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Open Education: The Nature of Competence

January 12th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Last week I wrote about Framing Curricula for Open Education.  In the past few years it has become common to describe curricula in terms of outcomes, rather than the more traditional learning objectives. On the face if it, this makes sense. Whilst learning objectives might be said to describe the teaching and learning environment from the viewpoint of a teacher, outcomes describe what a student or leaner can achieve following a programme.

However the definition of learning outcomes is problematic and contested. Yo a certain extent this reflects different ideas about teh purpose and intent of education, but just as in the debate over Open education, it masks ideological differences.

The European Commission has devoted much work to the development of the European Qualification Framework, designed to allow comparability of qualifications (and thus mobility). The EQF is based on qualifications described in terms of learning outcomes.

The EQF definition of competence is “the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development … described in terms of responsibility and autonomy.”  (European Commission, 2006)

Skills ‘means the ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve problems’ (ibid.). A distinction is made between cognitive and practical skills.

Knowledge ‘means the outcome of the assimilation of information through learning. Knowledge is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of study or work’ (ibid.). In the EQF, knowledge is described as theoretical and/or factual.

This distinction between knowledge and skills is problematic and stems primarily through an Anglo Saxon understanding of competence as being functional. As Sandra Bohlinger explains, in the German speaking countries competence is more commonly seen as “action-related ability, while most authors agree that whereas qualifications define position, competence is a matter of disposition (Arnold, 1997, p. 269ff.; Erpenbeck and Heyse, 1996, p. 36), while the concept of competence also embraces individual aspects of personality that are directed towards (vocational) utility. In this connection, the main aim of the development of competence is the ‘formation of personality structures with a view to coping with the requirements of change within the process of transformation and the further evolution of economic and social life.’

Such a description of competence is more akin to Richard Hill‘s framing of curricula in my article of last week in which he talks of the need to develop “a curriculum that enables individuals-in-communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, to prepare for solutions to problems, to respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations”.

Sebastion Fielder has also addressed this issue in work undertaken for the iCamp project.

“Like the more traditional concept of ability, competence conceptualizations are generally referring to an individual’s potentiality for action in a range of challenging situations. It is thus a concept that foremost indicates a precondition for future problem solving and coping (including the use of adequate tools) in a particular area of action.

The more elaborated contemporary conceptualizations of competence are best understood as a programmatic attempt to expand older notions of what constitutes the necessary dispositions for successful problem solving and coping in a given area of action. In general what used to be emphasized was the role of well trained, standardized, and largely automated procedural skills and of factual knowledge for successful problem solving and coping. Now, this emphasis is increasingly coming under scrutiny, since situational challenges in many work and life contexts cannot be mastered by applying routine procedural skills and knowledge anymore. Instead, the changing conditions for life and work produce situations that can be described as dynamic, complex, open-ended, and ambiguous, and that regularly require novel, creative and sometimes surprising solutions. This is where the old notion of qualification that is based on requirements analysis oriented in the past and on the acquisition and performance of standardized procedural skills and factual knowledge clearly shows its limits.

Erpenbeck and Heyse (1999) thus emphasize, for example, the importance of internalized orientations, values and attitudes for coping with dynamic, open-ended and complex problem situations where actors cannot exclusively rely on a stock of factual knowledge and procedural skills previously acquired. They argue that factual knowledge and procedural skills can only be viewed as necessary but not as sufficient for the execution of successful (“competent”) action in many areas of human activity. They propose to conceptualize competence as a set of (interrelated) dispositions for the execution of self-organizing action in a particular area of challenge. This broad set of dispositions entails 1) factual knowledge and procedural skills previously acquired, 2) internalized orientations, values and attitudes, understood as “order parameters” (see for example Haken, 2004, on Synergetics) for self-organizing action that requires continuous decision making under (cognitive) uncertainty, and 3) volitional aspects (notions of volition, motivation, drive, etc.) that are understood as the ability to activate and realize the other personal assets.”

In many ways this fits in with Vykotsky’s ideas of Learning through Zones of Proximal Development. Vygotsky said that people must be able to use words and other artefacts in ways that extend beyond their current understanding of them, thereby coordinating with possible future forms of action. “If we ask what makes such intermental functioning possible, we must certainly speak about issues such as context, the existing level of intramental functioning, and so forth. However, there is an essential sense in which intermental functioning and the benefits it offers a tutee in the zone of proximal development would not be available if one could not perform, or at least participate in performances, that go beyond one’s current level of competence. In this sense, social interaction is not a direct, transparent, or unmediated process. Instead, it takes place in an artefact-saturated medium, including language, and this is a point that Vygotsky took into account in a thoroughgoing manner” (Cole and Wertsch, 1996).

This debate over the nature of competence is a further key aspect of developing an expansive idea of Open Education.

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3 Responses to “Open Education: The Nature of Competence”

  1. jen hughes says:

    Only skimmed this so fuller reply at later date – but just for reference, you say in your first paragraph that “Whilst learning objectives might be said to describe the teaching and learning environment from the viewpoint of a teacher, outcomes describe what a student or leaner can achieve following a programme.”.

    Now the whole reason why learning objectives were introduced into teaching and training in the first place (way back in the early 70’s) was precisely because learning objectives are always written from the perspective of the LEARNER, not from the viewpoint of the teacher as you claim. This was a bit revolutionary in those days! The whole point about learning objectives is that they describe precisely what the student or learner will be able to achieve following a programme.

    Moreover, learning objectives do NOT describe the ‘learning environment’ from anyone’s perspective – they describe the learning.

    Learning objectives have several advantages over competences
    1) they can be used prospectively as a learning planning tool not just as a retrospective assessment rubric
    2) they can be used to specify vital elements of the learning process as well as the learning products, which can be an important part of sequencing and scaffolding learning
    3) levels of granularity are easier to manage – enabling objectives are easier to deal with than ‘enabling competences’
    4) they provide an intelligent way of dealing with affective and cognitive achievement (ie the acquisition of values and attitudes and knowledge whereas, as you suggest, competences are problematic here
    5) they are timebound and testable and the assessment methods can be built into the learning objective if you wish

    Traditionally, it’s the ‘Aims’ which are written from the perspective of the teacher and set out what the teacher is intending to do.

    One of my aims on the teacher training courses was to get students to understand and use learning objectives as an effective way of planning and assessing their teaching. One of the objectives would have been something like “At the end of the course, students will be able to: explain what a learning objective is and how and why they are used”.

    Given that you were one of those students, I obviously failed : (

    More later.


  1. Sobre competencias, interesante visi

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