Sunday, November 05, 2006

What's new about 'Key Competencies'?

  Posted by PicasaKey competencies’ is a phrase that teachers will have to come to terms with the next decade or so.

At first I thought, so what, but now I am changing my mind. Not that I agree with the use of the phrase ‘key competency’ – a concept that enters education from the business and tertiary areas. I now see that, when implemented, the idea behind the phrase will be a real challenge to traditional transmission, subject based teaching. It is a case of the 'knowledge era' ideas replacing 'industrial age' thinking. And the biggest challenge of all will be at the secondary level where many teacher’s identify is so linked to their speciaclist subject expertise that they may be loath to change.

And while they may sound ‘so what’ to primary schools they have deeper educational implications that a first read might not have indicated.

I think I prefer the less technocratic name of future capabilities, or dispositions, than competencies but competencies it will be! From what I have read the interpretation of competencies has been broadened in the draft to move away from more technocratic beginnings to include personal capabilities.

The key to their importance is that they are to be developed in meaningful contexts.

A key phrase, in the draft, is that we need to develop students, ‘who have well developed thinking and problem solving skills are active seeker, users and creators of knowledge.’ Although ‘thinking’ is seen as a separate competency they all have elements of: social, emotional and cognitive ‘thinking’ within each of them.

I feel that there is a bit of 'putting the horse before the cart' because a student must have a powerful desire to want to do something to then make use of the mix of competencies. The whole area of the importance of extending and developing, students talents, as the number one priority of any society that wants to thrive in what some futurists call ‘the creative era', is downplayed in the current draft. Think, for example, what drove Peter Jackson (‘Lord of the Rings’) to develop his particular set of competencies? Passion! desire! and love of learning don't quite make it in the present draft - 'love of learning' however was in an earlier draft!

The challenge, for teachers, will be to ensure that their students ‘dig deeply’ into any learning when the are exploring a question, or issue of interest that attracts their curiosity. When they 'dig deeply' into an area that concerns them they 'use' knowledge, as one writer says, as a ‘verb’ to create new meaning for themselves . The draft says that, ‘the competencies are both a means and an end and the challenge will be for teachers to take students on from where they are'. If the competencies are marginalized in favour of keeping traditional subjects their transformational effect will be lost.

To introduce them, as intended, will provide teachers with the ‘pedagogical challenge’ to collaborate with others to develop integrated learning experiences that develop both the competencies and ‘new’ learning (for the students). Simple transmission will no longer suffice. Competencies, one writer believes, might be the, 'Trojan horse that will destroy the current subject hierarchy'. Let’s hope so! The point is subject knowledge will still be valuable but will need to be used in a new way; this is vital if we are to avoid shallow or trivial learning. Context is very important and ‘designing’ (not ‘delivering’) exciting learning situations with students will provide a real professional, and exciting, challenge for teachers.

There are issues to sort out about competencies, one being assessment. The draft says they should be assessed in the contexts of tasks. This is all very well but no doubt people will want to put them into levels, or to assess them separately. This ‘atomization’, or fragmentation, is against the holistic principle of integrating competencies. If this is done it will consume teachers energy and time for little effect. Learning can never be reduced to ticking things off and making a graph! A learner should never be able to say, ‘I am at level two for thinking, what are you?' If this fragmentation eventuates it will be another a case of, ‘killing the goose that laid the golden egg’. Teacher energy would be better employed doing fewer ‘authentic’ things well. It is important that all students gain feelings of success and, in the process,are able to see the point of the competencies. ‘Authentic’ refers to being personally meaningful to the student.

Not withstanding, the introduction of the key competencies will have the power to transform the nature of the educational experience as we currently know it, particularly at the secondary level.At this level the competencies need to transcend subject boundaries and encourage ‘cross curricular’ studies based on 'rich, real and relevant' experiences. To achieve this cross curricular conversations will have to become the norm. At the primary level the competencies will encourage teachers to see past their current obsession with literacy and numeracy which is becoming in many schools, like any imposed initiative, counter productive. As one UK commentator has written, ‘The evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum.’ In New Zealand they certainly have gobbled up all the time! If there are two important attributes that mark out competent people they would be resilience and the valuing of effort or perseverance, as old fashioned habits as they might sound.

The focus of the new draft, particularly through the competencies, is to develop positive 'learning identities' for every student so they can all become ‘life long learners’. Developing a full range of competencies (and I would add to this, ‘passions, talents and dreams') is an implicit aspect of any individuals identity. Through them students learn who they are, what they can do, and get a feeling of what they might become. Future teachers will need to place greater focus on what interests their students have that they can build on. Having interests, research indicates, is a mark of a competent learners. All learners need to feel enjoyment and to gain success at suitably difficult and absorbing tasks so as to feel, what Guy Claxton calls, ‘learning power’; a phrase that sums up well the point of developing competencies in the first place.

Relationship between teachers and learners will underpin the success of implementing the key competences. As for assessment, referred to earlier, good advice from Cathy Wylie (of the 'Competent Children – Competent Learner Project') is to put the ideas into action first before you get involved in assessing what you have not yet implemented. It is more important to utilize valuable teacher energy ensuring that opportunities are being given to students to actually develop the competencies.

You will soon see if you are developing successful future learners in your class, or school, by their actions and by what they can create individually or in groups.

One easy way to assess successful implemation would be to set up the class and leave for half an hour, then to return unnoticed, to observe the competencies in action – you will soon tell how succesful you have been in developing 'self managing' learners!


Anonymous said...

Boy when something bugs you you sure get excited - sounds though you have changed your mind a bit but I agree with you a focus on schools to develop creativity and talent would have a better option. Talent I guess is not a quality that many Ministry people would understand - nor many teachers as well!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Yep - you are right.I do get a bit carried away! Creative talent is what we should be encouraging but it takes one to appreciate one!

Anonymous said...

Your last thought is a useful one.

Anonymous said...

I think the issue of competencies is confused.Surely it is the reason or desire that creates the need for competencies ( or whatever they are called) that is the important issue? A case of putting the cart before the horse ; it's the bone that activates the dog!

Bruce Hammonds said...

I was just thinking that it ought to read, 'to develop the key competencies of all students by presenting challenging learning tasks that tap into every learners passions and talents in the process to develop a love of life long learning. 'Key competencies' still sound like something from the late 20thC.