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Exploring the key competencies at North East Valley Normal School (archived)

Introducing North East Valley Normal School (NEVNS)

North East Valley Normal School is a decile 5 contributing school located in a suburb of Dunedin. NEVNS is the second oldest school in Dunedin and serves a highly transient but supportive community. The school has 10 classroom teachers (two of whom job share), a teacher who runs a learning assistance programme, and a roll of approximately 135 students. About one-sixth of the students are Māori, one-sixth are from a range of other backgrounds, and the rest are NZ European. The school has strong school-wide literacy and numeracy programmes supported by experienced teachers, small class sizes, early intervention for those who are underperforming, and cross-grouping. An emphasis on making connections with the local community is another feature of teaching and learning at the school.

The fit between existing school practices and key competencies

Staff at NEVNS saw the introduction of the key competencies framework to be a timely development that could sit alongside a review of curriculum and pedagogy that began in 2003. In 2003, school leaders realised the school’s focused approach to literacy and numeracy had resulted in students performing well compared to national averages. They then turned their attention to exploring approaches to curriculum and pedagogy that could further improve programmes by increasing student engagement and focusing on a wider range of skills.

As a result of this exploration, the school was refocusing their teaching and learning programme. Staff considered this refocusing could potentially provide avenues for exploring and integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning. The nature of this refocusing, and the potential connections to the key competencies, are described below.

Inquiry and integrated learning and links to the local community

Hands-on learning, LEOTC, and connecting with the local community to source authentic contexts for learning are features of the learning environment at NEVNS. To find ways to make more connections between these features, staff were exploring approaches to curriculum integration and inquiry learning. These approaches were perceived as a way to support staff to take more risks with the curriculum, increase teachers’ use of student-centred practices, and extend more able students. The school aimed to find a balance between whole-school thematic units and teacher and student direction. In 2005 the school trialled three integrated units. Two small units centred on the topics of magnetism and sea creatures, and a larger unit on the local environment and the history of Dunedin. Staff saw the integration of the key competencies as fitting within an inquiry framework suited to the community focus of the school.

Higher-order and critical thinking

In recent years staff had developed a range of approaches to enhancing students’ critical thinking skills. They were engaged in ongoing work on strategies to support critical thinking around text comprehension. At NEVNS the use of tools such as de Bono’s Thinking Hats and higher-order strategies such as Bloom’s Taxonomy were scaffolded at junior levels so students were able to build on these approaches in greater depth as they moved through the school. Staff saw these approaches to be connected with the key competencies, and in particular, Thinking.

Student-centred practice

Staff were also exploring ways to make their practice more student-centred. To this end, teachers were developing formative assessment practices such as student self and peer assessments. Some were exploring ways to support students to become more self-regulated and emotionally intelligent. Staff perceived the key competencies would fit with these approaches because they are about the “whole child”, assisting social, emotional, as well as academic development. They suggested that an exploration of the key competencies could also support students to focus on the processes of learning as well as outcomes, and understand the importance of communicating well and being a lifelong learner.

The process: How the school introduced key competencies

A whole-school model was used to start developing staff’s understandings about the purpose of the new key competencies framework, what the key competencies looked like, and how they could be integrated into teaching and learning. Weekly staff development meetings were used as a forum for ongoing professional development (PD). The process used at the school is set out in Diagram 4.

Diagram 4: Steps taken to unpack the key competencies at NEVNS

STEP 1: Exploring student outcomes

At a whole-school meeting, staff brainstormed the characteristics of an effective learner. A shared view was developed of what an effective learner thinks, feels, believes, values, and does.

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STEP 2: Introducing the key competencies to the whole staff

At a later whole-school meeting, school leaders used their understanding of the key competencies and the descriptions of the key competencies from presentations given at Curriculum Stocktake meetings and the Normal Schools Forum to introduce the key competencies framework to staff. Staff were provided with selected readings about the key competencies.

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STEP 3: Exploring the connection between the key competencies and student outcomes

At subsequent whole-school meetings, teachers referred to recent classroom experiences to brainstorm what each key competency might look like. They wrote ideas on cards to describe the key competencies then sorted them into piles for each key competency. These definitions of the key competencies were then compared to the previously developed characteristics of an effective learner. Staff noted the synergy between these. For example, an effective learner needs to have lifelong learning attributes such as a self-extending or self-managing systems.

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STEP 4: Integrating the key competencies into whole-school planning

Staff discussed ways to incorporate the key competencies into school-wide planning. They decided to focus on the one key competency per term that was most connected with the main theme for each term.

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STEP 5: Adding the key competencies into syndicate planning and classroom activities

At syndicate meetings, staff added the focus key competency into syndicate planning by discussing their upcoming activities and deciding which tasks were most suited to this key competency. Teachers then designed individual approaches to incorporating this key competency into their classroom practice.

