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The research (archived)

Introduction to the research

In 2005, the Normal Schools Association (NSA) approached the Ministry of Education (MOE) for funding to assist with a planned exploration of the implications of the proposed key competencies (key competencies) framework for teaching and learning. The proposed framework is located alongside the learning areas at the centre of the new draft curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2006). This positioning of the proposed key competencies as integral to the overall curriculum suggested to the NSA that they might be a useful focus for professional discussion and learning.

In late 2005, the NSA approached the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) to provide research support as they explored the implications of the key competencies framework for teaching and learning. This research support took two main forms. NZCER staff contributed to workshops for Normal Schools staff that provided a forum for the sharing of insights about the key competencies from teacher practice and from research literature. The aim of these workshops was to support the schools to work together as a community, and facilitate discussions that assisted staff to reflect on their experiences and shape future directions for their professional learning.

A second facet of NZCER’s work centred on developing case studies of the experiences of six schools. These case studies examined the change process the schools undertook as they interpreted the key competencies framework and incorporated it into their school context and programmes.

This report summarises the findings from this research. It contains three main sections. The first section describes the design of the research, the second section summarises common themes across the six schools, and the third section provides case studies of each school.

Background to the development of the key competencies framework

In 2005, as part of the current revision of the New Zealand curriculum, the MOE proposed five key competencies for the New Zealand compulsory school sector. They are:

  • Relating to others (RO)
  • Managing self (MS)
  • Participating and contributing (PC)
  • Thinking (T)
  • Using language, symbols, and texts (ULST).

The New Zealand key competencies framework was informed by international work conduced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as part of the DeSeCo 1 project (OECD, 2005). The OECD sought to identify and describe, across its member nations, what people should know and be able to do in order to lead a “successful life” in a “well-functioning society”. Writing about the OECD work, Rychen and Salganik (2003) stress that competencies labelled “key” must be universally relevant, and that the key competencies:

  • integrate knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values
  • are holistic (at any one time a learner might draw on two or more key competencies)
  • are demonstrated in real contexts and in interaction with others.

Rychen and Salganik (2003) note that the OECD definition of competence places the:

…complex demands and challenges that individuals encounter in the context of work and in everyday life at the forefront of the concept…
(p. 43)

The key competencies developed by the OECD provided the foundation for the proposed New Zealand key competencies. These key competencies were debated and discussed by MOE staff, practitioners, and researchers (see papers by Barker, Hipkins, & Bartholomew, 2004; Brewerton, 2004; Burrows, 2005; Carr, 2004a, b, c; Carr & Wylie, 2004; Hipkins, Boyd, & Joyce, 2005; O’Connor & Dunmill, 2005) 2 . From these discussions and consultations, the key competencies framework for the compulsory schools’ sector in New Zealand was developed. This key competencies framework aligns with the dispositions that underpin Te Whāriki — the early childhood curriculum, and a set of similar key competencies that have been developed for the tertiary sector.

As shown in Figure 1 below, taken from the draft revised curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 7), the key competencies are intended to be a central and embedded part of the curriculum (note that the multi-coloured band running around the key competencies represents the eight essential learning areas).

Figure 1: Curriculum overview

Vision statement image.

If you cannot view or read this diagram, select this text version.

The key competencies framework represents a revision and development from the Essential Skills. A key driver for this revision was the need to ensure that students learn the skills at school that enable them to function in the fast-changing world of the knowledge society. A MOE pamphlet states that “the suggested framework of key competencies promotes a lifelong learning model” (Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 2), and the diagram above also includes the term “lifelong learners”. Commentators suggest that in order for learners to develop the lifelong learning skills or key competencies necessary to function in the knowledge society, teaching practice needs to shift towards approaches that could be broadly defined as constructivist or student-centred (Boyd et al., 2005; Bryce & Withers, 2003; Hipkins, 2006b; Hipkins et al., 2005).

It is in this context of change that the Normal Schools started their exploration of the proposed key competencies framework. The case studies in this report discuss how these “early adopter” schools interpreted the framework and approached some of the shifts in thinking about curriculum and pedagogy that are implied by the lifelong learning focus that underpins the key competencies.

The research design

As the Normal Schools in this study were “early adopters” of the key competencies framework, a case study design was selected as a way of exploring their varied approaches and experiences. The case studies were designed to fulfil a number of purposes. At the school level, one purpose was to provide feedback to assist school staff to reflect on their journey and further develop their teaching and learning programmes. At the national level, the case studies were designed to inform understandings about school change, and to provide information about the potential professional development (PD) or support needs of schools as the new key competencies framework is implemented.

