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The rich and challenging work of competency-based curriculum

June 3, 2013 Sharon Friesen

Although educators can, and sometimes should, distinguish between cognition, emotion, knowledge, affect and skills, it is vital to remember that these distinctions are analytic tools, not an indication of separately existing realities. An emphasis on competencies brings these lived realities and their deep interrelations into focus. Such a focus assists in the shift from a fragmented and industrially based curriculum toward a post-industrial system that’s more in concert with 21st-century understanding and circumstances.

A competency-based curriculum includes not only what you need to know but also learning how knowledge works in a dynamic and ever-evolving manner. Competencies focus on know-how—knowing how to make appropriate choices and how to use resources in highly complex situations, a phenomenon referred to as “knowing one’s way around” (Gadamer 1989, 260). Competency-based curriculum is based on the engagement and involvement of students in rich, rigorous and worthwhile work. It is geared toward helping students learn their way around the world and thus become “able” participants in and contributors to society.

I first encountered the potential of a competency-based curriculum while in New Zealand. I met Jane Gilbert and Rosemary Hipkins, who were instrumental in that country’s curriculum redesign. Through my work with them, and many others involved in curriculum design work, it became clearer why and how competencies are an important component in shifting curriculum in a post-industrial world—a world where it’s no longer sufficient to acquire only knowledge and master skills.

  • Competencies include skills, knowledge, attitudes and values needed to meet the demands of a task.
  • Competencies are performance-based and manifested in the actions of an individual in a particular setting.
  • Key competencies are those competencies needed by everyone across a variety of different life situations to meet important demands and challenges.
    (Brewerton 2004, 2)

A competency-based curriculum is theoretically an ecological approach to learning. Matters of setting, relationship and learner-centredness figure prominently in such a curriculum. For teachers, this means they are truly the architects of learning. They have agency in identifying meaningful and relevant situations as a basis for designing rich, robust, engaging and contextually relevant learning experiences that build, strengthen and deepen student learning. For New Zealand’s examples of what competencies look like, visit www.keycompetencies.tki.org.nz/In-teaching. For information about competencies in practice, visit www.keycompetencies.tki.org.nz/School-stories.

Although New Zealand has led the way in creating a competency-based curriculum, Alberta, too, has teachers designing learning experiences that embed skills, knowledge, attitudes and values within each task they design for (or with) students. For example, a teacher working on the Kainai reserve, located about 200 kilometres south of Calgary, has created a rich inquiry-based study into indigenous healing plants found on her reserve. Initially, the teacher began with teaching the science topic “Plants.” She soon learned, however, that when approached differently, this ordinary and all-too-familiar Grade 4 science unit could be opened up to far more than just studying plants. Rather, by exploring the land under the guidance of elders, an interdisciplinary inquiry wove “strong threads of connection: a web of children, Elders, plants, landscape and the stories that bind them together. These stories provide a path for our children to the future. A path that remembers and in the remembering, renews” (personal communication, Kainai elder). This study, along with the teacher’s plans, can be found at www.galileo.org/plants/kainai/ (Friesen, Jardine and Gladstone 2010).

A teacher in a high school in southern Alberta used a local issue—sustainable agricultural practices—as the framework for a rich and complex topic. He had his students work alongside experts in soil sciences, meteorology, climatology, hydrology, energy, botany, biology and mathematics to gain a deep understanding of their immediate community. Students learned also about the ways in which each discipline contributes to building skills, knowledge, attitudes and values while they delved into a complex and system-level problem.

Many teachers in Alberta will welcome a shift to a competency-based curriculum. Many have already exchanged designs, assessments and exemplars of student work with their colleagues. The examples highlighted in this article should dispel the myth that a context-focused, competency-based curriculum is void of content. Teachers know that immersing students deeply in a competency-based curriculum can’t be a token gesture added on to an already overcrowded prescriptive curriculum. However, many teachers also recognize the richly productive, integrative, holistic ground for learning that competencies provide in creating future-focused curriculum innovation.


Brewerton, M. 2004. “Reframing the Essential Skills: Implications of the OECD Defining and Selecting Key Competencies Project.” An unpublished background paper for the Ministry of Education. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Friesen, S., D. Jardine and B. Gladstone. 2010. “The First Thunder Clap of Spring: An Invitation into Aboriginal Ways of Knowing and the Creative Possibilities of Digital Technologies.” In Teacher Education Yearbook XVIII: Cultivating Curious and Creative Minds: The Role of Teachers and Teacher Educators, ed. C. Craig and L. Deretchin. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Education.

Gadamer, H. G. 1989. Truth and Method. New York: Continuum Books.

Gilbert, J. 2005. Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the Future of Education. Wellington, NZ: NZCER Press.


Sharon Friesen is the vice-dean and the associate dean of graduate programs in the Faculty of Education, University of Calgary.

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