Curriculum weaving: an idea whose time has come?
Key competencies have always been aligned with “21st century” learning imperatives but it hasn’t been obvious exactly how they could provide the impetus for changing teaching and learning. We do know that simply adding them on top of the existing curriculum won’t work. Dr. Rosemary Hipkins show how ideas about “weaving” approaches have been quietly gathering momentum, and how they can help us take a fresh look at the curriculum work the key competencies were always intended to do. Now is the moment for change if we want to build new thinking about “progress” into our policies and practices in a more systematic way.
Hipkins is a Chief Researcher at NZCER and maintains a strong interest in the complex space at the intersection of curriculum and assessment practices.
This talk was a part of Taking the Lead - Celebrating the Curricula in Wellington on 9, March, 2018
Resources from the presentation
As you watch the presentations, think about these questions:
- How do we get this right for our children?
- How will we enable all children to be ‘confident, connected, actively involved’ lifelong learners?
- How will we uphold the values and principles of a world leading curriculum, in the best interests of our children and our society?
- How will this start, from today?
You can also download these questions as a discussion sheet to use as a group. (Word doc, 0.15MB)
Rosemary Hipkins: I’ve been doing research on the key competencies right from the start. I worked with Margaret Carr and others on the versions that went into the New Zealand curriculum and I’ve never lost my interest in them.
I want to start with a bit of a provocation put to us, not exactly like this by Alan Reid of South Australia when he was over here for NZCER’s conference on the key competencies. I can’t remember the exact year but it was about 2009 I think. And the question is: “Why were key competencies put in the curriculum? What were they supposed to do?” They came from an OECD project, that was the origins of them, but what are they supposed to do?
The video displays a diagram of the rationale for why the key competencies were added to the curriculum. The flowchart is based from the book “Key Competencies for the Future” by Rosemary Hipkins, Rachel Bolstad, Sally Boyd, and Sue McDowall, 2014.
I’ve got a fat red line there which says they were there to add stuff to the curriculum. Now the width of the line indicates the path most travelled. So the path less travelled was actually they were put there to make the curriculum do something it hadn’t done before, and that’s the path I want to talk about today.
What that might look like when the curriculum is transformed was the agenda for that book and every chapter in that book has got examples from schools already of things that are happening. But happening in pockets. We need to get them joined up and more systematic.
In a past life - it feels like quite a long time ago now – I was a science teacher and so the science curriculum if I’m going to a subject specific curriculum it’s kind of my default one.
But you can see that the structure of this slide is exactly the same as the structure of the slide that I showed you before, only it asks: Why did we put a ‘nature of science’ strand in the curriculum? If we say for the key competencies: well they came from the OECD, here we could say: well we had it in the 1990s, it was called ‘making sense of the nature of science and its relationship to technology. And then when we got a technology curriculum of its own a lot of people thought we didn’t need it anymore, so it was quietly ignored. But we had another go at putting it back in the New Zealand curriculum after the stocktake and knowing full well what the problems were.
But again, we see the fat red line: it was put there to add new stuff.
So if you look at secondary school text books, you’re given a nature of science chapter in the front which all this arcane, esoteric knowledge and they’re: no, let’s just turn those pages over, now we can get to the actual learning. In fact, somebody wrote something about that strand in a 1990s curriculum, a Primary science advisor wrote a paper called ‘Those pages we just turn over’.
What if it was actually put there to change the way kids experience the science curriculum? Same idea coming down a level. Now you substitute your own curriculum learning area for that and see how you can think about that.
Here’s a little test. This is a page of the curriculum.
The video displays a page of the NZ Curriculum, describing the key competencies. The page title and its subtitle are enclosed within a red circle.
It’s the first page that defines the key competencies. All up and down New Zealand over a number of years now I have asked people to tell me what the words are inside that red circle. And mostly people don’t know. I’m not going to ask you to out yourself but just mentally note: Do I know what those words say? Because these are the words that define the nature of the thing that key competencies are, and if we don’t know that how do we know what work they’re supposed to do in the curriculum and why they’re there.
