Learning to Use the National Curriculum at Karori Normal School

by Chris Sturgis

The series on Aotearoa New Zealand continues here with the second article on Karori Normal School.

The beauty of NZ’s National Curriculum is that can be tailored to any community.  Everywhere I went in New Zealand, the principals all said the same thing. The National Curriculum, particularly the front part outlining the underlying beliefs of the education system, is a powerful document that provides direction without being prescriptive.

The word “curriculum” has a different meaning in New Zealand than it does in the U.S. In the U.S., the term usually refers to learning experiences and resources (what are students going to do) and is sometimes used in an all-encompassing reference to everything related to learning, teaching, and assessment. (See the Glossary of Education Reform.) In New Zealand, the National Curriculum includes the achievement objectives (what we want students to know and be able to do), key competencies, as well the overarching principles that embody the beliefs undergirding the New Zealand school system.

There are many parts to the NZ National Curriculum. Below assessments and key competencies are highlighted to explore its implications for school and classroom design.

Developing a System of Assessments

Using the National Curriculum, the team at Karori began to develop their curriculum plan for teaching and learning. They started by walking through the Curriculum with discussion about its implications. An important step in learning how to use the Curriculum well was developing an assessment system that was fully aligned. Karori worked with Lester Flockton, a professor from University of Otago, on building the capacity for assessment for learning rather than “assessment for ticking” (as in ticking off the boxes). Educators at Karori take advantage of the Assessment Resource Bank developed by the New Zealand Council for Education Research and mathematical assessments called IKAN and GloSS.

KNS found that emphasizing assessment for learning was a turning point. Instead of focusing on ‘you know’ or ‘you don’t know,’ teachers at KNS try to understand where students are and what teachers can do to help them make more progress. The guidance for developing a system of assessment offered within the National Curriculum challenged the educators at Karori. They began to think about how to engage students in the assessment. The began to ask ‘Where are the kids in this?’” (Please note: It is well worth reading the Ministry of Education’s Principles for Assessment for Learning.The section on building students’ assessment capability is likely to push all of our thinking in the U.S.)

The introduction of national standards, annual national testing, and ranking and sorting students brought tremendous challenges as explored in the forthcoming article How Standards Led to Student-Centered Learning at Karori Normal School. It also brought new capacities such as increased attention on how to move students at lower levels at more accelerated rates, increased moderation practices to build common understanding of proficiency of specific standards, and increased attention to assessment for learning. (See the DANZ report that outlined a system of assessment.)

Key Competencies

There were parts of the National Curriculum that were easy for educators to embrace. Other parts felt new and even tacked on. Key competencies were one of the sections that was new to educators. As the New Zealand National Curriculum (Curriculum) was being rolled out, Karori Normal School was one of the trial schools in using and providing feedback on the key competencies. There were several concerns: how effective was the wording (it has been updated); were the key competencies meaningful to students at all levels (NZ uses eight curricular levels to indicate where students are in their learning and years 1-13 to indicate their age-based grade); were these the right set of core competencies every student needed to develop?

It’s been a gradual process, but Karori is now seeing the value in key competencies. At first they were considered a “tick box” to indicate how often they were being used. However, as the understanding of UDL has grown, so has the understanding of the power of the competencies. The language of competencies is becoming part of the language of learning. Students are beginning to think about themselves learning to self-manage.

At this time, there is no effort to measure the key competencies in New Zealand There is, however, discussion about how to ensure that they are considered as valuable as those aspects of learning that are measured.

For more information on key competencies see: How the key competencies were developed: The evidence base and How the key competencies evolved over time: Insights from the research


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