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STEP 6: Ongoing school-wide sharing of practice

At further staff meetings, teachers shared ideas and reflections on incorporating the key competencies into classroom practice.

Integrating the key competencies within teaching and learning programmes

Including the key competencies in school-wide curriculum planning

As part of the school move towards an integrated approach to learning and the use of inquiry learning models, school leaders had developed a whole-school planning framework. Whole-school themes for each term were decided by staff, as shown in Table 6. Each syndicate used the theme for each term to structure their plans—but examined different aspects of the theme. One main key competency, which staff viewed as best suited to each theme, was selected as a focus for each term. The key competency: Using language, symbols, and texts was viewed as threading through school programmes due to its connection with literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Table 6: NEVNS school themes for 2006


Theme (Main essential learning areas)

Main key competency

Term 1

Science and the environment (science inquiry projects) Participating and contributing (developing environmental responsibility) Using language symbols, and text

Term 2

Stars on Stage (arts and literacy)
 Senior school = arts stage challenge
 Junior school = transactional writing
Managing self  

Term 3

Time, continuity, and change (social studies and mathematics: geometry)
 Senior school = light
 Junior school = transport
Thinking (higher-order thinking and problem solving developed through student inquiry)  

Term 4

Food and nutrition (health and PE and technology) Relating to others (effective co-operative interaction)  

In Term 2, Managing self, in connection with a Stars on Stage performance and transactional report writing, was the main focus. Staff’s shared view of Managing self was added into planning templates, as shown in Figure 8. Aspects of Using language, symbols, and texts were also included.

Figure 8: Staff’s shared view of Managing self as including in planning templates

Managing self

Developing autonomy as learners – a“can do attitude”


  • Self-motivated
  • Self-improving system
  • Actively engaged/connected ( listens to others*)
  • Self-contained
  • Self-control ( takes turns)
  • Problem solver
  • Truthful
  • Organised
  • Able to cope with change
  • Perseverance ( try again)
  • Confident
  • Independent ( work in a group)
  • Sense of self-identity
  • Able to develop own interest/theme
  • Acceptance of personal challenge
  • Prepared to take risks

Using language, symbols, and texts

  • Understands and uses a range of literacies dance/drama
  • Able to express/voice an opinion in a range of genre

* Attributes in italics were reworded by junior teachers to include concepts suited to younger students.

Most staff saw the key competencies as being embedded within all aspects of the curriculum. For example, the key competencies linked to the Health and PE curriculum when students negotiated and developed strategies for sports teamwork, and via the health focus on values and self-esteem. Using language, symbols, and texts was an exception to this, and was the most difficult key competency for staff to interpret in curriculum terms. Staff viewed aspects of Using language, symbols, and texts to be related to the Stars on Stage performance as students learnt about dance as a narrative and to interpret movements. In general, Using language, symbols, and texts was mostly viewed as covered by existing literacy and numeracy programmes. At NEVNS, core aspects of numeracy and literacy are focused on separately from the integrated programme.

Introducing the key competencies to students

Most of the teachers we interviewed started integrating the key competencies into their work as they began a focus on Managing self in Term 2. Teachers used different approaches to introduce this key competency to students, some of which are described below. In the senior school, one teacher initially started mentioning aspects of Managing self incidentally during classroom activities. She then discussed with students what managing self looked like, sounded like, and felt like as part of a class brainstorm. Following this, she used students’ language to develop a Managing self poster. During subsequent activities she referred to this poster during group discussions about how students were managing themselves.

Some teachers were making connections between the key competencies and the approaches the school used to developing students’ critical thinking skills. One had used the Thinking Hats to support students to consider what Managing self looked like in relation to report writing and the Stars on Stage performance.

Other teachers used students’ inquiry projects as a focus for introducing Managing self. As students developed posters about these projects, one teacher used a list of criteria the class had developed to discuss aspects of Managing self. When students had completed their posters the teacher facilitated group and individual discussions with students about how they had managed themselves. The teacher asked students for evidence relating to the class criteria, for example: “Did you finish on time?” When students presented their posters in an assembly, they described the content of their study as well as how they had managing themselves to complete their work.

In the junior school teachers used the question “What makes a good learner?” to do brainstorms about Managing self. From this they developed a set of criteria for Managing self. One teacher used students’ words and names on a poster to give students a sense of ownership over the criteria, as shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9: New entrant Managing self brainstorm

I am a good learner because…*

I look and listen. (Lia)

I’m patient for turns. (Lia)

I think about it. (Devi)

I work hard. (Harmony)

I practise. (Ella)

I think about how much I will do. (Nate)

I ask the teacher for help. (Mahina)

I share and take turns in groups. (Hayden)

I try really hard to do my best. (Teesha)

We are learning about managing-self.

* Students’ names have been changed.

