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Competencies or capabilities: What’s in a name?

Rosemary Hipkins
Journal issue: 

Competencies or capabilities

What’s in a name?


At the time of writing this commentary, new resources funded by the Ministry of Education to support science teaching from Years 1 to 10 have just been released.1 These resources show teachers some practical ways to integrate the Nature of Science (NOS) strand into their teaching and learning programmes, and to do this in ways that allow the intent of the strand to be realised in practice. These resources have been developed by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) science education team.2 We decided to call them Science Capabilities resources. We consulted various colleagues as we developed them and a common first reaction was to ask why we used the word capability when our curriculum includes key competencies. This is a really good question, and I’d like to unpack it here.

First, the OECD was clear when they developed the idea of key competencies that each one is a complex constellation of context-specific aspects (OECD, 2005). Using a different word to denote the outplaying of key competencies in different contexts draws attention to these many dimensions—it cautions against seeing a key competency as a specific and unitary type of “thing” that students do or don’t have. This practical reason for differentiating is important, but it’s also only a surface-level beginning place. I see a number of reasons for making the distinction, as I’ll now outline.


Using language, symbols, and texts

Managing self

Relating to others

Participating and contributing


The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) (NZC) positions key competencies (Figure 1) as “capabilities for living and lifelong learning” (NZC, p. 12). In my experience, many people have not noticed this simple but important definition of what key competencies add to the curriculum. This definition can be found in the title box on the key competencies page. It’s easy to overlook when the eye is drawn straight to the substance of the text. It’s an important definition, because framing the key competencies this way directs our attention to what students can do now and also what they might do in their futures (i.e., what they might be capable of). This future-focused sensibility matters. The word competency can be understood as something we already have or might be aiming to gain. It is an arrival point rather than a journey, and it describes a personal possession. By contrast, capability has a more open sense of ongoing possibilities. To use the same travel metaphor, it is a journey rather than a destination. This difference is subtle, but I think it can influence our thinking about what we should do in response to the inclusion of key competencies in NZC.

Capabilities are more than personality traits

Our research of curriculum implementation points to the possibility that key competencies can be understood (and assessed by others) as if they are personality traits—qualities that students already possess and hence bring to their learning. This positions key competencies as the responsibility of the student not the teacher. There is, of course, an element of truth in this position. Some students will come to their learning with better developed capabilities than others—or at least with capabilities that are a better match to the learning conditions of school classrooms. However, what is missing in a “personality trait” interpretation is the idea that strengthening and stretching of capabilities can be supported by the provision of appropriate opportunities to learn. Capability development can be a collective enterprise (a shared journey) given the appropriate learning conditions. All students have the potential to become more capable when teachers support them to use and stretch their existing capabilities. The context in which learning takes place needs to enable students to do the sorts of things that could stretch their capabilities. Teachers need to bring their deep expertise to bear when setting up enabling learning possibilities.

Many dimensions of the learning context have the potential to enable or hinder students’ willingness to meet learning challenges in ways that stretch and strengthen their capabilities. The initial stage of a recent Key Competencies and Effective Pedagogy project3 synthesised previous key competencies research to arrive at three fundamental pedagogical conditions that the teacher must orchestrate if students are to stretch their current capabilities:

space for students to take the initiative in their learning

sufficient challenge to stretch and enlarge on their current capabilities

rich connections are established between the intended learning and students’ lives.

Of course, the reasons for which these learning conditions are created also matter. This brings us to another important reason for adopting a capabilities framing for key competencies.

The purposes envisaged for learning matter

If we accept NZC’s message that key competencies should develop as sets of “capabilities for living and lifelong learning” it follows that careful thought needs to be given to how that development might happen. What part does day-to-day learning play in developing and stretching specific types of capabilities that will help students do meaningful things with their learning—now and in their futures? “Joining the dots” between today’s learning and future demonstrations of capability is a big ask. We can’t know what students’ futures hold. But broad predictions are possible and indeed are signalled by NZC. For example, the rationale for including science in the overall curriculum directs attention to some very important capability-building challenges:

In science, students explore how both the natural physical world and science itself work so that they can participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role. (NZC, p. 17, emphasis added)

Here it is implied that learning in science should prioritise a deliberate focus on developing students’ citizenship capabilities. The Science Capabilities resources we have developed show how this might be achieved by creating more focused combinations of learning outcomes from both the Nature of Science integrating strand and the content strands of NZC. We have created five foundational science capabilities to show how these links between present and future uses of learning might be more deliberately fostered. These science capabilities are given in Figure 2.

Gather and interpret information.

Use evidence to support ideas.

Critique evidence.

Make meaning of scientific representations.

Engage with science.


The science capabilities are things students need to show they can do and they will be strengthened with practice. Students will need multiple experiences of adapting their capabilities for use in new contexts. They will also need to see themselves as capable. The implication is that there are identity dimensions to capability development.

Reflecting on the “how” and “why” of learning

Capabilities such as those described in the new science resources are more likely to be developed if appropriate opportunities for deliberate and focused reflection accompany the learning. Expansive and future-focused purposes need to be made evident to students. They need to know why the action focus of the learning is important. They are more likely to want to make the necessary effort if the purpose the teacher envisages is meaningful for them. This comment draws attention to the importance of fostering dispositions for learning. Ultimately, a student will strengthen aspects of capability where they see good reasons to invest the necessary effort. A particular challenge here is that views about purposes for learning are often held tacitly rather than explicitly articulated. This is especially the case when tacit views are strongly assessment-driven (i.e., learning is necessary to pass assessments), which in turn are needed to get to the next stage of learning. A capabilities focus challenges such thinking when it positions evidence of learning (i.e., intended outcomes) within an action framing, as opposed to a recounting of knowledge via paper-and-pen assessment events.

Reflective dimensions are integral to assessments of capability, especially self-assessment. Many people can do things in familiar contexts that they cannot adapt and use in less-familiar conditions (i.e., they act intuitively on the basis of established routines and experiences). Ideally, learners will be well supported to think more explicitly about the knowledge and skills required to achieve new challenges. Then they can match these requirements to their own current abilities. In this way, they will learn how to stretch their own capabilities. From a capabilities perspective, arguably, it is not necessary for students to be totally successful in fully achieving the actions intended, provided that they can demonstrate that they have added new dimensions to their capabilities, learned from the experience, and can articulate next learning challenges.

None of this implies that traditional subject learning no longer matters, as some critics of NZC have suggested. It’s important to emphasise that capability development is not achieved at the expense of traditional curriculum learning, but rather enables and enhances this. In all likelihood, capability-stretching learning will be more engaging for students. We should expect this type of learning to make a positive contribution to students’ overall achievement right now, while also supporting them to be more capable in their unfolding futures.

In conclusion

How we talk about ideas matters. So does their history and hence the “baggage” they bring with them. There is much more that could be said about the different antecedents of competencies and capabilities, but that discussion is worthy of a paper in its own right. In this commentary I have tried to keep to a practical focus on curriculum decision-making, arguing that future-focused ideas of capability building could be a helpful starting place for rethinking many aspects of current practice with regards to the key competencies. However I also think that teachers will need to see many and varied examples of what capability-building can look like in practice. We’ve made a start in the Science Capabilities project, and hope others will be sufficiently inspired to follow suit.


Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.

OECD. (2005). The definition and selection of key competencies: Executive summary. Retrieved from


1These resources can be found on the Science Community area of TKI:

2Members of NZCER’s science education team are Ally Bull, Chris Joyce, Lorraine Spiller, and me.

3For further information about this project go to

ROSEMARY HIPKINS is a chief researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.