Research questions

To frame the case study data collection, an overarching question examined the change process across schools. This question was: How do school staff interpret and action the new key competencies framework? A series of sub-questions further focused the data collection on three levels of the school system: school-wide practice and culture; teacher practice; and students’ classroom experiences. These questions were:

  1. How do schools manage the change process?
  2. What changes in whole-school practices and school culture are anticipated or evident as a result of the change process, and how did these changes come about?
  3. What changes to teachers’ professional knowledge and practice are anticipated or evident as a result of the change process, and how did these changes come about?
  4. What changes to classroom environments and students’ learning opportunities are anticipated or evident as a result of the change process, and how did these changes come about?

The schools in the study

At a NSA forum, schools were invited to submit a proposal to be part of the research. In these proposals schools detailed their plans for integrating the key competencies into school-wide practice. Six schools volunteered to be part of the case studies:

  • Central Normal School (CNS), Palmerston North
  • Hillcrest Normal School (HNS), Hamilton
  • Karori Normal School (KaNS), Wellington
  • Kelburn Normal School (KeNS), Wellington
  • North East Valley Normal School (NEVNS), Dunedin
  • Takapuna Normal Intermediate School (TNIS), Auckland.

Nature of the data collection

To enable information to be collected across schools the case studies included common data. To allow factors unique to each school to be explored, data individual to each school was also collected. A multi-method approach was used to gather data that incorporated information from teacher and student surveys, interviews with teachers and school leaders, student focus groups, observations, and school documents and data. The design of the case studies and the case study instruments was informed by national and international school change literature and the methodology of, and findings from, a number of recent NZCER evaluations and case studies that examined innovation and change in the primary and secondary school environment (Boyd et al., 2005; Boyd, with McDowall, & Ferral, 2006; Hipkins & Vaughan, 2002; Mitchell, Cameron, & Wylie, 2002).


A number of different strategies were used to report back to schools about the findings of the research so that these could inform developments. Reporting methods included presentations and discussions about the survey findings at each school, presentations and discussions at NSA forums about emerging themes, a presentation at the NSA conference, and the writing of this final report and case studies. Table 1 provides an overview of the research and reporting activities completed as part of this research.

Table 1: Research and reporting activities

Time frame

Main task


28 Oct 2005 Contribute to NSA forum

Presentations to the NSA forum:

  • about the key competencies;
  • about managing change; and
  • giving an introduction to the research and calling for volunteer schools.
Term 1, 2006 Survey data collection Survey forms sent to students and teachers at the six case study schools.
31 Mar 2006 Contribute to NSA forum Update on the research presented to a NSA forum.
June 2006 Case study data collection and school presentations

Case study data collection at each school:

  • teacher and leader interviews;
  • student focus groups;
  • classroom observations; and
  • collection of curriculum plans, lesson plans, and assessments.

Presentation to staff of survey findings during case study visit.

11 Aug 2006 Contribute to NSA forum Emerging themes from the case studies presented to a NSA forum.
19 Oct 2006 Contribute to NSA annual conference Findings from the case studies presented to the NSA annual conference.
Dec 2006 Final report Final report to the Ministry of Education and schools.

Data collection methods

Two main data methods were used to collect data for this study: a teacher and student survey and the collection of information for school case studies. These two approaches are described below.

Teacher and student survey

In order to collect data on current school culture and classroom practices that could potentially relate to the proposed key competencies, all the teachers and a sample of the senior students at each school completed a survey in term 1, 2006. Students in the oldest year group at each school were asked to complete the survey. They were year 6 students in contributing schools and year 8 at full primary and intermediate schools. At one school a particular group of students who were involved in the school’s key competency initiative completed the survey.

Both the student and teacher surveys contained four main generic sections which asked:

  • for background information about the respondents
  • about the occurrence of classroom practices related to the key competencies
  • about school culture and environment (and for teachers, about managing change)
  • summary questions about learning at the school and potential improvements.

Classroom practices related to the key competencies

The student and teacher surveys included parallel sections which examined classroom practices potentially related to the key competencies. These sections were developed from a review of research studies and tools that explored good practice and lifelong learning pedagogies. In particular, these sections were adapted from the tools used as part of the evaluation of the Curriculum Innovation Projects (Boyd et al., 2005), and a review of information from the following papers, studies, and instruments:

  • the descriptions of the proposed key competencies from the draft New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2006)
  • the information from background papers and articles about the key competencies (Hipkins, 2005, 2006b; Hipkins et al., 2005)
  • the descriptions of the revised Essential Skills in the Curriculum Stocktake Report (Ministry of Education, 2002), and the descriptions of the initial Essential Skills from the New Zealand Curriculum Framework (Learning Media, 1993)
  • the findings, and the measures used to assess the use of productive pedagogies, from the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS) (School of Education: The University of Queensland, 2001a, b)
  • the tools used in the International Network of Innovative School Systems (INIS) (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2003)
  • the findings and the tools from the Middle Years Research and Development project (MYRAD) (Russell, 2003)
  • the findings, and the school self-evaluation tools, from the Engaging Secondary School Students in Lifelong Learning project (Bryce & Withers, 2003)
  • the Competent Learners at 14 research instruments (Wylie, 2003)
  • the findings from the Sustaining School Improvement study (Mitchell et al., 2002) and the instruments used in this study from the Improving School Effectiveness project (Smith, Stoll, McCall, & MacGilchrist, 1998)
  • the instruments used in the evaluation of the ICTPD clusters (Ham et al., 2003).

