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Competence approach to curriculum – reform of the Latvian education system

Sandra Užule - Fons
Ewa Wojciechowska

Preparing changes in curriculum has been one of the key missions pursued by Latvia for the last few years. New teaching standards have been developed for several subjects. These changes are aimed at integrating teaching of a given subject with gaining basic practical competencies, instead of previously applied overloading of students with factographic contents. This task was assigned to the National Education Centre (Valsts izglītības satura centrs, VISC) within the “Competence Approach to Curriculum” project, abbreviated as “School 2030” (Skola2030). The project, applicable to all the levels of compulsory schooling and pre-schooling, was initiated in October 2016 and its implementation will continue until December 2023.

It should be explained here how the authors of the ”Competence Approach to Curriculum” program understand the title notion of their project. By competencies they mean the ability of an individual for comprehensive application of one’s knowledge and skills, as well as expressing attitudes and solving problems in changing life situations. Curriculum changes and the progress towards modern primary education were initiated in 2006, when for the first time the idea of transversal skills for children and adolescents in education was emphasized. The notion of “transversal skills” in the context of school education relates to competencies learnt and reinforced in the course of the education process and readily transferable into another environment (e.g., job, school, private life). Some of transversal competencies are intrinsic, while other ones can be learnt. The differences between these skills can be illustrated, e.g., by empathy, moral aesthetic aspects, as well as communication and cooperation. Many schools implemented learning such skills even before the “School 2030” reform. 

The idea of embedding the teaching contents in pragmatic aspects of everyday life was followed by including into the project learning of transversal competencies and values and relating them to particular areas of human life. The standards specify 7 education areas corresponding with the main areas of human life activity.  A child, while developing, starts to talk (linguistic area) and gradually becomes aware of coexistence with other people (social area). Then the child learns such skills as drawing or painting – which means the first contact with the fine arts. The child learns the surroundings, the nature, various types of materials (sciences). Then the child learns numbers (mathematics), gets aware of peoples’ daily needs, and looks for their solutions (technology area). Moreover, the area of sports and health has been recognized as a needed area for implementing activities in all the remaining areas.

The above-mentioned areas are determined in a natural way by human development, and they are interlinked. Their functionality is reinforced by means of transversal skills. Transversal skills include, for example: critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and entrepreneurship, self-learning, cooperation, civic participation, and digital skills. Transversal competencies should be developed in the context of all the above-mentioned school subjects.

As published on the “School 2030” website, the expected outcome of improved curriculum should generate „an educated student who is willing and able to practice lifelong learning, who can cope with everyday  challenges, create innovations, develop particular character traits that later are likely to develop a happy and responsible personality”. As a result of switching to the competence approach the following changes have been introduced into primary school subjects:

  • earlier introduction of a second foreign language – previously a second foreign language was added starting from grade 6, currently from grade 4;
  • the history of Latvia and the world history combined in one subject, taught starting from grade 7; 
  • reinforcing the role of learning the Latvian language in the curriculum for national minority schools ;
  • creating a new subject of “Drama”, integrating it with other art forms (literature, visual arts, music); 
  • creating a new subject of “Design and Technology” instead of domestic science;
  • creating a new subject of “Engineering” for students of grades 7-9;
  • introducing the subject of “Computer Science” for grades 1-9 (in grades 1-3 integrated with other subjects); 
  • “Sport and health” subject was introduced instead of the former subject of physical education. Sports activities currently take place 3 hours a week, and some curriculum changes have been implemented. These changes relate to more cross-disciplinary wellness perspective – i.e., by means of including both physical activity issues, as well as balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. 

Changes in the curriculum enable flexible timetable organization. The total number of hours of a subject is currently agreed in a three-year perspective, and not weekly, as it used to be. In practice this means that teachers can modify the length of a class as needed. Classes may take less than 40 minutes, or they can be organized in a form of subject clusters. Classes can be also given in an appropriate period (season of the year). For example, certain natural science topics are presented in the autumn or in the spring, where the outdoors weather conditions enable observation of the processes discussed in class. With regard to changes at the secondary school level, students can select the subjects according to their interests. This makes it possible to limit the compulsory timetable. Moreover, 30% of the teaching time includes extended courses and subjects.

Another notable change introduced within the competence approach reform relates to focusing on the values taught in the education process. A focal point concerns developing in students such features as responsibility, diligence, kindness, and courage. Moreover, it puts emphasis on learning tolerance for diversity, social justice, honesty, as well as moderation and self-control.

The curriculum changes determine also changes in  the teacher’s role. It underlines  teacher’s cooperation with other teachers on lesson planning and discussing the topics. Within this learning approach a teacher does not merely provide fractographic information with ready-made answers – it is the student who needs to find solutions and answers. Tasks proposed in lesson plans include these where a student needs to make comparisons, provide explanations, and look for examples. Such scheme of active education is referred to as deep learning, where a student develops deep and comprehensive understanding of the curriculum, and  thoroughly improves one’s skills, as well as plans and monitors the learning process development.

In class the expected outcome is clear for a student, the tasks assigned are meaningful, support is provided as well as appropriate feedback. A student is able to learn in depth, to understand the interactions and to develop the skills of applying one’s knowledge in new, unknown situations. In each class student’s competencies are developed in the social and emotional area. At present curricula include also contents related to learning transversal skills, values and attitudes enabling a student to apply the previously learnt contents. 

