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Capable kids: Working with the key competencies

We all want to help our children to become capable learners, ready and willing to tackle lots different things in life. Schools want that too. Teachers spend a lot of time working to build students’ knowledge and skills in subjects such as maths and English but they also try to develop children’s capabilities. In the New Zealand Curriculum these are called the key competencies.

Key competencies are an important idea for families and whānau to know about because you can do lots of things to help your children use and develop them. Key competencies are not just for school but for life. Children use key competencies in many different situations at home, at sport or cultural occasions and at school, and eventually in work situations. Your child is using key competencies when they plan a meal, take part in a powhiri at your marae, co-operate with others in a sports team or master the rules of an online game. Equally, key competencies come into all aspects of learning at school and are woven through every subject. 

The aim of the key competencies, in combination, is to give young people the skills to learn anywhere, anytime and to keep on doing that even when there is no-one to prompt them. Anything you can do at home, or in the community places where you and your children go, could provide opportunities to stretch and strengthen all of the key competencies in the ways outlined below.

Five key competencies are identified in The New Zealand Curriculum:

  • Managing self
  • Participating and contributing
  • Relating to others
  • Thinking
  • Using language, texts and symbols

Below you’ll find a definition for each key competency, followed by a more detailed look at the different layers they have and ideas of what you can do at home.

Where did the key competencies come from?

Key competencies aren’t just a New Zealand idea – we adapted them from an OECD project and a lot of other countries have their own version. That means there is a rich research base and lots of practical ideas that New Zealand can draw on.

One of the big ideas in 21st century education is that it’s no longer enough for children just to learn more "stuff". The world is changing so fast that there is too much to know anyway. As well as the knowledge they get about different subjects, children need to be equipped at school with a toolkit of skills, attitudes and values. They need to learn how to think for themselves, and to develop the motivation and ability to keep on learning throughout their lives.   

These key competencies aren’t just something new bolted on to the rest of what kids need to learn and do. They are woven through all the learning areas of the curriculum and they signal a different approach to how students and teachers might go about their work. They can also be a really useful way for parents to think about and get involved in their child’s learning.

Capable adults, capable children

We all know people who just seem to be on to it. They are confident and capable at whatever they set out to do and they seem to cope well with challenges that come their way. We recognise that sort of person when we encounter them but what are some of the elements that make a person confident and capable?

If we are asked to describe their capabilities, we might say they have common sense and are good at reading different situations and people. They think about their approach rather than rush in and they know how to weigh up who to trust and when. They make mistakes but they learn from them and continue to build their capabilities.

This is the sort of learning journey we want for our children. We know what makes a capable adult – we recognise capability when we see it. The key competencies are designed to foster in children the kind of capabilities they will need as they become adults and as they go through life. The key competencies are a toolkit for continuing to learn throughout life – for persevering, learning from mistakes, trying new approaches and knowing how you learn. 

What does all this mean for how schools work?

The key competencies underpin all the teaching and learning that happens in school. Many of the things schools have always done contribute to strengthening the key competencies but you may also notice some activities that are deliberately designed with a key competency focus. Teachers are thinking about the key competencies in the way they plan their programme, the resources they use, in their choice of language and topic and in the role students are able to take in shaping their own learning.

When it comes to helping students build key competencies, the teacher is more of a coach rather than someone with all the information. They still need deep knowledge though – if anything they need even deeper knowledge than previously. They need to be able to use their knowledge of how students learn in quite different ways than teachers did previously.

Activities teachers do include:

  • designing homework tasks that will bring knowledge from home into the classroom
  • supporting children to set and monitor their own learning goals
  • encouraging children to find and answer their own questions and problems
  • answering questions with another question – rather than just providing the answer
  • coaching children in specific skills-based aspects of competencies
  • using their knowledge to work out how to challenge children’s next learning steps.

When kids are using their knowledge and learning and doing things, they are using all the key competencies. However a teacher might focus on one or two competencies at any one time to help make the learning explicit. For that reason it’s worth looking at each key competency in turn, even though in reality they are entwined.

Managing self

Managing self means:

  • being self motivated
  • having a can-do attitude
  • understanding yourself as a learner.

For example, students are managing self when they work to complete a project by a certain deadline and to a certain standard. Teachers encourage self-motivation when they help learners to set themselves challenging goals and work towards them. At home, children might demonstrate self-management by getting chores done without having to be repeatedly asked.

A deeper look

Students get stronger at managing self as they develop a good understanding about how they learn. They can describe how their ideas and skills are changing over time and why they think, act and respond the way they do.

Managing self is also about being willing to take learning risks, to make mistakes, try again and build up resilience as a learner. This requires focus and self-discipline because you need to think about why you haven’t succeeded and what you need to do next to try again.

It is particularly important for able students to see mistakes as learning opportunities and to understand that sometimes there is no one “right” answer. If they don’t get an early chance to become resilient learners they risk giving up when they first experience challenging learning failure later in life. The payoff for persistence and building resilience is that students get to experience what it means to be a powerful learner.