The video displays the words in the subtitle.
There they are. They’re ‘capabilities for living and lifelong learning’.
Now you might say that those are weasel words, I mean they’re motherhood and apple pie words, you know. What does it actually mean in terms of the learning, but that’s how they’re defined. They were put there so that they would affect some change in the curriculum so that as a consequence of their learning kids would be more capable for their futures.
Competencies, capabilities; are they synonyms? I talked to Ian Reid about this definition. Some of you may know he was the editor of the New Zealand Curriculum, and admittedly it was a very casual conversation – I bagged him on the train station one day and said to him: “Ian you know when we wrote that definition ‘key competencies are capabilities for living and lifelong learning, what did that capabilities mean in there?” And his response to me was something like: “Well we thought it was a well-rounded term…” In other words it was a synonym. But out there in the world, you may not know this, but there is a thing called the capabilities approach in which the word means something quite different. It comes from developmental economics and is an approach that was invented to deal with a terrible problem that they have to deal with in developmental economics of knowing how they know that help to different countries has had an impact. Because if you just take measures like the gross domestic product, you miss the diversity, you miss the fact that there’s the 80% and the 20% - too much is glossed over. And so this was developed by people with a very strong sense of social justice. An American political philosopher called Martha Nussbaum and an Indian economist called Amartya Sen and they developed this approach – if you want to read about it this little book which Martha Nussbaum wrote, ‘Creating Capabilities’ is very easy to read in fact you probably really only need to read the first chapter and you’ve got it.
The video displays an image of the book “Creating Capabilities” by Martha C. Nussbaum, 2013.
It’s a space of possibility and it asks this question: What are our young people capable of now? And what do they hope to be and become capable of? It’s a purpose question and it looks to their futures as capable kids. Confident and connected. See where I’m going with this idea?
But what can we do with this when we look at the curriculum? Here’s what we’ve been doing with it, this idea of capabilities in the work that we’ve been doing quietly in the background while other things were up in lights at the front. We know that each key competency is quite a complex thing, there’s lots and lots of different dimensions to it. And we’ve also found in the work that we’ve done with schools where we’ve looked at rich examples of practice that different aspects of the key competencies come together to allow kids to show what they’re capable of. In fact there’s a few words in the curriculum - I can’t just quote them straight off the top of my head – that say that. And here’s another thing that we found when we’ve worked with teachers who have been very skilful at weaving the key competencies into the curriculum. What they envisage for learning has the immediate goal - the outcomes they’re looking for that can link straight back to the curriculum – but they also have kids futures in their head and they can tell you a story about how this little piece of learning today, right now, contributes to a bigger picture.
There’s quite a leap between those first few and this last idea that you can’t keep endless different things and endless complexity in your head so you need a little group of things you can focus on.
We’ve been working on this weaving idea and how we help teachers to understand quickly and instantly that each key competency is multi-faceted. And so we developed this little set of cards.
The video displays the ‘Remixing the Key Competencies: A curriculum design deck” cards produced by NZCER.
On one side they say the name of the key competency, on the other side they describe a facet of that key competency. And what we find when teachers play with them, they can mix them and re-combine them, they can weave them in all sorts of different ways and put a rich task in front of them and they can make it work with all sorts of different combinations of them. Which then leads to the question: well which of those combinations do we really want to work with? In this task what is it that we want kids to get to make them capable for their futures? So they prompt both the learning conversation and the assessment conversation.
Let’s go to the science weaving idea. (That’s just a very quick glimpse of the overall key competencies weaving idea).
