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Reframing the Essentials Skills:

Implications for and from the Science Curriculum

A commissioned research report for the Ministry of Education,

Wellington, New Zealand, July 2004

Miles Barker, Rosemary Hipkins and Rex Bartholomew


Our Ministry of Education is currently taking stock (Ministry of Education, 2002) of its Curriculum Framework, which has served New Zealand since 1993. One element of the Curriculum Framework which is under review is the eight Essential Skills (Ministry of Education, 1993a, p.5) namely: communication skills; numeracy skills; information skills; problem-solving skills; self-management and competitive skills; social and co-operative skills; physical skills; and work and study skills. A proposal exists (Brewerton, 2004) to replace these, in any revision of the Framework, with a number of Essential Competencies. Proposed competencies, if accepted, would need to provide a suitable platform for education in each of the seven Essential Learning Areas (technology, social sciences, etc.) that a new Curriculum Framework would subsume. Conversely, each Essential Learning Area should have the capacity to contribute to the competencies listed in the Framework.

This paper considers how well the catalogue of essential competencies critiqued by Brewerton (the so-called ‘DeSeCo’ competencies, see below) might resonate with appropriate science competencies in any future revision of Science in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1993b).

The ‘DeSeCo’ Essential Competencies – Commentaries and Adaptations

Our task was framed in the context of a number of existing formulations of competencies, most foundational of which was the ‘DeSeCo’ Essential Competencies. As presented by Brewerton (Figure 1), these were an outcome of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ‘Defining and Selecting Key Competencies’ project (DeSeCo). In adapting them for the New Zealand context, Brewerton (2004) suggested (Figure 2) some hierarchical modifications to the cross-cutting group of competencies, but left the other three groups of competencies substantially unaltered. Specifically (and significantly for us), Brewerton advocated subsuming the whole cross-cutting group under the heading ‘Thinking’. This was intended “to make the nature of this group of competencies … the only one to have no title … more easily understood” (page 42).

A subsequent Ministry of Education briefing paper (Ministry of Education, 2004) also considered the ‘DeSeCo’ essential competencies. It proposed five, rather than four, so-called clusters of competencies, with titles as follows:

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