Getting stronger at managing self is a bit like learning to drive in a dual-controlled car. You’re not really a driver until you can let go of this “crutch” but it is very useful at first. It’s the same for learning. If constant prompting is needed, a learner might be practising aspects of managing self, but they are not yet really self-managing.

Three things to try at home

  • Notice and comment when children do regular chores or homework without having to be prompted. This sends a message about the value of independent self-management.
  • Talk about the challenges of learning, not just about what has been learned, and show them that you are always learning as well.
  • Don’t let children make excuses when the going gets hard, or worse, make those excuses for them. For example, instead of saying, “Maths is too hard. I was useless at it and so are my kids”, try something like “Maths is really hard but we’re working at it together”. 

Relating to others

Relating well to a diverse range of people involves skills such as:

  • listening actively
  • recognising different points of view
  • negotiating and sharing ideas.

These skills are important in a wide range of situations and they involve much more than being nice to other people or working well in a group.

A deeper look

Relating to others involves knowledge as well as skills. For example students learn about how and why people might be different from each other. One way to help students grow their knowledge of difference is to help them see things from other people’s perspectives – to stand in other people’s shoes. Often cultural or interpersonal differences are underpinned by differences in values. The New Zealand Curriculum lists values that students need to explore.  

Schools can make sure that students have opportunities to work in different and diverse learning groups, on tasks where different points of view can be heard. These tasks might look very different depending on the curriculum area. For example, if students are developing a product in technology, they have to imagine the needs of a range of users. In English they might be exploring a novel that introduces characters from a different era or country, where they need to work out why different people think and behave as they do in the story. In this type of learning there will not be one “right” answer so students are also building their resilience (see the managing self section.)

Adults understand the importance of relating to others, because being a good team worker is important for most jobs nowadays. Many jobs are “knowledge work” where people with different expertise get together to create ideas or products that none of the team members could have created on their own.

Another 21st century demand is learning to use the Internet wisely. It can be unhealthy for people to get stuck in virtual conversations where everyone thinks like they do, rather seeking out and evaluating different ways of looking at an issue. Being comfortable with difference is yet another of the many challenges that demand both the competencies of relating to others and of managing self.

Three things to try at home

  • Talk openly about different ways of “being” in the world. Compare the different cultures in your life, so you can talk about what’s right in different contexts, and why. If you model respect, children are more likely to show it too.
  • Play the “devil’s advocate” from time to time. It is great for children to practice seeing things from different perspectives and to understand that respectful debate is healthy.
  • Think about how you negotiate with your children and what you model by the ways you respond during those interactions.

Using language, symbols and texts

This competency is about how we make meaning – how we express and communicate our ideas, experiences, and information. People use a rich mix of language, symbols and texts, including spoken and written language, visual language such as photos and video, the symbols used in maths and science and much more. It is crucial for 21stcentury learners to have strong capabilities in this area.

A deeper look

This key competency includes the important foundational skills of basic literacy and numeracy but it is more than that. For example, if you’ve ever learned a second language, you’ll know that languages are so much more than different words for much the same thing. You have to learn to “see” the world through different eyes. Another example is when different people experience the exact same set of events but read very different meaning into them. That happens when we interpret things in the light of what we already know, or think we know. Meaning builds on our existing knowledge, experiences and beliefs. How we make meaning in different contexts and using different tools and modes of communication is the focus of this key competency.

This key competency reminds teachers that students need help to crack the "codes" used to construct knowledge in different areas. In mathematics, for example, students learn how numbers and symbols convey ideas. In dance, drama and kapa haka they learn the language of movement as a specific language. In science students learn to justify explanations by drawing on evidence from investigations, and they learn how to use scientific conventions as they read and write in the texts of science. This can be described as learning about the “nature” of a subject and sometimes you will see the relevant aspects of competency described as specific types of literacy (for example, science literacy, or statistical literacy).

Three things to try at home

  • Check on the meaning your child is making as they work with different types of texts or languages. If they make a statement that something “is” so, ask them how they know, or what makes them think that. This can help them think about other possibilities and it is good practice for reflective conversations at school, when teachers focus on learning-to-learn skills.
  • Talk about the language of marketing when you flick though the junk mail or watch television together. Students need to learn how to discern how the text conveys its knowledge claims and what it leaves out.
  • Comment when you see a symbol used in a new way, or the same symbol used to mean different things in different contexts. Talk about who might have “invented” each use, and why. For example, the @ sign so widely used now for email addresses used to mean “and the cost is” – for example, “three packages @ $2 = $6 total”. A slightly different example is the morphing of a tick symbol into the Nike “swoosh” as a positive branding strategy. 


Thinking involves using creative and critical processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this key competency.

A deeper look

One type of thinking is called meta-cognition, which means thinking about thinking itself. Reflection tasks are a type of meta-cognition. Reflection is like holding a mirror up to your learning – students need to see what they are doing already in order to practice or change something about their learning.