The science one came a bit later. We were asked by the Ministry of Education a few years ago, to do three inter-related projects in science education and I was co-leading the curriculum one. And we found that to the extent that it was being used at all, the ‘nature of science’ strand was being added to the curriculum as stuff. Mostly it wasn’t being used at all, but where it was, that was how it was being used. And so we decided that we would model for teachers a way of weaving it into the curriculum to make the learning more purposeful. And we had this idea that if we focussed on a small set of things we want kids to be capable of in their science learning, that would make it more manageable and useful for teachers.
And of course you’re probably thinking: What set of small things and who says so? Because that’s a very loaded question isn’t it? And curriculum is of course, highly political. Well actually, the curriculum itself says so.
Now this is another exercise where I find if you show people that page from the curriculum - I think from memory it’s page 17 - the one that’s spiraled down the side there, most teachers can’t tell you what those words say in that little spiral over there.
The video shows page 17 of the NZ Curriculum, with the description for the ‘science’ learning area highlighted. The learning area states: “In science students explore how both the natural and physical world and science itself work so that they can participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society which science plays a significant role.”
In the green box at the top are the words for the science curriculum. It doesn’t say that kids learn science so they’ll be able to spout all sorts of science concepts and stuff. It doesn’t say they learn it so they’ll be able to learn it next year and so they’ll be able to perhaps go on to university and have a career in the sciences and all the things that people tend to talk about. It says that they’ll learn science so that – and that’s the semantic structure of the sentence, verbatim from the curriculum document – so that they’ll be good citizens. That’s what the curriculum says.
So we thought about that, and we thought about the ‘nature of science’ strand and the key competencies and this purpose statement, and we thought: OK, if we say that key competencies are capabilities for living and lifelong learning, and we’ve got this ‘nature of science’ strand and we say that we want kids to be good citizens because they’ve had some encounters with science knowledge, what do we need them to be capable of? And that’s the little list that we came up with.
The video displays a list of capabilities: gather and interpret data, use evidence to support ideas, critique evidence, make sense of representations of science ideas, and engage with science.
They need to understand the way that science works in the world. The way its knowledge power structures work. Of course that’s got to be very simple at five years old and it’s going to look slightly different for older children, but it is possible to translate that simple set of statements into meaningful learning tasks at every level of the curriculum and I know because we did it.
So, these are the things that get woven together just by working with those five simple things and pulling them into the foreground. The ‘essence statement’ that I just showed you, the key competencies that I just said, the ‘nature of science’ strand of the curriculum, and at least one contextual strand. Just under those simple things, the pieces can come together to allow for teachers to make a coherent learning experience for kids.
That’s what we’ve done with science and you can probably see that, but there’ll be at least some people in the room who are thinking ‘oh yeah, but the key competencies, you couldn’t do that with them, they’re much more complex.
Well let me show you. It took us a few years, we’ve been working on it quietly in the background, but the prompt for doing it was the Ministry’s requirement, that in national monitoring we have something to say about how kids are making progress with their key competencies. See the making progress question has still been bubbling away for other things. You’ll know as I know that’s a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. That is a very difficult question because straight away if we say they’re multi-faceted, which aspects are we talking about?
So what we did after much consideration, we tried a couple of different approaches that didn’t work so I won’t bother to tell you about them today. But when we backed up the truck and started again, what we decided to do was to take some of the national monitoring tasks that we thought particularly interesting: There was a graffiti task in social studies, some of you might have seen it. There was a task about the wreck of the Rena in the first round of science. Rich, contextualised tasks. And we analysed those tasks and parsed them to say: OK when kids are sitting down with their teacher assessor to do this particular thing, what aspects of capability from each of the key competencies, do they need to bring to the table? And we found a few that started coming up time and time again when we did that for a number of tasks. And here they are.
The video lists the three capabilities of: critical inquiry, perspective-taking, and disciplinary meaning-making.
We found that they needed to be able to think about critical questions, to do some critical thinking sometimes to do some problem solving. There’s a range of things that come under that heading. The middle one is really interesting I think. In so many of those tasks they had to be able to step outside of their own perspective in ways of knowing about things, and think about them from somebody else’s perspective.