From the review of all these studies, a list of classroom practices potentially related to each key competency was developed. The teacher survey included a section in which teachers were asked to rate how often each practice occurred in their classroom, and how important they considered each practice to be. The student survey also included a parallel section in which students were asked to rate how often they thought each practice occurred in their classes.

Managing change and school culture and environment

The teacher survey also included questions about key areas related to school change such as: leadership; the development of a shared vision and learning community; collaboration; access to PD; resourcing; and teachers’ expectations of students.

The student survey included questions on key areas such as: students’ perceptions of the school culture and environment; their views about teachers; their enjoyment of learning; the relevance of their learning; and their ability to participate in school decision making.

A copy of the teacher survey is included in Appendix A, and a copy of the student survey is included in Appendix B.

Survey piloting

The initial teacher survey was piloted by five teachers. The student survey was piloted and reviewed twice, first by eight students, and after modification, by 11 students. These students were of different ages, ethnicity, and gender, and attended schools of different character.

Case studies

Each school was visited for one to two days in June 2006, by one or two researchers, to collect data for the case studies. Each case study included information collected from a range of different sources. The main methods of data collection for the case studies are described below.

Interviews with school staff

Each case study included structured interviews with all, or a sample, of the key people involved in the exploration of the key competencies at each school. This sample included principals, other school or syndicate leaders, and classroom teachers.

If the number of people involved at each school was relatively small, all were interviewed. In cases where the whole school was involved, a sample of teachers and school leaders from different year levels or syndicates were interviewed.

The interviews with school staff focused on their interpretation of the proposed key competencies framework, their thoughts on the changes this framework might lead to, the processes they were using to introduce the key competencies to staff and students, and their access to PD and support.

A copy of the school leader interview is included in Appendix C, and a copy of the teacher interview is included in Appendix D.

Student focus group interviews

During the case study visits, we conducted a focus group with 6–10 students at each school. We asked teachers to seek volunteers by approaching a range of students who were from different classes, genders, and ethnicities, and who would be comfortable in a group interview situation. At most schools, we talked to students who had some form of leadership responsibility in their class or in the school. These students were in years 5 to 8.

The focus groups aimed to provide insights into students’ interpretation of the key competencies, their perceptions of teacher practice in regard to the key competencies, and the opportunities presented to students that were likely to support them to develop the key competencies.

A copy of the student focus group interview is included in Appendix E.

Observations and collection of school documents

During the case study visits, informal observations were conducted at some of the schools. The nature of these observations depended on the school’s approach to the key competencies. For example, student presentations about the key competencies were observed at TNIS, and time was spent in classrooms at other schools. School planning overviews and timelines, teaching plans, student assessments, and other school documents were used to inform the case studies.

Ethics and informed consent

To support the sharing of practice between schools, principals were asked for permission for their school to be named as part of the research. The students, school leaders, and teachers who took part in interviews for this research were provided with an information sheet about the research and asked to complete a consent form. Parents of the students who participated in the focus groups were also provided with an information sheet and asked for consent for their child to participate. Teachers who completed the survey were provided with an information sheet. Students who completed the survey were informed about the research by their teachers and asked for their participation.

A copy of a student information sheet and consent form are included in Appendix F, and a teacher information sheet and consent form in Appendix G.

The staff interviewed at each school were sent a copy of the interview questions before each interview. To ensure that the information collected fairly represented the experiences of school staff, each school was sent a draft of their case study for staff to review and suggest amendments.

Data analysis

Information gained from the methods outlined above has been included in the case studies. During the interviews, notes were taken and/or the interviews were recorded. These notes or tapes were qualitatively analysed for themes related to the research questions. Using a similar process, the notes or tapes from the student focus groups were analysed for themes. The insights gained from the school observations were also used to inform the case studies.

The student and teacher survey data was analysed for patterns within and between schools. Each school was provided with an analysis of their school data. A combined analysis across schools of the key competencies section of the teacher and student survey data is presented in this report. We used frequency data to study the patterns of responses to items, and we compared teachers’ and students’ perceptions of the frequency of each practice, and used t-tests to establish statistically significant differences in mean perception. These are reported in the text of this document. We also used frequency data to rank the teacher data in order of the importance attached to each item.

Research team

This project was coordinated by Sally Boyd. The research team also included Verena Watson who led the data collection and write-up for some of the case studies, Rose Hipkins who presented at the NSA forums, and Hilary Ferral who managed and analysed the data.


  1. Definition and selection of key competencies (DeSeCo).

  2. Many of these papers are located in Key competencies – Background reading.

Published on: 19 Sep 2007