Teachers then used students’ language to talk about other activities in class. For example, one teacher wove ideas about Managing self and Relating to others into a co-operative group technology task. This task required students to identify the similarities and differences between two containers. As the teacher set up the task she told students they would be writing their conclusions on a sheet, sharing their findings with the group, and discussing what went well and not so well about their group work. The teacher monitored the groups as they completed the task. At the end of the task the class engaged in a group discussion about why some teams had managed to get more done than others. The teacher linked this discussion with the statements on the class’s Managing self poster as well as ideas about Relating to others.

The class was then asked to evaluate how well their group had worked together using a thumbs up or down technique (two thumbs up = very well; one up and one down = mixed; two down = not so well). The teacher asked those who worked well to reflect on why their task had progressed smoothly, and those who had argued to suggest alternative strategies.

Teacher reflections on introducing the key competencies to students

Teachers commented that developing a shared key competencies language with students had assisted them to foreground the processes of learning, and gave students a clearer sense that processes as well as outcomes were important. They noted that they had always incidentally covered areas similar to the key competencies. But the focus on Managing self, and having a shared language, had supported them to have explicit conversations. Teachers suggested that this assisted students to take more responsibility over their learning as students benefited from knowing what the characteristics of a good learner looked like. They noticed that students were starting to use the shared language without prompting in group discussions, and in their conversations with each other. Teachers also noted that the focus on Managing self had supported behaviour management practices as it gave students a clearer sense about what behaviours were expected.

Assessing key competencies

NEVNS has a strong school-wide assessment programme. Each term all students complete assessments in literacy and numeracy as well as other areas. The results of these tasks feed into classroom programmes and are reported in student profiles and portfolios. Ongoing formative assessment is also an embedded part of classroom programmes. Staff noted that they had a culture of “honest self and peer assessment” in the school with students being supported to set short- and long-term goals. Teachers expressed some concerns that assessing the key competencies could lead to them formally “assessing personality and values”. They viewed the key competencies as more amenable to peer and self-assessment and observation. To this end they were assessing the key competencies using their existing formative strategies of group and individual dialogue with students. They were also starting to use the shared criteria they had developed with students to support students’ short- and longer-term goal setting.

Sharing and reporting key competencies to parents

To introduce the key competencies to parents, school leaders had developed a handout that described each key competency and showed how they were connected to term plans and school values. To support parents to start using the key competencies language, teachers were planning to start talking about the key competencies during goal setting at students’ three-way conferences. Teachers were not sure about how they would assess the key competencies for formal reporting purposes and were currently exploring how to incorporate key competencies into students’ portfolios and formal written reports. They noted that the section on the Essential Skills in written reports would need to be replaced by some form of reporting on the key competencies.

Connecting with pre-service trainees

NEVNS had a number of teacher trainees working at the school at the time the school was starting its focus on the key competencies. These trainees participated in classroom work related to this focus. The trainees reported they had not yet discussed the key competencies at college. They would be a focus when the revised curriculum was finalised. It had been suggested to them that they would be incorporating the key competencies into their planning in place of the Essential Skills.

The two trainees we interviewed viewed the approaches staff at NEVNS were taking to the key competencies to be consistent with the pedagogy they were learning about at college; that is, teachers acting as facilitators who supported students to take responsibility for their learning through goal setting and learning about a range of strategies. They commented on the benefits of having a shared language between year levels to discuss the key competencies with students.

Student perspectives on the key competencies and learning

Learning about and demonstrating the key competencies

Students viewed the key competencies as important skills they needed to develop at school so that they would be able to get jobs, manage their lives, and relate well to people in the future:

So it will help us when we are older so we can learn to get along and we can have a good life. Also we learn them young so we can remember them and have more time to practise. It will help you get through bad times.

Students considered the way teachers approached the key competencies had both similarities and differences to their usual teaching strategies. In terms of similarities, students discussed how teachers already set up a range of opportunities for them to demonstrate Managing self and Relating to others as they worked individually or with other students. Students also commented that they got a lot of specific feedback from teachers, and were used to setting goals for themselves and engaging in self and peer review. Therefore, discussing with teachers how they had demonstrated the key competencies, and self-assessing the key competencies, fitted with these existing approaches. Students noted that teachers took different approaches to discussing Managing self, and reinforcing positive behaviours. Some teachers used a reward system to support them to manage themselves.

Students enjoyed using terms they understood (a shared language) to talk about their development of the key competencies. Some appreciated learning new strategies such as how to manage their learning or other students’ behaviour, and some considered whole-class or individual discussions with teachers assisted them to reflect on the process of learning: “…it makes you think a little bit more about how you are doing things.”