That science one, just to give you one example, asks them to say: well you did it this way, because they’ve just done a problem-solving exercise, what would a scientist have done? That’s a really hard question to ask Year 4 and Year 8 students to answer. And impossible to answer if you cannot take a different perspective.
And then, there was disciplinary meaning-making, and that’s basically the equivalent of the ‘nature of science’ one. And so, one of the things that I feel very sad about is that the key competency that we call ‘using language symbols in tiers’. I’ve just done an exercise for the Ministry looking at the various iterations as the draft of NZC was being worked on and for quite a long time through several drafts it was called ‘making meaning’ and it got changed and then became the literacy and numeracy key competency, and it is – on one level it is - but it’s the surface, that’s scratching the surface. It is about how meaning gets made in the world. It should be so much richer than that.
I need to talk about the coherent pathways tool that Mary Chamberlain has been working on for the Ministry of Education and which is looking at some high-level things that are really important things for kids to achieve across the transitions of different stages of their schooling. It’s intended to help COLs have a conversation across the learning levels about what really matters.
We parsed all the statements which were done by the different learning area experts in that and we found those three things sat underneath them. It was like a useful cross-check for the NMSSA (National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement) work, but we found a fourth one which was ‘taking action’. And you can sort of see why that wouldn’t be in the National Monitoring because of the limitations of what National Monitoring is, but it is very, very rich and abundantly evident in the curriculum.
So our little weaving idea is that if you design rich tasks all across the curriculum - they’ll look very different in different learning areas – that require kids to pull on dimensions of each of these, that learning will be so rich that you can guarantee the key competencies will be coming along for the ride. Which is a very, very different way of thinking about them than saying: Oh, managing self, what do we know about this? Where do we see opportunities for kids to do that? What do we need to teach them about it? It is actually turning them into what they were supposed to be in the first place. Which is ideas for thinking about how to make the curriculum explicitly bring the vision to life. It’s actually about transforming how we think about the work that the curriculum can do in young people’s lives.
Coming back to NMSSA. We did an analysis the disciplinary meaning-making demands of science in the group assessment task in the 2012 round. And we looked at things like whether kids know how diagrams get drawn in science, whether they can read tables, whether they can read graphs. Sometimes there was two years of learning difference between kids knowing the convention and just having an idea of what the question was about. Two years of difference. And when we looked at the headline story, and it’s the same across a lot of the learning areas across the curriculum, is that kids are broadly on track at Year 4 and they’re falling behind at Year 8. And at least in this analysis we could see that not knowing those simple conventions of science was strongly associated with falling behind at Year 8.
The video displays a number of graphs depicting the correlation between knowledge and meaning-making in science.
But on a more positive note, the bar graph at the top there is the spread of kids’ capabilities for the assessments of this test and the bar graph at the bottom is the spread of knowledge for the straight knowledge questions, and what you can see if you look at the one with the dots – each dot is one kid – is that there’s actually quite a strong correlation between knowing these meaning-making conventions and knowing the stuff. So people who tell you that key competencies just push the curriculum aside, haven’t got it right and they’re not doing the right thing with it. The weaving is intended to enrich the curriculum and when it does kids not only become more capable, they also learn the stuff. So we don’t need to feel that there’s a cost for it. I think it’s quite reassuring to see data like that, that comes from thousands and thousands of our kids albeit only at Year 4 and Year 8.
I know that they’re huge ideas and if you wanted to read more about it, if you just put in Google ‘weaving a coherent curriculum’ you’ll find a paper that looks like this and it unpacks what I’ve just blatted through in 25 minutes.
Thank you very much
More from this series
How do we take the opportunity to uphold the values and principles of our world-leading curricula, in the best interests of our children and our society? Curricula experts share their expertise in working with all the New Zealand curricula in Taking the Lead - Celebrating our Curricula.