New Zealand’s key competencies in an international context

In 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. Its task was to determine what educational changes were needed to equip young people with the necessary skills for the future. In 1996, the commission reported that education systems should focus on four pillars of education:

  • learning to be
  • learning to know
  • learning to do
  • learning to live together.

The commission’s report was influential, promoting conversations about the purposes of education and desirable outcomes for students.

The NZC’s vision statement unpacks what these mean for New Zealand students.

Our vision is for young people:

  • who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising
  • who will seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country
  • who will work to create an Aotearoa New Zealand in which Māori and Pākehā recognise each other as full Treaty partners, and in which all cultures are valued for the contributions they bring
  • who, in their school years, will continue to develop the values, knowledge, and competencies that will enable them to live full and satisfying lives
  • who will be confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners.
    (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 8)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) extended the conversation about what young people should be able to do to participate in and contribute to society in the Definition and Selection of Competencies (DeSeCo) project. This project developed a framework, guided by the question: ‘What demands does today’s society place on its citizens?’.

The OECD proposed education reforms that focus on teaching students to understand how knowledge is created and how to appropriately apply knowledge, rather than teaching knowledge recall (OECD, 2005). The OECD described its version of the key competencies in the DeSeCo report and included them in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 1997.

The OECD key competencies are:

  • acting autonomously: students gain an understanding of their identity and potential future role in society
  • functioning in heterogeneous groups: students are conscious of others’ views and how to manage competing views
  • using tools interactively: students understand the effect the use of language, symbols, texts, knowledge, information and technology has on how people interact with the world
  • thinking: students reflect on their thinking, how they think and how they construct experience.

Hipkins (2018) notes that New Zealand’s key competencies originated from initial work for the Ministry of Education (the Ministry) about how best to translate the DeSeCo developments into the New Zealand context. The work was also informed by the Curriculum Stocktake, undertaken by the University of Waikato. This focused on the application of the Essential Skills in the different Essential Learning Areas of the 1990s curricula.

New Zealand’s key competencies are similar to the OECD’s. However, the OECD conceptualises ‘thinking’ as cutting across the other competencies and necessary for their development. In the NZC, ‘thinking’ is a separate competency. The NZC considers all the key competencies to have the potential to be used in combination and that thinking is too complex to be considered only in relation to other competencies (Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd, & McDowall, 2014, pp. 14-15).

Figure 1: Comparing OECD and the NZC key competencies

Name given to competency by OECD
Acting autonomously
Functioning in socially heterogeneous groups
Using tools interactively

The New Zealand Curriculum version
Managing self
Relating to others
Participating and contributing
Using language, symbols and texts
Thinking (not identified as cross-cutting)

Adapted from: Hipkins & McDowall, 2013, p. 3.

Several influential international contributors have identified the need for students to have similar capabilities. The following outlines four of the most recent contributions.


Fullan and Scott (2014, pp. 6-7) identified Six Cs, personal and academic qualities and capabilities, that twenty-first century students need. These are:

  • Character refers to qualities of the individual essential for being personally effective in a complex world including: grit, tenacity, perseverance, resilience, reliability, and honesty.
  • Citizenship is about thinking like global citizens, considering global issues based on a deep understanding of diverse values with genuine interest in engaging with others to solve complex problems that impact human and environmental sustainability.
  • Collaboration is the capacity to work interdependently and synergistically in teams with strong interpersonal and team‐related skills, including learning from and contributing to the learning of others.
  • Communication entails mastery of three fluencies: digital, writing, and speaking, tailored for a range of audiences.
  • Creativity is having an ‘entrepreneurial eye’ for economic and social opportunities, asking the right questions to generate novel ideas, and demonstrating leadership to pursue those ideas into practice.
  • Critical thinking involves evaluating information and arguments, seeing patterns and connections, constructing meaningful knowledge, and seeing applications in the real world.


The Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) developed a framework to prepare students for the demands of the twenty-first century. This framework contains four dimensions:

