Competency Education by Columbia Pacific University

‘Competency’ or ‘competence’ is an important term in education, but also one that is hard to define and elusive to use.  It has been widely used to specify the links between educational processes and their applications.  It is related to other terms like ‘skills’, ‘abilities’, ‘learning outcomes’, and ‘means of assessment’.

A competency (or ‘educational competence’ or ‘competency statement’) is a description of some particular skill, ability, body of data, or level of understanding of a particular subject which the student is expected to gain from some particular educational experience.  In general, a competency has the following characteristics:

(1) A competency is a verbal statement; for better or worse, the complexities and vagaries of the teaching/learning processes and educational needs have been boiled down to a definition in words.

(2) A competency represents a discrete, circumscribed ability, skill, body of data, or level of understanding of a subject.

(3) A competency is teachable/learnable (or believed to be) under accessible conditions.  Some of the conditions may be specified in the competency description—such as age or prerequisites for students.

(4) A competency is testable or provable; one way or another, it is possible to determine if and when the competency has been attained.  A competency statement is thus often linked to a ‘learning outcome’ or ‘means of assessment’ such as a test or student work product, for example, the writing of a satisfactory dissertation, qualification for a professional license, issuance of a patent, or the performance or display of a work of art.

It is also important to recognize what a competency is not:

(1) A competency is not complete.  It can never cover all the details and contingencies of a teaching/learning situation or educational need completely.  It is map or guide to some educational territory, but it is not the territory itself.  Often it is a very incomplete and sketchy map, but it may still be very useful.

(2) A competency is not immutable.  The objectives and content of a course—or of any educational experience—always shift, change, and develop as the course or experience evolves.  This is a healthy process, responding to the individuality and creativity of the teachers and learners.

(3) A competency is therefore not a sacred object or oath to be worshipped (or damned), to live or die by; it is a working tool for the educational process.

The term ‘competency’ has had a long and speckled career in educational circles.  This is reflected in the following excerpt from the introductory “Editor’s Notes” to Defining and Measuring Competence (Paul S. Pottinger and Joan Goldsmith, editors; published in San Francisco by Jossey-Bass in 1979 under CAEL sponsorship).

The concept of competence is no longer simple and intuitive.  For example, in this book competence is viewed variously as unobservable qualities of mind and character, as observable behavioral manifestations of unobservable but measurable causal variables, as a new word for old concepts, and as political jargon.  We are provided dictionary definitions, but these only form a basis on which to build a set of ideas about the nature of the concept and its implications for education assessment and certification.

The impetus for these analyses of competence is our recognition that we have become more and more remote from qualities that once had meaning and importance in education and work.  We have moved from informal systems of judgement and meaning to formal and mechanized systems; from rich and complex concepts of what is desirable performance to oversimplified and trivial concepts of quality performance; from judgment and valuations of abilities based on observed and felt outcomes to judgments and valuations based on pseudoscientific measures of processes.  Certification and licensing, for example, are not based on competence as determined by assessment of performance outcomes, but rather by proxies for these outcomes based on processes assumed to create them.  There is little evidence that these processes do create competence.

We have become fascinated with trying to limit the concept of competence (and therefore educational objectives, curriculum, and assessment) to observable and countable phenomena.  The recognition of competence exclusively by intuition has been replaced with recognition based solely on measurement systems.  Now, competence must be seen, heard, or actually touched—preferable by more than two people who must compare their sensations of discrete events on a rating scale, if not on a lead-sensitive scoring mechanisms.  Competence as character or virtue has given way to competence as purely instrumental and skill-oriented behavior.  Competence is not what a person is but what a person does, or worse, what a person knows.  Competence is not quality but quantity.  It is not related to underlying attributes or personal qualities but to observable actions measured against standards of performance devoid of meaning or context.  Modern education develops behavioral repertoires, rather than people, and this is reflected in current concepts and language of competence.

