Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Key competencies - the heart of the curriculum?

A few thoughts about 'Assessing Key Competencies: Why Would We? How Could We?' Ministry Of Education pamphlet 2007 Dr Rosemary Hipkins.

The inclusion of key competencies in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum are seen by Dr Hipkins as being ,'at the heart of the curriculum'. They add, 'something new', 'challenging some assumptions that are deeply embedded in traditional educational practices.'
Obviously the key competencies have implications for teaching and, in particular, assessment.

These changes are required because our students are entering a time of extreme social change, a future whose shape is unclear, and schools need to keep up with the times. Future changes involve being empathetic to different cultures, ever faster means of electronic information and communication, problems of environmental sustainability, and new ethical dilemmas.

For schools shaped by a past industrial age the challenges are both real and urgent.

The pamphlet provides guidance for schools to consider as they come to terms with the new curriculum.

It is important to consider the challenges assessing competencies provide as they ask, 'school leaders to rethink learning and schooling in some important ways'.

Schools, 'need to consider which aspects of existing practices remain appropriate and which need to be rethought, reshaped, and/or replaced.'

Although the phrase 'key competencies' may be new the idea that they express have long been a part of a progressive liberal discourse. ' Key Competencies' come from the European DeSeCo Report and have come to us from the tertiary level. Other , less 'technocratic' phrases, could have be used to suit a more creative era , such as: future attributes, intelligences,dispositions or behaviours, but we will have to live with 'key competencies'.

The challenge to implement key competencies will be more difficult for the more traditional secondary level of education. It is at this level that basic assumptions about teaching will need serious rethinking.

Fostering and assessing the dispositions required life long learning ( the point of the key competencies) needs to involve the students themselves in the process so they are 'ready willing and able' to face up to future challenges.

This is a move well beyond beyond assessing teaching and learning ( usually by the teachers) against specified standards/criteria to improve 'next steps' in learning, and light years away from traditional assessment through exams and tests.

If new ways of 'assessment for life long learning' are implemented then the school system, as we currently know it, will be transformed.

It will, 'require a shift in thinking about the roles that students and teachers play during learning' and such a shift focuses on developing students 'identities, strengths and goals'.

Although not directly mentioned in the pamphlet this is the essence of personalised learning.

At the heart of the challenge is the need for students to be involved in meaningful learning tasks; 'doing something that the student would see as relevant to their learning'. Such tasks need to help student become, experts on how they learn best, how to question information and, most important of all, to be ' ready, willing and able' to accept, often ambiguous, learning challenges.

How to assess the competencies involved in such tasks is the challenge for schools and teachers.

The pamphlet suggest a new metaphor: assessment tasks as performance.

A performance is more than the sum of its parts and, it is suggested, quoting Howard Gardner, that, 'the only reliable way to determine whether understanding has truly been achieved is to pose a new question, or puzzle...and see how they fare.'

This concept will not come as surprise to creative teachers.

Some of these assessment performances will involve group tasks and integration of various learning areas. The balance between assessing individual and group achievements provides new challenges.

For primary schools it means moving away from the current focus on the 'old basics' of literacy and numeracy and for secondary schools to develop a more problem centered often integrated curriculum.

'New basics include combining text, pictures, images and music; 'multi modal communication'.

Knowledge needs to be seen in the ability to carry out tasks ( performances); 'creating knowledge not just having it'. As the New Zealand Curriculum states, to see 'students as their own seekers, users, and creators, of knowledge.

'New basics' includes the ability for students to be aware of, and able to, adapt skills so as to develop a 'ready, willing and able ' attitude of mind.

New basic involves developing both an a individual identity as a learner and an ability to work well with a diverse group of others.

A lot of challenges for school to think about.

Assessment and learning has morphed into one and the same thing.

The distinction between school learning and real life has dissolved.

Teacher and learners' roles require new thinking

Creative times indeed.

Will schools be up to the challenge?

What needs to change?


Anonymous said...

Do you really think traditional secondary schools will really change?

Unknown said...

I appreciate the eloquent expression of what I face every day as a passionate classroom teacher. I work with 5 year olds, students just entering this institution where they will spend the next 13 years. I hope that in the brief 185 days I have my students I instill in them a love for learning, self-discovery, perseverance and tools for navigating their complex social worlds. My job is immense; fortunately, my passion for my role helps fuel my efforts.

Bruce Hammonds said...

If students could retain, and build on , 'a love of learning, self discovery,perserverance and tools for exploring their complex social world', throughout their time at school then we wouldn't have any school failures. Where, or when, are they lost?

We need creative passionate teacher at all levels. Or, better still, teams of creative teachers working together.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Traditional schools possibly will never change - too much past prestige for them to lose. Thankfully there are a growing number of innovative secondary schools trying out exciting things - time is on their side.

emoticon said...

Pedagogies too are central - Bruce, where do we start when planning a unit of work- competencies or pedagogies?


Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for your comment Helen.

The 'answer' is either both or neither!

Creative teachers should be always thinking about creating the conditions to develop, or amplify, their students talents and love of learning. Students as 'creators of their own meaning' as it says in the 'new' NZ Curriculum.

Pedagogy allows such learning to happen and key competencies are a means to an end - developing active talented learners.

Marc said...


The New Curriculum with the emphasis on the “new” key competencies is, on paper, a good thing. Primary and intermediate schools will be able to apply and use the “new” system. Unfortunately I don’t see high schools successfully adapting to the new system as long as the emphasis in high schools is on assessment. Being assessment driven makes it near impossible to successfully teach the new key competencies!

emoticon said...

Already some secondary schools are dropping Achievement and Unit Standards in the senior school to make way for the new curriculum. This is the path secondary schools must follow- assess less and teach more. Students don't need the hundreds of credits that they accumulate. Perhaps we could drop Level One altogether.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I would hope secondary schools would resist pushing NCEA down into years 9 and 10 and in these years develop contextual studies( integrating learning areas as is possible). It would seem, after year 10, a good idea to develop whole tasks that integrate standards /units that are necessary for students to demonstrate success by a performance, a demonstration, an exhibition, or even an exam.

All the above would aslo involve appropriate 'key comptencies'.

Marc said...

With some schools dropping NCEA in favor of IB and Cambridge how will they “teach” the Key Competencies? How will the Key Competencies be assessed or will the KC just be a “tick box” as part of our lesson prep?

The New Curriculum says very little about the KC’s in the senior school… actually just one paragraph!

emoticon said...

Doesn't IB lend itself to the integration of the key competencies? Cambridge is another matter - relying on low level thinking skills mostly. But IB is possibly OK. The KCs must NEVER become a tick box - planning should begin with the KCs at the forefront. And I am sure creative teachers can, and probably already do, use them as starting points when working through Achievement/Unit Standards- they are a skill and a pedagogy all in one.

Marc said...

I agree that the KC’s must never become an add on “tick box” but when it comes to the senior school levels 1 – 3 I see the emphasis placed on assessments hindering the teaching of the KC’s. In year’s 9 and 10 the KC’s can be integrated much more readily. In the senior school we structure the work and lessons we teach to fit around the assessments. The way I see it now the KC’s will be taught/integrated as secondary to the outcomes expected by the NCEA system.