  • Knowledge, which is ‘what students know and understand’. The CCR argues that the primacy given to knowledge in education inadequately prepares students for the twentyfirst century. While the CCR recognises knowledge is essential, it is not the only ability required of today’s students to thrive, and it should be taught through the application of skills.
  • Skills are about ‘how students use knowledge’. The CCR defines four central skills students need to thrive in the twenty-first century: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.
  • Character refers to ‘how students behave and engage in the world’. The CCR defines six character traits students should be taught: mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics and leadership. The CCR gives three reasons why developing character in students is necessary for them to thrive in the twenty-first century:
    • many of the major challenges facing today’s students involve complex ethical considerations and collaboration in a globalised world – for example, climate change and income inequality
    • research has found that students’ character, regardless of skill and knowledge level, plays an important role in their work and civic life
    • character traits support lifelong learning; an unpredictable and changing world requires continuous learning to face unknown challenges.
  • Meta-learning is ‘how students reflect on themselves and adapt by continuing to learn and grow toward their goals’. There are two components of the CCR’s meta-learning framework: metacognition and growth mindset. Metacognition is ‘the process of thinking about thinking’.
    • Strong metacognition supports the development and application of knowledge, skills and character qualities. Consistent with the rest of the literature on key competencies, the CCR argues that developing a growth mindset in students supports long-term success (Fadel, Bialik, & Trilling, 2015)

Figure 2: The CCR Framework

A Venn diagram of three circles inside a large grey circle illustrates the above concepts. The title is Meta-Learning: How we reflect and adapt. The large grey circle containing the Venn diagram is labelled Metacognition: Growth Mindset. The three overlapping circles are Knowledge, Skills, and Character, and overlap at 21st Century Learner. Knowledge, blue, states What we know and understand, and lists interdisciplinarity, traditional (i.e., mathematics), modern (i.e., entrepreneurship) and themes (i.e., global literacy). Character, gold, states How we behave and engage in the world, and lists mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics, and leadership. Skills, green, states How we use what we know, and lists creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

The CCR’s emphasis on metacognition supports the OECD focus on the importance of reflection in relation to learning-to-learn. The notion of resilience features here too, an aspect further developed in the following piece of work.


The importance of students acquiring general competencies was also identified in New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology, produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). The report identified 16 skills students need to ‘thrive in the 21st century’.

Figure 3: World Economic Forum, 21st Century Skills

A diagram titled 21st-century skills. In a blue box titled Lifelong Learning, there are three blocks: Foundational Literacies, Competencies, and Character Qualities. Foundational Literacies are described as How students apply core skills to everyday tasks, and it lists literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, and cultural and civic literacy. Competencies are described as How students approach complex challenges, and it lists critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Character qualities are How students approach their changing environment, and it lists curiosity, initiative, persistence and grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness.

The WEF is specific about the importance of a range of literacies, including ICT literacy. Global literacy (CCR) is not among them. Curiosity and resilience (in the form of persistence and grit) echo the CCR attributes. The WEF introduces initiative, leadership, and social and cultural awareness as important qualities. The report emphasises the value of social and emotional learning. It points to evidence that social and emotional skills lead to better academic performance and career success, together with a range of other measures of lifetime success.

2018 and ongoing

The OECD, as part of the Future of Education and Skills 2030 project, has developed the OECD Learning Compass 2030. This extends the work started by the DeSeCo project. The compass ‘defines the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values students need to fulfil their potential and contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and the planet’.

Figure 4: The OECD Learning Compass 2030

An avant-garde diagram of the OECD Learning Compass. In the centre is a compass comprised of four points and three rings, with Competencies in the centre. The four points are – clockwise – Knowledge, Values, Skills and Attitudes. The first ring around the compass is labelled Core Foundations. The second ring contains Creating new value, Reconciling tensions and dilemmas, Taking responsibility, and Transformative Competencies. The final ring contains Action, Reflection, and Anticipation, with circular arrows linking them in a clockwise direction. Outside the compass, a stick figure with no known link to the compass states Co-agency with peers, teachers, parents and communities. A sign on the right side outside the compass read Well-being 2030. Various stick figures and outlines of cities and mountains are also present for because reasons.

The graphic is interactive online, providing the detail behind each of the aspects in the compass. The OECD has developed resources, that include commentary by students, to support understanding of these aspects.

Core foundations are the prerequisites upon which every other aspect of learning is built. They are:

  • Cognitive foundations such as literacy and numeracy upon which other literacies can be developed, e.g. digital literacy, data literacy, media literacy and global literacy.
  • Health foundations including physical and mental health, and wellbeing.
  • Social and emotional foundations addressing morals and ethics.

As in the WEF report, social and emotional development is recognised as a critical component of learning and, in line with research, emphasises the close link between wellbeing and learning.

The OECD introduces agency with co-agency. This reflects the interrelated world we live in and the importance of students’ active role in their education as individuals and in mutually supportive relationships with others.

The transformative competencies provide a purpose to creativity and critical thinking in the form of ‘creating new value’. They acknowledge the complexities of the world and the need to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty – skills that require empathy, respect and resilience.

Research from New Zealand and international contributors between 2014-2018 share common and related threads in thinking and developing what students need to successfully navigate the future and contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and the planet.