When asked about times they had demonstrated the key competencies at school, most referred to the Stars on Stage performance or a recent in-depth inquiry unit on birds. The students described how they were initially scared of participating in Stars on Stage but learnt a lot about having a role in a performance, working as a team, managing their anxiety about performing, and supporting and listening to others. Some considered they had demonstrated most or all of the key competencies during this activity: for example, understanding the narrative of a dance was an example of Using language, symbols, and texts; participating in an event together was an example of Participating and contributing and Relating to others; and developing strategies to manage your anxiety about performing showed Managing self:

[I showed  Managing self when I] was in the Regent I felt nervous I keep saying to myself ‘I can do this’. Then when I went on stage I felt great.

Students also talked about the key competencies in relation to the different ways they manage themselves and relate to others at home and at school such as when sharing or managing difficult situations:

[I showed the key competencies when I] have to keep myself from losing my cool with a pupil when he gets me angry.

The wider learning environment at NEVNS

Students in the focus group reported they enjoyed the range of activities on offer at their school and liked the sense of community at the school:

I like our school because it’s small, but happy…it’s a real community school.

Students reported they both enjoyed and learnt the most from activities that were in-depth, fun, relevant to their lives or interests, gave opportunities to learn by doing, allowed them to examine a topic from different perspectives, and which provided challenges. The recent Stars on Stage challenge and bird inquiry unit were cited as examples of learning experiences that met most of these criteria. For example, when talking about the bird unit, students described how the longer time frame of this study had enabled them to do a range of different activities about birds. These activities catered to students’ different interests and learning styles, and supported them to learn about birds in more depth.

Students also mentioned literacy, maths, sports, and the recent focus on Managing self as activities that assisted them to learn important skills and strategies they would need in the future:

Reading can help you in lots of different ways: spelling, writing, language, better vocabulary, learning different languages…

In contrast, a recent trip to the museum was described as “boring” by some, as teachers did not make it fun and it did not seem relevant. Likewise, a number of students commented that they could not see why they needed to learn Māori as they could not see its relevance to their lives.

Students commented that the school’s focus on setting both short- and longer-term goals and self and peer assessment assisted their understanding about how they learnt. They were aware of their preferred learning styles, with some noting they learnt best through visual representations such as demonstrations or diagrams, and others from hands-on experiences or repetition. Students considered their learning environment could be improved by:

  • decreasing the amount of repeat coverage of content
  • offering more challenge to those who needed it
  • providing more challenging books for reading time and in the library
  • teachers providing more one-on-one time and feedback: “feedback inspires the kids”
  • teachers behaving more as facilitators rather than instructors
  • offering more opportunities for autonomy and choice (one student gave an example from 2005 when they were able to plan their own timetable)
  • increasing the use of ICT
  • improving playground facilities.

In summary, students’ views about learning and the way staff had approached the key competencies support the school’s use of an inquiry approach to increase the depth of learning and student engagement. Students’ comments show that teachers were using pedagogical approaches that align with the student-centred theories underpinning the key competencies. In particular, their comments illustrate the benefits of goal setting and formative assessment strategies to support students’ development of the key competency.

Where to next?

The school’s approach of “making haste slowly”, which involved setting aside time for frequent professional dialogue and reflection about the key competencies, had supported staff to leave behind an initial reticence about the key competencies being “just another thing” to take on board. Staff considered they had a shared sense of ownership over the process and a collective view about the key competencies. They were enjoying being at the forefront of curriculum change. School leaders noted that the approach their school had taken to the key competencies was grounded in student-centred pedagogy and that it was important that schools had this foundation in place to build on.

Staff found focusing on one key competency a term supported students to develop an in-depth understanding of this key competency, but noted some tensions in this approach. A number commented on the intertwined nature of the key competencies. For example, key competencies such as Participating and contributing and Relating to others, as well as the focus key competency: Managing self were relevant to the Stars on Stage activities:

I now realise they are intertwined…you can’t take them in isolation, but it’s good to highlight one each term…to make the kids more aware of it… It is hard to cover them all.

Staff at NEVNS expressed some anxiety about curriculum coverage. They were grappling with a concern many other schools face: a worry about selling students short if they downsized the curriculum to find space for in-depth learning. At this point in time staff were experimenting with this balance. Students clearly appreciated the refocusing that had already occurred and were enjoying and learning from the school’s approaches to the key competencies.

Staff were also exploring ways to more formally assess the key competencies and noted that this would be a focus for the future. They suggested that teachers need time to experiment with ideas first so that they are able to develop assessments that are not a “prescriptive formula”. Some staff saw the key competencies as providing a framework for currently unconnected educational focuses such as de Bono’s Thinking Hats and concepts such as resilience. To align school approaches to thinking skills, school leaders had recently completed an equating exercise between the Thinking Hats and Bloom’s Taxonomy. They planned to do a similar exercise to examine the connections between the Thinking Hats, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the key competencies.

These plans would support staff to deepen their understanding of the key competencies and continue to integrate them into school teaching and learning practices.

Published on: 20 Sep 2007