Thursday 30 March 2017

Re-imagining secondary learning through a key competencies frame

The key competencies help teachers to re-imagine learning that is future focused and meaningful for students’ lives, writes Dr Rosemary Hipkins, with Wayne Erb

The key competencies are important ideas to catalyse teacher thinking. They have potential as agents for change within The New Zealand Curriculum and so we need to think carefully about what sort of changes we expect to make in teaching and learning and then consider the implications for assessment.
The adjective “21st century” has become short-hand for how the education system is responding to the changing nature of our social systems and technologies. Our young people are learning in a world where rapid social and economic changes bound up in the evolution of digital technologies mean access to information is radically different than it was for previous generations. They can “outsource” much more thinking than we could (if they learn how) and they have different expectations of how and when things will happen. This expands the types of outcomes learners need to achieve in order to succeed as active participants in 21st century life. The abundance of opportunities comes with challenges and pitfalls. Students need the help and support of our skilful teaching more than ever, but it can’t be business as usual.
The key competencies are a response to this seismic shift in opportunities and needs but they haven’t necessarily been seen that way up until now. I really like the notion of supporting students to be ready, willing and able to use their competencies. This notion puts the spotlight on two key challenges for teachers: helping students build dispositions to use their competencies and – with a bit more thinking stretch – creating opportunities for them to expand the ways they experience meaning in their learning.
I would argue that students expand their competencies when their learning is woven into contexts with powerful meaning for them. The skills and knowledge of the teacher are essential to this weaving.
Done well, we are educating young people in ways that impact their being and doing in the world, not just what they know, or how many NCEA credits they can gather up. Students can gain knowledge and skills and at the same time shape their attitudes and values, and build agency or action competence to respond to challenges that matter to them. Achieving these types of learning goals requires their genuine emotional engagement with meaningful contexts.
With a key competencies framing, learning is about now and the future. Teachers working in The Key Competencies and Effective Pedagogy project were thinking about two ‘layers’ of outcomes for the learning they designed. They had immediate goals (typically specific knowledge and skills) but they also had in mind longer-term goals – things they hoped students would become or be able to do in their futures.
How teachers conceive and shape learning experiences really matters. Effective pedagogy that fosters the development of key competencies has three critical dimensions:
·         space for students to take the initiative in their learning
·         sufficient challenge to stretch and enlarge on their current capabilities
·         rich connections between the learning and students’ lives.
Statistics tell us we’ve got a problem with how young people use our roads. You probably already know that simply telling students about road safety is not an adequate response. It has been my pleasure to engage with the skillful work of teachers who are providing opportunities for students to build dispositions to behave safely and responsibly – while also developing curriculum ‘content’. The examples I discuss here come from case studies initially developed by the NZ Transport Agency.
Year 13 digital technology students investigated datasets from New Zealand’s crash analysis system and then built GPS-enabled displays of patterns they found. Teacher Gerard MacManus kept the brief as open as possible and supported students to pose their own questions for investigation. Gerard thinks that getting students emotionally engaged is key to them wanting to be and become safe drivers.
In another case, the subject component comes from English – analysing visual texts; in this case road safety ad campaigns. Teacher Alex Le Long helped students surface prior knowledge about acceptable road use. Students selected which ads to analyse, and being able to relate to the target audience and text purpose gave them a basis to demonstrate deeper understanding of effective texts.
In a final example, year 10 students used some pretty meaty maths to investigate what happens when cars veer towards the centre line. Students using this material developed by teacher Dr Sarah Howell have been shocked to find for themselves how quickly a car crosses the centre line, even when the angle of drift isn’t very big.
I am often asked if key competencies should be assessed. My short answer is ‘no’ but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken into account in the overall assessment mix. A way forward for teachers is to identify the types of learning outcomes that a key competencies framing brings into view – then find ways to assess those. On the surface, some outcomes will still look relatively traditional – teachers in two of the road safety examples used summative assessment in the form of NCEA achievement standards (NCEA itself does aim to help students demonstrate more
transparently and fairly what they know and can do – it can potentially do some but
not all of the work of meaningfully assessing 21st century learning outcomes). However these traditional assessments are not well set up to capture the deep emotional engagement which is so critical to building dispositions to act in the world – so that learning really matters for more than just gaining credits.
Let me return to an earlier example to illustrate this last point. Every second year, students at Gerard’s school took part in a charity fundraising run. After doing the digital learning exercise, the year 13 students were much more aware of the dangers of running on the road verge. They took a leadership role in developing safer practices during the run. In this case, evidence of the dispositional change was clearly apparent. More often it is essentially a private matter, and it typically occurs in ways not predetermined by the teacher.
We need different types of assessment tasks and contexts to capture elements of the ‘key competencies’ difference in learning outcomes.
Assessment tasks that require a ‘complex performance’ (one that brings together content, context and targeted competencies) provide opportunities for students to show how multiple dimensions of their competencies are building and getting stronger over time. The key ingredient in assessments of this type is that students have to do something authentic with their learning. Performances can be variable in the moment, so evidence needs to be collated from multiple sources. Systematic methods of collating evidence, such as annotated portfolios, may be needed.
As I’ve just noted, complex performances are a response to rich tasks with strong real-life implications and relevance (for now and for the future). However such tasks will often cross learning area boundaries which creates challenges for traditional secondary school curriculum arrangements. Just recently we’ve noted that teachers in the Sport in Education initiative are making greater use of NCEA’s flexibility for integrated assessment – i.e. one task with meaningful assessment dimensions in several learning areas. That’s really encouraging.
It’s important to reiterate that helping students build funds of disciplinary knowledge remains as important as ever. But skillful teaching needs to do this and more. We need learning and assessment strategies that help students get ready for futures that are uncertain in the face of rapid change and 21st century pressures. This is a demanding challenge. I think that more professional learning support is needed so that teachers can revisit the purposes they envisage for learning in light of a more expansive key competencies framing. The wonderful resources produced by teachers in the NZ Transport Agency and the Sport in Education initiatives are opening up this space, with all its exciting possibilities.  
Dr Rosemary Hipkins is a chief researcher at NZCER. With three colleagues, she has recently written a book called Key Competencies for the Future. Wayne Erb is a writer specialising in education.
Case studies and curriculum resources referred to by Rosemary can be freely downloaded here: