parents who attended a community meeting at the beginning of the year had been introduced to the key competencies, and students from year 3 upwards had discussed the key competencies with parents as part of a homework exercise. Further homework exercises were also planned. As mentioned above, the key competencies were starting to have a presence in more formal reporting through written reports and portfolios.

Connecting with pre-service trainees

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

Student perspectives on the key competencies and learning at KeNS

Learning about and demonstrating the key competencies

Students thought the key competencies were important as they were skills they would need to function successfully as adults in their social and work lives:

They are five basic things that you don’t really think about, but you need.

People won’t be too happy in their lives if they can’t relate to others or manage themselves.

Students considered teachers’ approaches to the key competencies had both similarities and differences to other aspects of their learning. They described the key competencies as “more personal”, and as a result the methods teachers used to introduce them were different. They considered the key competencies leant themselves to discussion and debate and enjoyed hearing others’ views, discussing the key competencies with their families, and having input into shaping the class view of the key competencies: “It’s not just the teachers’ ideas—it’s 50–50.” Some talked about how the focus on the key competencies had enabled them to learn new strategies.

When asked to describe times they had demonstrated the key competencies, most students talked about demonstrating Managing self as they organised individual or team work for the science fair, during the Commonwealth Games unit, or when preparing for a drama production. Most noted they demonstrated the three most familiar key competencies ( Managing self, Relating to others, and Participating and contributing) during these experiences:

I showed Managing self, Relating to others, and Participating and contributing when I was in the play I had to learn my lines with time management. When I was relating to others I got to know people by practising with them.

Some students also talked about how they demonstrated Managing self at home as they organised themselves, and Relating to others as they learnt to get on with other students. One talked about Managing self in the context of reflecting on their learning:

For science fair I showed Managing self when I thought of positives of my work and what I could do better for next time, to improve and learn more. I managed my time well and was sure about my answer.

A couple mentioned how they demonstrated Thinking through using strategies such as brainstorming. Students considered they used Using language, symbols, and texts when learning foreign languages and for interpreting maps and diagrams.

The wider learning environment at KeNS

In terms of the general learning programme at KeNS, information from the focus group and surveys indicated that students valued the variety of activities on offer at the school. Students in the focus group reported enjoying and learning the most from activities that were fun, did not repeat known content, were in-depth, offered a range of connected activities, provided a clear purpose or goal to work towards, and offered a level of challenge that was appropriate. The main recent activities cited that met all or most of these criteria were preparing for the presentation day for a science fair, drama productions, and inquiry units such as the one on the Commonwealth Games. Students thought they learnt both content and skills from these experiences, including in-depth content knowledge about a range of areas, writing skills, and how to work in a team and individually. In contrast, students described work such as short science units as “boring”, as they did not give time for in-depth exploration and they were presented out of context.

The information we collected from the surveys and focus group interview showed that some students could talk about “learning how to learn” and could see how formative assessment strategies supported them to take ownership over their learning, whilst others viewed the teacher as the expert. The focus group students described how they got a lot of specific feedback from teachers. This feedback, and class discussions, were perceived as very valuable. In the focus group, students were ambivalent about the value of learning intentions, reflections, and self-assessment as they felt they did not have enough knowledge to self-assess. They felt this should be the role of the “expert” teacher who had the experience to judge their work. Others found reflections useful as they gave them a way to tell teachers more about themselves and what was not working for them. Some students found it easier to self-assess the key competencies compared with subject-specific skills or content knowledge as they felt they knew more about how they were performing in relation to the key competencies. Students were very ambivalent about the benefits of peer assessment. Most found it difficult to be honest as they did not want to hurt their friends’ feelings.

When asked how their learning environment could be improved, students acknowledged that it was hard for teachers to cater for all the different needs in their classes and could see that they were offered a number of extension opportunities. Nevertheless they considered teachers were sometimes teaching to the middle (particularly in mathematics), or over their heads (particularly in languages). Other suggestions for improving teaching and learning included:

  • more in-depth units
  • more one-on-one just-in-time feedback from teachers
  • teachers asking for, and taking more note of, students’ opinions about schooling and what they could do to assist their learning
  • more opportunities to learn strategies to deal with other students’ behaviour such as team members who did not pull their weight and bullying
  • having a grass field.

In summary, students’ comments about what they thought supported their learning, and what they thought could be improved, show support for the shifts in practice underway at the school, that are aligned with the student-centred theories that underpin the key competencies. In general, students valued teachers’ use of student-centred practices. They supported the use of inquiry units as a vehicle to give more depth to their learning, and the focus on the key competencies within these units. Their comments indicate that teachers’ increased use of formative strategies was starting to have an impact. Their reflections also show a need for students to be further supported to understand how these strategies benefit their learning in regard to subject-specific skills and content and the key competencies.

Where to next?

Both staff and students had enjoyed the school’s initial exploration of the key competencies. Students in particular valued being able to input into the process. Locating an exploration of the key competencies within an inquiry learning process had supported staff and students to develop a shared language that functioned to reinforce this process and enhance formative assessment practices. Staff noted that they now needed to consolidate their learning about the key competencies. To this end, they identified a number of future focuses for their work. These included:

  • continuing their work on combining student and teacher views into a shared criteria for the key competencies
  • exploring the meaning of Using language, symbols, and texts and developing a shared view of what this key competency looked like
  • exploring ways to integrate the key competencies within the key areas of numeracy and literacy
  • exploring ways to provide more authentic learning opportunities for students such as the use of the environmental and community resources surrounding the school
  • continuing to develop formative assessment practices and ways to more formally report progress in regard to the key competencies without adding an extra administrative burden
  • finding ways to further support teachers to integrate the key competencies into their practice
  • adding the key competencies into longer-term plans.

Published on: 20 Sep 2007