Preparing students for the future

ERO’s report, Developing Key Competencies in Students Years 1 to 8, describes how New Zealand schools with Years 1 to 8 students are integrating and supporting the development of their students’ key competencies (KCs).

This companion report explores current thinking about the importance of building the capabilities of young people. It outlines what the KCs are, why they are important, New Zealand’s journey with thinking about the nature and potential uses of KCs, and where this development fits in the international context.

The key competencies were introduced in The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) in 2007. There are five key competencies:

  • thinking is about students being curious, and having the creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas, in order to create new knowledge and reflect on their own learning
  • using language, symbols and texts refers to interpreting and communicating information, experiences and ideas and is not restricted to literacy
  • managing self entails being capable learners who are resourceful, reliable, and resilient with strategies to meet challenges
  • relating to others means interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts and being open to new learning
  • participating and contributing refers to being actively involved in communities, understanding the importance of balancing rights, roles, and responsibilities and contributing to the quality and sustainability of social, cultural, physical, and economic environments (Ministry of Education, 2007, pp. 12-13).

The KCs are defined as an integral part of the curriculum, to be developed in every learning area (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 8).

This introduction of key competencies in New Zealand took place during an international move in education research and policy towards developing school students’ more general competencies. Across the world, these competencies vary in name and focus. They are increasingly recognised for their importance in equipping students with what they will need to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.

The shift in New Zealand and internationally towards nurturing these more generalised competencies has three main drivers.

Drivers for nurturing generalised competencies

  1. Change in how knowledge is viewed
    The growth of information and communication technology (ICT) has changed which skills are viewed as valuable. Traditionally, education has centred on knowledge memorisation. This has become less useful since the internet has made information accessible to most people. It is now vital that students can search for information, be critical and discerning about its relevance and truthfulness, and appropriately apply that knowledge (OECD, 2018, pp. 59-60). Information literacy of this type is increasingly important and often implicit in the ‘critical thinking’ competency.
  2. Change in the nature of work
    The demands of the future labour market are uncertain. This has resulted in a shift in thinking about what outcomes of education will best prepare students for life and work. Routine tasks, such as data entry, are becoming increasingly automated. This leaves a higher proportion of tasks that require judgement, creativity and other skills. It is these competencies that teachers need to develop in their students to prepare them for the future job market (Fadel, Bialik, & Trilling, 2015, pp. 12-20).
    A major challenge faced by the education system is preparing students for jobs not yet envisaged. Already we see technology reducing jobs that involve repetitive, routine tasks. Other jobs, such as a social media manager, are being created out of technological change. We can expect this type of change to continue, or escalate. In the face of uncertainty about what knowledge and skills will be useful in the future labour market, more generalisable skills should be taught so students are able to adapt as necessary (Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd, & McDowall, 2014; Fadel, Bialik, & Trilling, 2015, pp. 12-20).
  3. New global challenges – ‘wicked problems’
    The world is more complex, interdependent and in flux than in the past. Today’s students require a different set of abilities than previous generations (OECD, 2005). Students face global challenges. Many of today’s global issues do not have an agreed solution because they occupy multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral. There are many stakeholders and perspectives, the nature of the challenges is changing, and there is incomplete understanding of their causes, consequences and possible solutions. These ‘wicked problems’ include climate change, environmental degradation and inequality. Schools should prepare students for global challenges by teaching skills that are transferable to unknown and complex situations (Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd, & McDowall, 2014, pp. 22-23).

The certainty of change has implications for the kind of education our young people require and the focus of the teaching and learning they experience. New Zealand’s key competencies put today’s students at the centre and bring a future perspective to their learning.

It is no longer enough for students to acquire knowledge and master skills. Students need opportunities to develop their capabilities as users of knowledge and skills in diverse contexts. This requires attention not only to their recall of knowledge or ability to perform tasks, but to supporting them to be capable and creative critical thinkers and communicators. They need to be able to manage ambiguity and uncertainty, participate and relate well to others, and contribute as local and global citizens.

The key competencies provide students with the means to adapt to and succeed in an ever-changing world.