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The thinking competency

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Lisa Smith explains how Rototuna School helps teachers develop rich understandings of the key competencies. This approach involves engaging with research, exploring personal experience, building a framework of the language of the competency, and then modeling the competency in the classroom.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.


The New Zealand Curriculum, (p12) states that:

"Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this competency.

Students who are competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seek, use, and create knowledge. They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions."

  • Consider this statement in your own school context. As a school, where are you at now? How could you get to a place where your school environment was effectively supporting creative, critical, and metacognitive thinkers?
  • How could you adapt what Rototuna School is doing with the key competencies to suit your school and students?

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The nature of the key competencies: A background paper
This 2006 background paper by Rosemary Hipkins explores the nature of The New Zealand Curriculum key competencies.


The process that we’ve used - it began with thinking and it’s now transferred to each of our key competency areas that we’ve pulled through in our school vision - is to establish all of that baseline understanding about key competencies in the specific area.

So, for example, in thinking that often involves (always involves) a little bit of research and one of the resources that I draw on really heavily is a Rose Hipkins research paper. It’s a few years old but it’s called The nature of the key competencies. It’s a really hefty reading but we’ve just done it in chunks. What she does is really get to the guts of what each of these key competencies, what the intent of it is, and if you read through it you can really pull out what it might look like in practice.

So that theoretical research is a base, but perhaps more importantly as part of the implementation process, is to just ask people to think from their own experience and bring forward what they already know about this - and people always do. It's pretty simple just to say think of a person that you know to be a very skilled thinker or self manager or ‘insert key competency here’. Think of that person and think of a time when you were with them and you recognised that they were a very skilled thinker. And so if you can recall a time and story up the time and get another person to listen to you very closely. That person then needs to pull out of your story, what does the skilled thinker actually do and actually say that proves that they are a skilled thinker? There is always evidence, it's always evidenced in action. For example, one that comes up very often is that skilled thinkers always justify their opinion. If you listen really closely to a person who does that, some of the language that comes out of that can be as simple as just saying ‘because’ or ‘I understand that this is true’, ‘I know this because’ or it comes out in a lot of different ways but at the basic level it's just ‘because’. To be able to identify that language, even just that one word, is really powerful because we can then take that, model it in the classroom for learners. All of a sudden what was a mystery, of thinking that happened inside the black box, is no longer mysterious, there's no mystery around it, this is what skilled thinkers do.

So through that process of saying, ‘think of people that you know to be skilled thinkers, story an experience with them, and identify what they do and what they say’, we begin to build a framework of the language that becomes every tool that every learner needs to be able to grow their thinking ability.

As you first go into that process of storying up what the thinking behaviours might be, you often come up with a really huge long list. That's really valid, there are hundreds of thinking behaviours. To refine through that process we asked the question 'which of these thinking behaviours are relevant to all of our students?' From five year olds through to ten, eleven year olds and actually beyond - which ones are relevant to our teachers as well as learners? Then we asked and which are now relevant across all learning areas? And you know learning in life as well. When we've got those specifics really, really clear then we go back to what we know about good teaching. Good formative practice teaching is to get in the classroom and model it. We can model that through story, just like we did when we were storying what we knew about skilled thinkers. We could model that through narrative and there are some beautiful, beautiful narratives that do that - characters show their thinking behaviours. Or we can model that just in a very straight forward, think aloud kind of a model and grow that with children. As we're growing that we're growing not just their knowledge of it and their ability to do it but recognising opportunities when they do it without being asked. Some teachers have got beautiful ways of tracking that. I've seen little race tracks on walls and children move their cars along and they self assess each day etc. I've used a mountain before and they're climbing the mountain, their little photos move up and it's quite easy once you get to that point - to notice and monitor what you're looking for in terms of key competencies.

Published on: 25 May 2012