An alternative conception of Competence – including case study


The language of this area is confusing – but the political and educational differences between competence and competency are profound.

Competence is a generic term referring to a person’s overall capacity while competency refers to specific capabilities. These competencies are made up of the attributes of knowledge, skills and attitudes. As such, one can refer to both how competent an individual is overall and their level of competency in one specific area. One can also assert that overall competence is dependent upon the level of every specific competency and it is these two levels of analysis that are important for comprehensive measurement. It is therefore important to be able to identify and measure the relevant competencies that contribute to overall competence, and that each specific competency is measured by a set of valid and reliable items representing the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities. (Clinton, Murrells and Robinson, 2004)

Inference of competence

Neither attributes (e.g., knowledge, skills and attitudes) nor performance are the same as competence. They are the means by which competence can be inferred.

In developing performance-oriented Standards, professions aim to identify the aspects of performance in the workplace that provide the best means to infer professional competence. An integrated approach to the development of Standards that includes a comprehensive consideration of the important attributes that underlie competent performance in the actual workplace, as well as the performance itself, is the most fruitful.

For instance, it is widely recognised that an ability to perform a series of routine
tasks in isolation does not represent professional competence adequately, no
matter how well the tasks are performed or how important they are to the work of
the profession.

The ability to judge whether such tasks should or should not be undertaken is an equally important part of professional competence in the workplace that should be recognised in Standards.

On the other hand, competent performance in certain routine professional
activities will be absolutely essential to delivery of an appropriate level of
performance to the community.

A balance between these aspects of performance must be struck according to the needs of the professions, the community and the registering authorities.

Guided reading:

Extract from: Christine Velde (1999) An alternative conception of competence: implications for vocational education, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 51:3, 437-447

Narrow technical skills

The Australian Vocational Education and Training System, which adopts the behaviourist, generic and integrated approach, which typically perceives competence in terms of attributes, not only tends to produce narrow technical skills, but also ignores the worker’s meaningful experience of practice (Dall’Alba & Sandberg, 1996).

An Alternative Conception of Competence: an interpretative-relational perspective Sandberg’s (1994) intentional view of competence represents a new way of looking at competence where the individual’s dynamic conception of the work, and his/her relationship to it is recognised.

The intentional character

Phenomenographic approaches, (i.e., a qualitative research methodology, within the interpretivist paradigm – described in previous Posts – that investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something), have been used to uncover intentional dimensions of learners by studying their conceptions of the world around them (Sandberg, 1994).

Phenomenography can be enriched through phenomenological principles (i.e, the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view – the central structure of an experience is its intentionality, being directed toward something) and concepts about human experience. Such a perspective of competence does not appear to be well researched in the literature.

From a phenomenological viewpoint, human beings have access to their reality only through the intentional character of consciousness and, as such, is always directed towards something other than itself. As Sandberg (1994, p. 54) explains – ‘the intentional character … is not only the basic condition for our access to reality, but also for how meaning can appear without our lived experience of reality’. Thus, ‘ … each attribute used by the workers in accomplishing their work is based on a particular meaning which is intentionally constituted through their experience of the work’ (Sandberg, 1994, p. 55).

Human competence

The interpretative approach to human competence reacts against the cognitive approaches which assert that workers’ conception of work result from an inner representation of an external work. Instead, advocates of interpretative approaches argue that when workers conceive their work, they are actively involved in making sense of it (Sandberg, 1994).

‘Placing lived experience at the centre overcomes the most fundamental limitation of traditional approaches in which this experience is nullified’ (Dall’Alba & Sandberg, 1996, p. 5).

These authors argue for an alternative view which enables students to develop competence through the experience of vocational learning and practice.

Competence through the experience of vocational learning and practice

This view of competence development is ultimately suited to vocational education practice because it is conducted through engaging in practice in the workplace. From this view, Dall’Alba & Sandberg (1996, p. 13) propose principles for professional education, which can also be applied to vocational education in a practical sense, that is:

1. Structuring and shaping the educational program refers to taking the point of departure in students’ experience of vocational practice as a principal around which an educational program can be structured.

