Insights from Aotearoa New Zealand: Key Competencies

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This is the tenth article in the series Baskets of Knowledge from Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights insights from a totally different education system about what is possible in transforming our education system. Read the first article here.

Aotearoa New Zealand offers so many insights and inspirations in our work to forge a personalized, competency-based system. I’m going to highlight three examples: key competencies; a transparent system of cross-sector performance levels; and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement.

These examples are not going to be easily or directly translated to the U.S. context. Certainly, it’s best to draw from NZ for ideas for state policy. Imagining its approach as a model for our federal government makes my brain hurt because of our multiple levels of governance as compared to their Tomorrow’s School policy granting school autonomy. It’s also important to remember, too, that the Kiwis are in a process of moving toward modern schools with modern pedagogy and modern learning environments. With 2,500 autonomous schools, there are plenty of very traditional schools that just want to keep doing what they are doing. Similar to the U.S., there are also schools that have sunk into the swamp of dysfunction and are awaiting the combination of community and national public will that is required to intervene.

The national policy infrastructure has been designed around the research on how children learn. In other words, the policies are designed around the assumption that to maximize learning, students are supported as active learners to become lifelong learners, with schools offering responsive approaches to teaching.

Key Competencies and Outcome Indicators

The NZ National Curriculum developed by the Ministry of Education includes five key competencies. They are short-handed as:

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

I didn’t really understand the Key Competencies until I returned to the descriptions (scroll down a bit) of each competency. The American education system is inching its way beyond the narrow and shallow understanding of essential concepts we want our children to learn. The traditional system has been so focused on memorization, comprehension, and the narrow domains of mathematics and ELA that I couldn’t even imagine the depth of what they meant by each of the competencies.

Imagine if schools developed meaningful ways to monitor student growth around “using language, symbols, and texts” as described by the NZ Curriculum:

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 21st century 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).

The robustness of how the key competencies are described and the effective ways that biculturalism (what we might shorthand as part of equity) are integrated takes the understanding of what we want for students to know and do well beyond the math and ELA state standards that drive our current education system in the U.S.

As I observed to how schools were using the Key Competencies – some not at all, some simply a poster on the wall, and some as a way to engage teachers in thinking about pedagogy and how they are helping students to build these foundational mindsets and skills while also focusing on the 8 academic domains – I realized that the competencies are in some ways a bridge between what we want for students and pedagogy. I really began to understand the power behind the Key Competencies, assuming that schools were to fully embrace them, as I read the research behind the competencies in How the key competencies were developed: The evidence base and How the key competencies evolved over time: Insights from the research). The Ministry of Education’s website for the National Curriculum explores this through videos and tools such as techniques for gathering student feedback.

How Do You Measure What Matters When the Measuring Carries Unintended Consequences? NZ’s Education Review Office’s School Evaluation Indicators include a set of Outcome Indicators (see page 17). The Outcome Indicators are organized to describe what it means for Every student [to be] a confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learner…

  • Confident in their identity, language and culture as citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Socially and emotionally competent, resilient and optimistic about the future
  • A successful lifelong learner
  • Participates and contributes confidently in a range of contexts – cultural, local, national and global

The Outcome Indicators overlap with the Key Competencies but aren’t perfectly aligned, as they draw from both the National Curriculum and the Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, the curriculum for Māori-medium schools.(Te Marautanga o Aotearoa: He Whakapākehātanga 2017 is the translated English version, if you are interested.) The Outcome Indicators are offered as a starting point for schools to develop internal evaluations but are not currently used in the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement that focuses on the eight academic domains of learning outlined in the National Curriculum. Many of the educators I spoke with described the tension between the first half of the National Curriculum’s focus on competencies, values, and pedagogy and the greater specificity about the actual expectations for teaching students all of the content outlined in the sections on academic domains.

Although there is discussion among national education leaders about the importance of measuring what matters, there seemed to be little appetite at the national or local level for introducing formal evaluations based on the key competencies. The schools I visited were certainly aware of the Key Competencies, all found them to be meaningful, but few had intentional strategies or metrics designed around them. After just having completed a wave of standards and national testing that labeled students below or proficient, there was a bruised sensitivity to the unintended consequences of testing policies.

Thus, New Zealand shares our same dilemma: If we know that we need to measure what matters (not only what is easy to measure) and also that the act of measuring is likely to carry unintended and unproductive consequences, what’s a policymaker to do? New Zealand education leaders might be an interesting partner for state policy leaders to think through how to create productive systems of assessment that put children and their learning first while still offering insights into the adults running the schools and the systems about where more support is needed.

What Key Competencies Could Mean if Integrated into State Policy

One of the key strengths of competency education is that it is primarily a ground-up movement. However, there is a consequence in that schools, districts, and states are all creating their own set of competencies. In many cases, schools either organize around standards in the first year or two (or worryingly rename standards as competencies without understanding the difference). However, there are also many that create competency frameworks with a range of different ways of describing higher order skills such as guiding principles, work-study competencies, or transferrable skills. Thus, we are creating a mishmash of competency frameworks that will make it harder in the long-term for creating a sustained system to support competency-based education.

There is an alternative. Imagine if a state developed a method of co-design that engaged multiple communities and a robust set of interest groups that reflected historically underserved communities as well as those communities that perceive themselves to be underserved to come together and shape a new definition of student success. New Hampshire is likely to have plenty of insights to share, as they used co-design involving the state department of education and several districts to create their statewide competency framework. However, they didn’t take the step of reaching out to different sectors of communities.

Additionally, the process shouldn’t stop there. Robust explanations of the key common competencies would need to be developed so that they are not reduced to the narrow expectations of the traditional system. There should then be an open review process of the proposed key competencies to create a common definition of student success. The trick is to limit the number of statewide key competencies to the most important ones that are shared across communities while respecting local control to shape policy around the specific interests of communities. Too often, engagement processes end up in laundry lists of every idea under the sun rather than identifying the most critical and those that are the most shared.

Many states have created new definitions of student success. (See Redefining Student Success: Profile of a Graduate). I think some of the most interesting work is coming from South Carolina. They started with a profile of the South Carolina Graduate organized around world-class knowledge, world-class skills, and life & career characteristics. 

They have been working over the past year to create a set of 12 common competencies: use sources, lead inquiry, design solutions, express ideas, reason quantitatively, read critically, navigate conflict, learn independently, lead teams, develop networks, sustain wellness, engage as a citizen. From what I understand, there are a handful of districts prototyping the competencies.  With these competencies as a starting point, they have a significant head start in the transition to a competency-based education system. (You can see more detailed versio of South Carolina competencies here.)

In the next article about inspirations for competency education from the NZ education system, I’ll look at the issue of a policy infrastructure of levels that connect the primary, secondary, and tertiary systems. In the meantime, think about what it might mean if we were able to organize the key competencies into a set of developmental bands. Given that we think of everything through age-based grades, these would be multi-year bands, as year by year is too granular for actually assessing growth in competencies such as thinking or relating to others. How might we think of what we would want students to be able to do at key transition points that would stretch from young adulthood to early elementary? What if we had language to talk about developmental phases rather than reducing everything to grade level?

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