What is competence? What is competency?

Competence and competency. What is competence? How has it been reduced to competency? What is the impact on education and training?

Contents: introduction · what is competence? · competency and product approaches · curriculum as process · conclusion · further reading · acknowledgements · how to cite this article

Over the last twenty years the discourse around education and training has shifted. We now tend to use a pseudo-commercial language of markets, investments and products. The interest in ‘competence’ and ‘competency’ has been part of this move. A significant pressure behind this in the UK, according to proponents like Jessup (1989: 66), has been the supposed lack of relevance of vocational provision and the need to compete with other economies. Courses and programmes were alleged to concentrate on the gaining of knowledge and theory and to neglect performance (‘and it is performance which essentially characterizes competence’ op cit). Vocational qualifications were to be recast into statements of competence relevant to work

The move has been heavily influenced by the development of management thinking and practice and, in particular, the rise of ‘scientific management’ (after F. W. Taylor). Basically what he proposed was greater division of labour with jobs being simplified; an extension of managerial control over all elements of the workplace; and cost accounting based on systematic time-and-motion study. All three elements are associated with the rise of competence and, indeed, the concern with curriculum (Kliebart 1983). This is certainly the current that has run through the construction of a system of national vocational qualifications. As Davies and Durkin (1991: 7) have commented the allocations of power are unmistakable in the new system. ‘In charge – the employer, with his or her needs paramount; next as an unavoidable necessity the “engagement of the individual worker”, in so far as his or her interests are useful to the employer; and finally, very much as a poor relation – the education service’.

It is both a testament to the continuing power of functionalism and scientific management, and to the lack of sustained reflection within education, that a narrow notion of competence has gained such ground. We can see competence and competencies used as part of the everyday language of teacher education, further education, community work, youth work and community education. It appeared to ‘solve’ various problems – of relevance, of access, of privilege and of comparability and transfer. The government introduced via the National Council for Vocational Qualification a national CBET (competence-based education and training) system.

What is competence?

In the discussion that occurred in the 1980s in the UK competence was basically approached as ‘the ability to do a particular activity to a prescribed standard (Working Group on Vocational Qualifications 1986). UDACE proclaimed that ‘competence is concerned with what people can do rather than what they know’. They went on:

This has several implications:

firstly if competence is concerned with doing then in must have a context…;

secondly, competence is an outcome: it describes what someone can do. It does not describe the learning process which the individual has undergone.

thirdly, in order to measure reliably someone’s ability to do something, there must be clearly defined and widely accessible standards through which performance is measured and accredited;

fourthly, competence is a measure of what someone can do at a particular point in time. (UDACE 1989: 6 quoted by Tight 1996).

The language of competence is often misunderstood. This is, according to CeVe, because of its association with vocational training and skill rather than understanding. There is some truth in this. The notion of competence described above is a pale and demeaning shadow of the Greek notion of aretè or that of virtus in ancient Rome. Brezinka (1988: 76) describes this as a relatively permanent quality of personality which is valued by the community to which we belong. In this sense it is not simply a skill but is a virtue; a general sense of excellence and goodness. It involves being up to those tasks that life presents us (op cit).

In much current usage this notion has been whittled down to the ability to undertake specific tasks; it has been largely stripped of its social, moral and intellectual qualities. Perhaps the best way of approaching this is to make a distinction between competence (and competences) and competency (and competencies). This is something that Hyland has done usefully with regard to the development of NVQs in the United Kingdom. He argues that there is a tendency to conflate the terms. Competence and competences are broad capacities (which a close relation to the sort of virtues that Brezinka was concerned with). In contrast competency (plural comp etencies) is narrower, more atomistic concept used to label particular abilities or episodes. In the case of the former we might talk of a competent informal educator; in the latter a competent piece of driving. In this way the first, capacity, sense of the term refers to the evaluation of persons; whereas the second, dispositional, sense refers to activities.

In the current discourse competence as a fully human attribute, has been reduced to competencies – series of discrete activities that people possess the necessary skills, knowledge and understanding to engage in effectively. The implication here is that behaviour can be objectively and mechanistically measured. This is a highly questionable assumption – there always has to be some uncertainty about what is being measured. We only have to reflect on questions of success in our work. It is often very difficult to judge what the impact of particular experiences has been. Sometimes it is years after the event that we come to appreciate something of what has happened. Yet there is something more. In order to measure, things have to be broken down into smaller and smaller units. The result is often long lists of trivial skills as is frequently encountered in BTEC programmes and NVQ competency assessments. This can lead to a focus on the parts rather than the whole; on the trivial, rather than the significant. It can lead to an approach to education and assessment which resembles a shopping list. When all the items are ticked, the person has passed the course or has learnt something. The role of overall judgment is sidelined.

In this there is also an orientation to possessing and owning attributes (a having mode) rather than a concern with being.