2. Sense of skilled practice as a whole. Students need to develop a sense of what vocational practice involves from the beginning and throughout their studies. Ways of regarding practice must also be questioned. Dall’Alba & Sandberg (1996, p. 15) assert that critical reflection by students about the relationship between education and practice is essential to effective educational programs.

3. Significance of parts in the whole. Students need to learn about the sense of vocational theory and practice as a whole, and about the place and significance of parts in the whole.

4. Experience of essential aspects of practice. Students must gain experience themselves, whilst engaged in vocational practice, and not just observe an experienced practitioner.

5. Integrated knowing-doing. Emphasis must be placed on developing an integrated knowing-doing, because engaging in vocational practice and reflecting on it are central aspects of competence development.

6. Suitability of methods. Part-whole relationships imply that no one set of procedures for educating are equally applicable to all educational programmes. It is necessary to provide students with experience in the desired way of experiencing practice in a range of situations.

7. Assessment and other feedback. The impact of assessment on student learning has been demonstrated as substantial. Assessment must therefore focus on the essential aspects of practice. In competency-based training, assessment tends to highlight the readily measurable, over-emphasising detail, rather than promoting the essential aspects of competence. ‘In this way, practice is trivialised through assessment which fails to support competence development (Dall’Alba & Sandberg, 1996, p. 15). Learning about vocational practice must be kept in focus.

8. Outsiders versus less experienced colleagues. Critical to the success of students achieving in vocational practice is the extent to which they are maintained as outsiders on the margin of the ‘trade’, as opposed to being regarded as less experienced ‘tradespersons’. If students are to learn competent vocational practice, they must be able to fully engage in work practices, depending also on their experience. Hence, the responsibility for success of the teaching-learning situation in relation to vocational education, rests with teachers, students and employers.

Case study

Using such an interpretative approach to human competence, Gerber & Velde (1996, p. 9) demonstrated in their Australian study of 52 administrators and clerical-administrative workers located in business colleges, that competence for clerical-administrative workers was a multi-faceted and holistic concept. A phenomenographic method was used which sought answers to questions about the respondents’ experience of clerical-administrative practice and the associated meaning that the work had for them.

The authors recommended a more enlightened and holistic view of competence which offered ‘a powerful alternative to consider when seeking to clarify the nature of this concept [competence] in workplace performance …’. One needs also to aim for a fuller understanding of competence which is suited to times of change and uncertainty, and to understand the variations in competence

The Conception of Competence

Competency-based training has been mostly implemented without sufficient debate, analysis and critique (Harris et al, 1995) in many forms, situations and countries. It has been and is currently being perceived as one answer – some would argue the right answer and some would argue the wrong answer – to the complexities and difficulties of reform in education and training.

The integration of an interpretative approach to competence, which includes the individual’s dynamic conception of the work and his/her relationship to it, with a ‘relational’ model, which acknowledges the embedding of competence in both context and work relationships has the capacity to enhance workplace learning and to enrich practice.

The conception of competence that one holds and ultimately interprets in workplace practice is vital, because it can either limit learning through a focus on discrete tasks, or extend learning through a more holistic relational and interpretative approach.

An interpretative-relational approach to the development of competence includes all elements of a workplace environment, that impact on learning, i.e. the individual, the context, the different variations in competence and workplace relationships.

Such an approach is analogous to learning theory which now emphasises that ‘… in a situation approach to learning, the authenticity of activity and circumstances assists the development of knowledge and its transfer’ (Billet, 1995, p. 21).

A interpretative-relational conception of competence can also facilitate the notion of work as a ‘vehicle for the creation of self-hood and of forming and transforming the world’ (Kovacs, cited in Gonczi, 1997, p. 86). Such a view then ensures that the meaning of the work for the student or worker, as he or she engages in vocational learning and practice, is ultimately where it ought to be, at the centre stage!


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