What is the place of the key competencies in New Zealand’s curriculum?

HomeThought LeadershipInsightWhat is the place of the key competencies in New Zealand’s curriculum?

What is the place of the key competencies in New Zealand’s curriculum?

Education has become a hot topic of late, frequently in the media, emerging as a leading policy issue for at least one political party, and increasingly being discussed by the general public. Adding to the discussion a couple of weeks ago, Dr Michael Johnson (Senior Fellow at the New Zealand Initiative) wrote an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald outlining a path to a more content rich curriculum.

There was much that I agreed with in Michael’s article. However, one part that gave me pause was his contention that the key competencies “don’t need to be in the curriculum because they don’t need to be taught directly”. I don’t disagree that there have been some substantial issues around how the key competencies have been approached and positioned in some schools. Similarly, I think discussion is needed as to whether the current five key competencies – thinking, relating to others, using language, symbol and text, managing self, and participating and contributing – are in fact the “right” competencies to specify. But, I’m not convinced that they do not deserve a place in the curriculum or need to be taught.

The key competencies (plus arguably other competencies or skills) should form part of the desired outcomes of our education system. Most teachers and members of the public would agree, I hope, that we want young people to leave our education system able to think, relate well to others, and manage themselves. We also, likely want them to have a degree of resilience for example and the ability to engage in ongoing learning.

How well these competencies currently are being developed in New Zealand students is questionable. Anecdotally, there have been instances where teachers and/or schools have tried to develop the key competencies divorced from content or context. Such an approach is unlikely to be effective. Instead, research suggests that the majority of competencies or social emotional learning skills become most valuable when they are connected to specific disciplines and seen as being in the service of academic learning. 

If we were to take “thinking” for example, what it means to think [critically] in English is different to what it means to think [critically] in maths. Currently, the curriculum, and its supporting documents, lets us down because it does not provide details about what thinking means in any given learning area. For example, what does it mean to think like a scientist or a like historian? What is the knowledge, what are the skills, what are the resources and processs, and what are the values that underpin these different ways of thinking? And, why is it important for our education system to be developing these? If positioned in this way, then it follows that the competencies do need to be taught.

So, while it’s true that we can learn about how to relate to others through engagement in social situations, such as being a member of a classroom and school community, there are also aspects of relating to others that we do want to explicitly teach. We want to make sure that all students understand various aspects of relating to others, and what relating to others can mean in different contexts and settings. This type of knowledge will not always be learned simply by being part of a community.

Research also tells us that certain competencies, for example managing self, which I’m presuming covers among other things psychological constructs such as self-regulation and self-efficacy, not only can and should be explicitly supported by teachers but also are domain specific. This means that a student’s ability self-regulate might be high in maths but lower in social studies. And what’s more, while some students are able to pick up through observation and trial and error self-regulation strategies, this is not the case for everyone. Most students will need the guidance of a teacher to learn different self-regulation strategies.

None of the above discounts the importance of disciplinary or academic content in our schools and in the curriculum. Similarly, it does not discount that in many schools, conceptualisations of the key competencies remain underdeveloped. But, the research clearly show that particular competencies or skills, including executive functioning skills or socio-emotional learning skills, greatly impact academic learning and outcomes, as well as broader life outcomes. Research has also shown that these competencies or skills can be explicitly taught. Therefore, it is pivotal that they form part of the teaching and learning programmes in schools.

For this to happen effectively, it is important that we develop a better understanding of: a) on which competencies or skills are vital to focus; b) their relationship to domain knowledge and domain expertise; c) how they can be effectively taught to children at different stages of development and in different contexts; and d) better ways to measure these in different contexts (for a fascinating discussion around this, listen to this webinar with Dr Heidi Leeson).

We need to be careful when thinking about education reform that we don’t immediately discard or discount something that’s not working in its current form. Education is littered with policies that have been poorly implemented. Therefore, it’s important to think about whether initiatives or ideas are (or should be) valued and valuable parts of education, and if they are, to consider how they can be repositioned or implemented more effectively so that they can actually add value to the system.

By Dr Nina Hood


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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