Reinventing the Australian VET System: Part One – Problematic aspects of competencies

Time to Re-Invent - Clock

Guided reading extracts from: Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum and Policy Practice, Priestly and Bieta (Eds), 2013

The awkward turn towards competencies

One could argue that adequate preparation for a particular job or profession is precisely about acquiring the knowledge, skills, attitudes and wider vocational or professional habitus that makes one capable of performing a job or profession successfully.

lt is also for this reason that the turn towards competencies seems to address
one of the often·heard complaints about vocational and professional education,
which is that such education might give students knowledge and skills but
doesn’t prepare them properly for the workplace.

Problematic aspects of the turn towards competencies

But the fact that competencies are about the interface between the person and the demands of the ‘real’ world also begins to show one of the more problematic aspects of the turn towards competencies, which is the fact that “the world` never demands anything in itself, so that any demands that frame competence-based education are always the demands of particular individuals or groups based on their views about what a good or successful or desirable way of acting and being is.

Whereas this might be relatively uncontroversial in the domain of work, it becomes more problematic when the discussion is extended to other spheres of life or to life in general because in that case the formulation of competencies that individuals should acquire becomes immediately an expression of what a good, successful or desirable way of living ones life is – which in modern liberal-democratic societies is precisely seen as something that people should be free to define for themselves rather than being defined for them by others.

A spiral of specification

While a focus on competencies and capacities has the potential to address one
of the often-heard complaints about education – which is that it gives students
knowledge and skills but doesn’t prepare them for the “real’ world, which can
either be the world of work or the world of life more generally – one danger with
a focus on competencies and capacities is the production of long and detailed lists
of all the things that individuals apparently need to obtain and master in order
to perform a particular task well or to be competent at their job or profession.

… the lack of specificity of the capacities, combined with their framing as competencies, has led to … a spiral of specification (Wolf 1995), and their incorporation into a much more technicist approach than was at first apparent.

This specification can easily result in a disjointed ‘tick-box curriculum’ where teachers become too much focused on checking that all the different competencies and sub-competencies have been mastered rather than taking a more integral and integrative approach.

That this is a real danger can, for example, be seen in teacher education in
England, where teaching and assessment became strongly focused on making
sure that students had obtained all the competencies on such lists, not in the
least because the inspectors of teacher education required positive evidence from
teacher educators that each of their students had met each of the competencies

This left teacher educators with relatively little time to focus on the bigger
questions about what it means to be a good and effective teacher, and also pushed them in a direction where such questions were mainly approached in an analytical way, that is in terms of connecting the many different competencies,
rather than in terms of more holistic strategies that would, for example, start
from questions about educational purpose and the question as to what good
education and good teaching look like (see Biesta, 20I0b).

The ‘translation’ …. into the very detailed list of Experiences and Outcomes provides another example of the risk of a focus on what students should be able to do leading to a disjointed curriculum rather than an integrative one.

Does competence “translate’ into performance?

A second risk of a focus on capacities, competencies and capabilities can be articulated in terms of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions for good or effective performance. The question here is not only whether individuals who have acquired all the capacities or competencies that are needed to perform a particular task will actually be able to perform the task and this, one could say, remains always an open question because the proof of the pudding of capacities or competencies remains in the eating.

There is also the question whether good or effective performance of a task, job or profession just follows from the mastery ofall the capacities or competencies that are necessary for doing so, or whether something additional is needed, such as the ability to judge which capacities need to be utilized in which particular situation.

One can imagine, after all, that even teacher students in England who have provided evidence of having mastered all the different competencies that they are supposed to need in order to teach, may still not be good teachers if they cannot tailor their general competence to the always concrete and always unique situations in which they have to perform.

While the possession of capacities or competencies may therefore be a necessary condition for good or effective performance, it may not be a sufficient one. This problem is indeed recognized in the literature on competencies, where a clear distinction is made between competence and performance and where one of the ongoing questions is precisely about how competence “translates’ into performance (see, for example, Gilbert, l978; Dubois, 1993).

Some authors have tried to solve this problem by arguing that the ability to judge which competencies should be utilized in which situations is actually itself a competency – or, as Haste (200l) suggests, a ‘meta-competence’ (see also Deakin Crick, 2008). Others have argued that a clear distinction needs to be made between competence and judgement, where the first is about the former – that is on education as socialization or adaptation —and too little on the latter – that is on education as emancipation and subjectification.

Formation of the person rather than on just the acquisition of knowledge or skills

Pafdeai and Bildung provide two influential examples of conceptions of education that focus explicitly on the formation of the person rather than on just the acquisition of (bodies of) knowledge or (sets of) skills.

In the English speaking world we can find similar ideas in the idea of `liberal education.
The name liberal education shows its historical connection with the `liberal arts’ that made up the curriculum for ‘higher learning’ in medieval universities. Over time it has developed into a distinctive conception of education that promotes the formation of the whole person, particularly through engagement with the humanities.

In this way it still plays a role in contemporary discussions about education in schools and [the tertiary sector]. Similar thinking is also evident in the notion of curriculum as development and process, most notable in the United Kingdom through the work of Stenhouse (l975) and Kelly (1999).

This view of curriculum frames educational purposes and practices in terms of their likely contribution to the development of the learner, . . recommends that we see these purposes not as goals to be achieved at some later stage in the process, but as procedural principles which should guide our practice throughout’ (Kelly, 1999, p. 76).


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