The above-mentioned curriculum model, including the teaching areas based on real life situations, teaching transversal skills and values, is based on the principal documents of international organizations, including the European Union, examples of international best practice, as well as earlier experience and Latvian approach to curriculum development. The authors of the “School 2030” project recognized the assumptions, included, a.o,. in the “Recommendation on EU education”, focusing on eight key competencies and on the competencies for lifelong learning. They based the approach also on the contents of the “Classification of Transversal Skills OECD DeSeCo”, the Report of the National Research Council of the US Academy of Sciences on the frequently used categories of skills of the 21st century, as well as the transversal skills framework of the “New pedagogies for deep learning” global education project. One of the substantive sources referred to by the authors included also the concept developed in 1998 for the National Standard of Primary Education by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Latvia.

This model is based on the assumptions developed by the European Union concerning lifelong learning competencies and cross-curricular competencies.  Learning and digital technology competencies are included in the new model as transversal skills, rather than as core skills – which emphasizes their collective nature.  The main difference between teaching isolated contents and deep learning with competence approach refers to the fact that during problem solving a student applies the above-mentioned transversal competencies to larger extent. Thus, a student needs to know which formula should be applied to a particular problem,  to identify and define the problem, to choose the optimal solution, to apply the selected solution in a new, unknown situation, to assess the significance of the problem solution and of one’s motivation, to find additional resources needed for solving the problem, to share the situation with the team, to cooperate on a team  as needed, etc.  Transversal competencies become then the student’s tool facilitating deeper cognitive process of the curriculum. 

Changes of the teaching contents and the approach to primary education aimed and its modernization have been published in the National Standard of Primary Education approved by the Government of the Republic of Latvia on November 27, 2018. The need for competence development is justified also in the documents of Latvia development planning – the Sustainable Development Strategy of Latvia until 2030 (LIAS) and the National Development Plan 2014-2020 (NPR). Both documents emphasize the changing character of modern life, as well as the significance of competencies. According to LIAS 2030 education needs to be of high quality, lifelong and creativity oriented, it should face the challenges of global competition and demography and by one of the prerequisites for changing the economy model. NPR 2014-2020 incorporates the “Competence Development” direction of actions, where it is stated that a human being needs diverse competencies to be able to get a decent job and to work and care for oneself and one’s family, as well as to contribute to the national development. This document emphasizes the significance of lifelong competence development and improvement, considering contemporary changing conditions of life and work, as well as the difficulty of foreseeing future needs. In the most recent publications, such as the Guidelines of the Ministry of Education and Science on Education Development for the years 2021-2027 entitled “Future skills for future society” introduction of the competence approach has been recognized as one of significant changes in education.

The improved curriculum and approach to general education are implemented gradually:

  • Pre-schools– year 2019
  • Grades 1, 4, 7, and 10 – from September 1, 2020
  • Grades 2, 5, 8, and 11 – from September 1, 20222021
  • Grades 3, 6, 9, and 12 – from September 1, 2022.

The reform in question was created by education specialists from Latvia, with support of 300 pedagogues, teachers, and academic experts. More than 2000 professionally active teachers participated in the curriculum development and approval process, as well as in  various seminars. The program has been tested in 100 pilot schools. It should be noted that for the first time in Latvia  the contents of the general education curricula and the competence approach have been verified within one system, and consecutively at each education level of children and adolescents – from pre-school to secondary school graduation. Due to the fact that the “School 2030” project is a relatively new idea concerning a practical view on education development, and its implementation is still in progress – at this point it is difficult to discuss the expected outcomes of this program. Thus, course of events should be followed further, as changes in Latvian education can provide significant inspiration for education models existing in other countries.

  • https://skola2030.lv/lv/macibu-saturs/macibu-satura-pilnveide/merkis-lietpratiba
  • https://wspolna-szkola.pcss.pl/kompetencje-przekrojowe-integralne-ujecie-kompetencji-uczniowskich/
  • Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competencies for lifelong learning (2006/962/EC). Official Journal of the European Union, L394/10, 30.12.2006. Source: http:// eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2006:394:0010:0018:EN:PDF
  • OECD. (2005). The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies. Executive summary. Source: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/35070367.pdf
  • NRC. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. In Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (eds.). Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, National Research Council (NRC). Source: http://www.nap. edu/catalog.php?record_id=13398
  • New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, (Fullan i Scott, 2014)
  • ISEC. (1998). Valsts pamatizglītības standarts. Rīga: ISEC
  • Latvijas Republikas Saeima. (2012). Latvijas Nacionālais attīstības plāns 2014.–2020. gadam. Source: http://polsis.mk.gov.lv/documents/4247

Listen to “Changes in the curriculum in Latvia – what do educators think about the new reform? (Episode 7)” by Making Sense of Education (by Holistic Think Tank).

About the authors
Sandra Užule - Fons
Holds Ph.D. in history, journalist, documentary filmmaker. Researcher and author of scientific and other publications about the Baltic States and media. Her professional career started in Warsaw in Polish Public Radio working for more than 10 years as an editor in Polish Radio External Service. She cooperates with media outlets in the implementation of media projects in Central Europe and Post-soviet countries. Currently, she is working on an alternative school project.
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Ewa Wojciechowska
Last year student of psychology, majoring in clinical psychology and neuropsychology at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University. She also studied law at the same university. Aims to deepen the respect for children's rights in school education and to adapt it to the developmental needs of children. Privately, she is interested in forensic psychology, and more specifically- in working with children who are participants in court proceedings.
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