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Key competencies are clusters of capabilities

The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) defines key competencies as capabilities for living and lifelong learning .

Each key competency is a cluster of capabilities. Capabilities are things students learn to be able to do. But what do they need to be capable of? We need to keep learners’ futures in mind when working out answers to this question.

Teaching for capabilities refocuses subject learning

How teachers think about purposes for learning impacts on opportunities to develop personal capabilities. The New Zealand Curriculum outlines  high-level purposes for every learning area  which explain why each learning area is important to an overall education. These purposes are bigger than traditional content learning. We need to take traditional content and use it in new ways; ways which weave the content and the key competencies together.

What would this look like in practice?

Science as an example

The science learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum emphasises developing learners’ citizenship capabilities. The Nature of Science (NOS) strand explores ways science knowledge is created and used in the world, so this strand can be used to encourage teaching and learning to help achieve the citizenship purpose. Based on the NOS strand, five foundational science capabilities have been identified. These are:     

These are things learners need to show they can do; their capabilities will be strengthened with practice.

Learners develop their capabilities when teachers use effective pedagogy

Learning is a social act, not just an individual one. The way you manage the learning context is important. Learners need practice and support to grow their capabilities. Students have to be willing to stretch their current capabilities. They need to feel safe to take risks. They need to see good models of what you want. The key competencies and effective pedagogy project described learning conditions that help learners stretch their current capabilities. Three broad indicators of learning that supports the development of capabilities are:

  • creating space for learners to take the initiative in their learning
  • creating sufficient challenges to stretch and enlarge on their current capabilities
  • creating rich connections between the intended learning and learners' lives.

Read teacher stories that show how a key competency focus is embedded in different learning areas

Learners develop their capabilities when they have relevant opportunities to learn

  • Learners show they are capable by what they do: learning tasks need to give them that chance. 
  • Learners need to know what purpose you have in mind: this helps them know why they are being asked to do what you want.

In a new context, it can be hard to sort out what might be useful. Opportunities to explore “messy” contexts and learning challenges will help learners stretch their current capabilities, which is not always likely to happen if you always plan and direct what to do and don't let them explore. Flexibility around an activity or lesson topic is key.

Capabilities have reflective dimensions

Reflection is an important part of being capable. Capable adults think about what knowledge and skills are required to achieve new challenges. They can then match these to their current abilities and learn more. This is also what the New Zealand Curriculum intends for school learners.

Each science capability resource has a built-in reflection focus  (What’s important here?)

Compare tasks that develop science capabilities at different curriculum levels

More on key competencies

Rosemary Hipkins, NZCER talks about the "everywhere and nowhere" nature of thinking and how we need to look below the tip of the iceberg. Edtalks has a number of engaging videos on a range of teaching topics.

The New Zealand Curriculum Online: Key competencies  has lots of resources about how to develop competencies and capabilities in leading, in teaching, and in learning.


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