Guy Claxton is a prominent UK education researcher who has a lot to say about the importance of becoming a more capable thinker. He says that just as we build up our body muscles by exercising them, so students need to work on making their “learning muscles” stronger by practising and stretching their thinking. Schools need to give students practice at different types of thinking, and at using different thinking strategies.

No-one can get fit for you, so thinking links strongly to the key competency of managing self. Just like getting physically fit, regular practice, individual goals, and support and encouragement all help learners to take responsibility for their own “fitness” programme. It also helps if the activity is fun!

New brain research is telling us more about how we think and psychologists have come up with many new ideas (often rather surprising) about why we think as we do. Building up knowledge about thinking is an important part of this key competency. American researcher Marc Prensky has made a list of what kids need to learn and practice to become effective thinkers for today and tomorrows’ world. Here are some of his ideas about what matters most:

  • Simple mathematical and logical thinking
  • Knowing how to find flaws in thinking (such as assuming something is true just because you’ve seen a few examples)
  • Cause and effect thinking, including consequences of actions in a variety of contexts
  • Mindfulness (being aware of the type of thinking that is, or was, happening in any context)
  • Known flaws in our thinking that can be dangerous for us (for example, the irrational ways we tend to make decisions about risk)
  • Self knowledge of our own strengths and passions

There are many things here that adults can notice and comment on when interacting with young learners. You can encourage and support your child to think in any of these ways. 

Three things to try at home

  • Encourage your child to be aware of their thinking as an important part of their meaning-making at home and at school. (See also using languages, symbols and texts). 
  • If you can, find out about the language your child’s school uses for thinking strategies and different ways of thinking, so that you can notice and reinforce these at home.  
  • Remember the fitness metaphor – it’s easier when you make it fun. Playful thinking can be a very engaging way of building learning muscles. Games of all types, make believe, imaginary friends, “what if” flights of fancy, and so on all provide opportunities for playful thinking.  

Participating and contributing

You don’t learn much if you don’t participate (learning is active meaning-making after all) and most of us know that you get more out of any sort of interactions where you also contribute. This competency includes contributing in a group, making connections with others and creating opportunities for others in a group. This relates to every part of our children’s lives – in fact some researchers have started calling this idea lifewide learning.

A deeper look

Creating strong connections to communities is one challenge that schools face as they think about how to help students build their participating and contributing competencies. Many schools are still working out what community engagement means and how they know what is important to your family and community.

In the classroom, this key competency helps build a deeper level of engagement in learning by tapping into things that have personal meaning and value for students. Authentic learning is important because children can often do much more than they can say, particularly in areas that really interest them. It is affirming for students to be able to show their strength and capability in an area they’re keen on, whether it’s online games or drums or fishing. But participating and contributing is more than just letting children do things they like. In order to stretch them, they need expert guidance to be able to see what they are good at, because they may take it for granted. Teachers can’t possibly have expert knowledge about all parts of the working world so they may need to bring in someone immersed in a particular area.

Another really important reason to choose authentic contexts is that the learning children do needs to help them become more capable citizens both now and after they leave school. The idea of “action competence” is useful here – this means being “ready, willing, and able” to respond appropriately to an action challenge.  Compare times when you were “onto it” and times when you were not and you’ll gain a feel for the many dimensions of action competence that children need to learn about and practise.    

Participating and contributing capabilities can also be fostered through the leadership roles that children take in the schools, such as maintaining a worm farm or organising a fundraiser. These give students opportunities to develop their capacity in really practical contexts and provide links between the world of learning at school and the world.

Three things to try at home

  • You might be surprised at which parts of your knowledge and skills would be welcomed by the teachers as they work to build more “authentic’ learning for students. For example, in schools where students are learning how to grow food, adults with gardening skills are likely to be able to help.
  • Stretch your child’s action competencies by encouraging them to take on new challenges in different contexts and then talking about the “how to” knowledge and skills that they gain as a result.
  • Support your child when they take on leadership roles at school or in the community. This could be something as simple as being the recycling monitor for a week, caring for a class pet over the holidays, looking after younger students during breaks or at a sports day, taking care of equipment or resources, speaking during an assembly – schools are usually really good at providing varied opportunities for students to step up and take a lead for a time.

Further reading

Many of the ideas here come from a project done by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research and the University of Waikato for the Ministry of Education. It involved research, case studies, and questions designed to help schools think about how well they were bringing the key competencies into the learning areas in the curriculum. You can read about the project: Key competencies and effective pedagogy

If you want to follow up Marc Prensky’s ideas, you will find a lot of information on the Internet by just searching on his name. The list of aspects of effective thinking came from the March 2013 edition of a journal called Educational Leadership. Marc’s article in this journal is called "Our brains extended". The headline focus of this article gives its overall flavour: Is the human brain still the smartest thing on the planet? When enhanced by technology, it is.

Guy Claxton’s ideas are also widely discussed on the Internet and he has written a number of well respected books on the psychology of learning.

Published on: 10 Dec 2015