Once, competence was recognized by every citizen according to criteria that were comfortable for most adults to use themselves.  Today, competence seems confidently recognizable only by comparison of observable discrete behavior events with quantified objectives.  Now, we can all agree on what we see and whether our observations meet some agreed upon standard of performance.  This is all for the sake of accountability!  The result is that we often merely redefine traditional educational processes according to mechanistic trivia for the sake of measurement and agreement.  In fact, we have stopped evaluating outcomes and turned our attention to evaluating processes without reference to their end results.  We take false comfort in assuming that accountability, equity, and quality can be accurately measured in terms of the honesty of our processes rather than in terms of the products of our efforts.

There may not be total agreement about the meaning of competence, but some consensus emerges about several important aspects of the concept: that it is desirable, that it can be taught, that it can be measured, and that it is rarely the true basis of teaching, learning, assessment, accreditation, certification, or job access.

It is amusing to note the only entry under “competency” in the Dictionary of Education by Derek Rowntree (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981).  One can read between the lines of this definition and see that the term has been worn thin (a “slogan”) and is not offered with any deference or much explanation.

Competency-based teaching (US)  The slogan of a movement within teacher education whose proponents train teachers in specific skills of interacting with pupils in classrooms and who advocate that courses taken by prospective and in-service teachers should spell out very clearly the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they are expected to acquire.
With the ideas and caveats discussed above in mind, let us take a look at some specific competencies and their use in order to grasp the power of this ‘educational competency’ concept and learn to use it effectively in our self-education processes.  Most importantly, competencies serve to organize our thinking as to what needs to be done or learned.  In self-directed study, they provide carefully conceived goals.  Thus, for example, we may become aware that our independent study efforts are not going well.  They seem to be uninteresting, confusing, inefficient, or without convincing evidence of progress.  We might then step back from the study material to look at the study process, to reassess our long- and short-range goals, our study setting and schedule, our materials and methods.  We might then notice that we do not keep track of reference materials well, or organize our work space, or avoid fatigue and distractions, or that there are any number of other possible deterrents to effective study.  Any one (or more) of these study factors might be defined in terms of a personal competency that needed attention, for example:
  • learn to organize my study space (desk space) and time schedule
  • learn to have appropriate working materials available at study time
  • develop the ability to take organized, meaningful notes
  • develop skill at preparing an outline for a writing project; later writing a quick textual development around the outline; later fleshing the text out with examples, explanations, etc.; later refining and editing the text; etc.

Any of the study skills mentioned in the next section of this course could be the basis of a competency statement or goal.  In addition to competencies that deal with study skills, others might deal with specific content of a field of study (such as electrical engineering, education administration, or counseling techniques).

We should notice that competencies can be written not only for many different fields and covering many different kinds of activities, but also at different levels of complexity or abstraction.  Thus we can speak of relatively ‘low level’ competencies (that is, discrete, concrete, perhaps menial) or relatively ‘high level’ competencies (complex, harder to define, broader, or more open-ended).

Here are examples of two interesting, high-level (that is, relatively abstract) competencies which illustrate the conceptual power of working with a competency model.

(1) Adversarial thinking: It is characteristic of maturing intellectual skills that one becomes increasingly able to explore sides of an issue with which one does not agree either intuitively or in principle.  This is done by understanding the concept of adversarial thinking and practicing the skills.  For example, some student study topics and questions might well take the form, “Give [or ‘what are’] the arguments for and against such-and-such [for example, the human genome project, Darwinian evolution, creationism, the anthropic principle, at-a-distance education, cultural relativism, strip mining the moon, use of prisoners or terminally ill volunteers in health experiments, the use of gill nets in low-income housing areas, etc.].

(2) Weathering without dissolution: Weathering what?—criticism, delay, disappointment, confusion.

What is “dissolution”?—paralyzing resentment, procrastination, withdrawal.

How is it learned?—discovering and practicing certain mindsets (‘silver lining’; virtue/strength from process/practice instead of product/success; ‘all is benign/loving/forgiving in various guises’; interest vs. triumph; self-reward for perspective, patience, diligence; asking for approval/encouragement when needed; etc.).  See, for example, those proposed by Ken Keyes in his Handbook to Higher Consciousness.