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Learning pathways and the European Qualification Framework: can the two go together

February 16th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last week I took part in a fairly impassioned Flash meeting debate about the use of the European Qualification Framework for the training of teachers and trainers. Opinions varied greatly between those who saw the EQF as a useful tool for promoting new qualifications for teachers and trainers to those who saw it as a barrier in this field.

Firstly, for non European readers, it may be useful to recapitulate what the EF is all about. The European Qualifications Framework (EQF), says the European Commission,  “acts as a translation device to make national qualifications more readable across Europe, promoting workers’ and learners’ mobility between countries and facilitating their lifelong learning.” The primary users of the EQF are seen as being bodies in charge of national and/or sectoral qualification
systems and frameworks. The idea is that once they have related their respective systems to the EQF, the EQF will help individuals, employers and education and training providers compare individual qualifications from different countries and education and training systems.

To achieve this the European Commission has designed a framework of eight different levels. Each of the 8 levels is defined by a set of descriptors indicating the learning outcomes expressed as knowledge, skills and outcomes relevant to qualifications at that level.

The problem is that it doesn’t work. For the moment I will ignore the more epistemological issues related to the definition of knowledge kills and competences. The biggest problem for me relates to levels. The Framework has mixed a series of different indicators to derive the levels. Some of the indicators are based on academic attainment. For instance the descriptor for knowledge at Level 8 states (can) “demonstrate substantial authority, innovation, autonomy, scholarly
and professional integrity and sustained commitment to the development of new ideas or processes at the forefront of work or study contexts including research.” Some are based on levels of responsibility and autonomy in work roles.  Level 4 talks of the ability to “supervise the routine work of others, taking some responsibility for the evaluation and improvement of work or study activities.” Others are based the complexity of the work being undertaken. Level four skills says: :advanced skills, demonstrating mastery and innovation, required to solve complex and unpredictable
problems in a specialised field of work or study.” Yet others are based on quite abstract ideas of knowledge. Level six knowledge comprises of “advanced knowledge of a field of work or study, involving a critical understanding of theories and principles.”

One of the biggest problems is the framework attempts to bring together applied knowledge and skills within a work process, work roles as expressed by responsibility and knowledge as expressed through academic achievement. And of course it is impossible to equate these, still less to derive a hierarchical table of progression and value. It is easy to pick holes: why for instance is “exercise management and supervision in contexts of work or study activities where there is unpredictable change” level 5, whilst having a “critical awareness of knowledge issues in a field and at the interface between different fields.”

There would appear to be a serie sof unspoken and implicit value judgements related both to the value of academic versus vocational and applied learning and to different roles within the workplace. There also seems to be an attempt to deal with work organisation with teamwork being written in as a high level function. Of course it maybe, but then again in particualr contexts teamwortk may not be so important. In some jobs, the ability for autonomous work may be important, in others not so. And how can we translate between such abilities, competences or whatever they are called and qualifications.

I do not think it is possible to design such a frameworks, nor do I think that levels are a useful concept, especially given the hierarchical structures of this and other similar frameworks. Why should one particular competence or skill be valued over another. Even more important is the idea of hierarchical progression. Lest this be thought to be merely an academic question, the UK government has already withdrawn funding support for those wishing to progress from one qualification to another at the same EQF related level.

one of teh aims of the Frameowrk is to promote Lifelong Learning. But an individual may not wish ot advance their learning in the social forms envisaged by the Framework. There is an assumption for instance that a teacher or trainer will progress towards being a manager, as represented in the higer levels within the EQF. But many teachers and trainers that I have talked to actually want to improve their practice as tecahers or trainers. Or they many wish to move ‘sideways’ – to learn more about working with particular groups or to undertake work as a counsellor for instance. The implicit progression routes inherent in the Frameowkr do not necessarily represent the way we work and learn. far better nore me is the idea of Learning Pathways. Learning pathways can represent a progression in our learning based on the context of our life and our work and based on individual interest and motivation. Our Learning Pathway may at times go upwards, downwards or sideways in the table of skills, competnces and knowledge as representd in the Framework. Such an idea of Learning Pathways is contiguous with the idea of Perosnal Learning Environments and of teh idea of more self directed learning. Of course it is useful to have a framework to assist in selecting progression routes and for counselling, guidance and support. But lets abolish the taxonomy of levels and start representing learning opportunties as what they are, rather than a somewhat oddly derived taxonomy trying to make things fit neatly which do not and embodying implict social values.

2 Responses to “Learning pathways and the European Qualification Framework: can the two go together”

  1. Andreas says:

    I am not so sure that learning paths represent a useful alternative for a translation system such as the EQF. Essentially, the concept is (for now) incompatible with formal education, and in particular how from primary to tertiary education, achievement is currently assessed and valued. Not that I am favour of their approach, but…

    I totally see your point in how useless the EQF often is for many patterns of learning, and also many motivations for learning. The problem with the levels from my point of view, though, is mostly their hierarchical connotation. The possibility that someone wants to learn to get better at their job – and not to fall for the Peter Principle and aim for the next higher job – is something that the fathers and mothers of the European Qualification Framework could apparently not imagine.

    (Which does not surprise me though, seeing the EQF in its political context of employability, competitiveness and all this economical bubble-talk of the European Union’s Lisbon strategy to make it “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world” …)

    When it comes to the conceptual and epistemological contradictions of the eight levels, I don’t find that too problematic at the moment. There is in any case no agreed definition of the terminology – knowledge, skills, competence – that cuts across fields and holds true in every context. So at its beginning, a model like the EQF could only be an inconsistent mixture.

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