Diving into the research behind the key competencies

Issue: Volume 97, Number 20

Posted: 7 November 2018
Reference #: 1H9nwc

Ian Axford Fellow Michael Wolking visited 21 secondary schools to research the key competencies of New Zealand schools and recently presented his results.

Mike Wolking’s research of New Zealand’s schools’ key competencies has revealed that, yes, they are being monitored in many classrooms. However, measurements of the social and emotional skills that underpin the competencies are still being developed, leading teachers to focus on the content knowledge that is easily measurable.

“If I didn’t have to spend so much time catching kids up on content, we could focus more on soft skills,” said one of the teachers Mike spoke with.

Social and emotional skill development is correlated with a number of outcomes, such as university entrance and employment status, leading organisations like the OECD to focus increasingly on how school systems support holistic student learning.

In New Zealand, one way that many schools give students the chance to reflect on their performances in a holistic way is through student-led conferences with parents and whānau.

 “It’s good for kids to get used to talking about what and how they’re learning, where they’ve been successful and where they need support,” says Mike. 

In some cases, key competencies have been framed as future-focused and important for students’ career goals.

“That means reflection on the key competencies can be absent during day-to-day lesson planning by teachers, even while they’re very much present in the broader picture of a school’s values and principles,” says Mike.

“One of my recommendations is that teachers and researchers dive into the research behind key competencies – on concepts like metacognition, goal orientation, and collaborative learning, for example – to understand how the key competencies lead to more effective teaching and learning on a daily basis.”

Shadowing a student for a day

So what is the day-to-day life of a student in a secondary school? To get an experience, Mike attended classes with Year 10 student Andrea for a day (four spells of 80 minutes each) back in May.

“The student spent just under half of her day online using Google Slides or on her laptop working,” says Mike. “This gave her some excellent opportunities to pursue her interests and develop as an independent learner, but it made me wonder about the depth of her learning on that day. How deep was her thinking? And what’s the teacher’s role in pushing her thinking?”

“It can be easy for teachers to fall into a trap of putting every piece of information into Google Classroom and then taking an overly passive approach to classroom facilitation – even with great content built online, teachers need to constantly check for understanding during lessons and have discussions with individual students to gauge their progress and challenge their thinking.”

Mike attended classes to experience the day-to-day life of a student in a secondary school.

Building skills fluency

Beyond pursuing individual passions, technology might be used to build skills fluency for students who struggle to manage their learning independently. “But online learning is only effective when it’s strategic. If there are sound goals for what you want students to do and you’re able to monitor the progress of students through data collection and analysis, online tools can be effective instructional resources.”

“My view is that teachers need to be activators even if they are shifting to elements of teaching that involve more facilitation. For example, teachers should still hone the craft of anticipating where students struggle with new concepts and have well-designed questions to bridge gaps in understanding.” 

The Ian Axford Fellowship

Ian Axford (New Zealand) Fellowships in Public Policy are for outstanding American professionals to research and gain firsthand experience of public policy in New Zealand. Established in 1995, the fellowships reinforce links between New Zealand and the US. A cross-fertilisation of ideas and an ongoing policy exchange between both countries is created.

Sir William Ian Axford was a New Zealand space scientist who was a director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy from 1974 to 1990. His research was focused on the interaction of the sun with the magnetic field of earth. 

Takeouts for American schools

Hugely inspired by much of what he’s seen in New Zealand, Mike cites the cultural responsiveness truly valued in the pedagogical approach of New Zealand educators, as well as the cohesive design of a national curriculum with well-articulated values and principals alongside content knowledge.

“Many American educators will refer to curriculum as the textbook being used in the classroom. In New Zealand there is a clearly shared definition of what a curriculum is and the exciting challenge for each school to implement that curriculum locally.”

Recommendations for schools

Conversations with principals, teachers and students led Mike to make some specific recommendations:

  • Invest in middle leader training as heads of department are often the primary instructional leader for secondary teachers but may not have specific training on adult learning, leading teams, or holistic approaches to working with adolescents.
  • Build timetables to maximise teacher collaboration so that as teachers engage in instructional shifts, they have time with their colleagues to make sense of them and learn collaboratively.
  • Consider targeting explicit social-emotional supports to students aged 13-15. Data shows that students in this age group account for half of the stand-downs in New Zealand schools.
  • Improve information flows to parents  using existing data so parents are fully aware of student performance at school and can become partners in students’ holistic development outside of it (some schools already do very well with this).
  • Use digital technologies for skills development (in particular for those students who enter secondary school lacking basic skills, and need a targeted set of learning resources to catch up).

A number of recommendations were also identified by Mike for the Ministry of Education, the Education Council, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. 

About Michael Wolking

Mike is a former teacher who hails from Detroit, Michigan. He most recently finished a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University. One of his first tasks when he arrived in Aotearoa was to attend te reo classes at Wellington High School. He’s been spending his weekends tramping with his wife and perfecting their pavlova-making skills. A senior strategist at Education Elements in Washington DC, Mike outlined his findings in a paper called ‘A Systemic Lens on Classroom Teaching: Supporting the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum in Secondary Schools’.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:42 pm, 7 November 2018

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