While the having persons rely on what they have, the being persons rely on the fact that they are, that they are alive and that something new will be born if only they have the courage to let go and respond. They become fully alive in the conversation because they do not stifle themselves by anxious concern with what they have. Their own aliveness is infectious and often helps the other person to transcend his or her egocentricity. Thus the conversation ceases to be an exchange of commodities (information, knowledge, status) and becomes a dialogue in which it does not matter any more who is right. (Fromm 1979)

The problem here is that in the act of deconstruction can come destruction. This is not to argue against analysis, rather it is to say that we must attend very careful to our frame of mind or disposition when undertaking it. The move from competence as a human virtue to a discrete thing that we possess is fundamental. In essence, it involves adopting a way of viewing the world that undermines the very qualities that many of us would argue make for liberatory education.

Competency and product approaches to curriculum making

The concern with competency is very close to technical or product approaches to curriculum making. (As a starter I want to use Shirley Grundy offers one of the simple definition of curriculum: ‘… It is a way of organising a set of human educational practices’ (Grundy 1987: 5). If we approach is curricu lum as product – or the technical approach. This approach can be understood in the light of Aristotle’s model of the different dispositions which motivate human action-in the technical disposition towards action:

  • the creative idea or image (eidos)
  • governs the artisan’s use of skills (techne)
  • in the action of making (poietike).

This model illustrates how the impetus to make – to poetike – is controlled from the outset by the eidos which is the initial guiding pattern or idea for the final product. Clearly, the artisan chooses the skills used in achieving the finished product and making this choice is a skill in itself. But it is essentially the original pattern (eidos) which determines the limits on the range of skills appropriate to the task. Importantly, in curricular terms, the artisan’s work will eventually be judged by the extent to which the outcome or product fits the original prescription of the eidos.

As a model of curriculum design and delivery, a product based approach is therefore typically one which controls and assesses learning through establishing preset objectives and outcomes. An obvious example would be teaching cake-making in which the curriculum is governed by the goal of producing a birthday cake shaped like a clown. The skills taught or used in making the cake will be restrained by the preset outcome which in this instance would indicate baking not poaching. The student will be assessed on the success of the cake and not, for example, on its appropriacy for the birthday in question.

In this example, the eidos is to produce a correct form from the student. Students’ performance is restrained by the demands of the test which require certain areas of knowledge or competence to be demonstrated but not others. Note how students can become the outcome and the assessment is based on their achieving behavioural objectives.

Assessment based on the degree to which the outcome has been achieved, (a feature of the product based curriculum), is a model taken from production industry. The product should not be adversely affected by the eventual testing or assessment unless it is faulty and fails the test. When the outcome is a person, then the product-based curriculum will seek to achieve behavioural objectives and final testing is a more complicated issue. As I suspect many of us have discovered, it sometimes does adversely affect the person concerned.

In this model of curriculum design, students can only have limited potential to challenge or to negotiate the curriculum. The control of the eidos which is eventually expressed as the product of the learning rests with the curriculum designer. The curriculum designer may be the (cake-making) teacher or the (workplace) assessor. In both cases, we can see how an understanding of the curriculum as product is linked to the achievement of preset objectives.

We can see how these concerns translate into a nicely-ordered procedure: one that is very similar to technical or productive thinking.

Exhibit 1: Planning the product curriculum

 Step 1: Diagnosis of need

Step 2: Formulation of objectives

Step 3: Selection of content

Step 4: Organization of content

Step 5: Selection of learning experiences

Step 6: Organization of learning experiences

Step 7: Determination of what to evaluate and of the ways and means of doing it.

(Taba 1962: 12)

The attraction of this way of proceeding is that it is systematic and has considerable organising power. Central to the approach is the formulation of behavioural objectives – providing a clear notion of outcome so that content and method may be organised and the results evaluated.

Curriculum as process

This leads me to consider a second model of curriculum: curriculum as process or as practice to bring out some of the contrasts. We have seen that the curriculum as product model is heavily dependent on the setting of behavioural objectives. Another way of looking at curriculum is to view it as process. In this sense it is not a physical thing, but rather the interaction of teachers, students and knowledge. In other words, curriculum is what actually happens in the classroom and what people do to prepare and evaluate. What we have in this model is a number of elements in constant interaction.

Exhibit 2: Curriculum as process

Teachers enter

particular schooling and educational situations


an ability to think critically, and think-in-action

an understanding of their role and

the expectations others have of them, and

a proposal for action which sets out essential principles and features of the educational encounter.

Guided by these, they encourage

conversations between, and with, people in the situation

out of which may come

thinking and action.


continually evaluate the process and what they can see of outcomes. (Jeffs and Smith 1990)

There I have described that as entering the situation with ‘a proposal for action which sets out essential principles and features of the educational encounter’. This form of words echoes those of Lawrence Stenhouse (1974) who produced one of the best-known explorations of a process model of curriculum.

This way, like Grundy’s view of curriculum as process, looks back to Aristotle for an initial definition in his identification of phronesis as the impetus which underlies the disposition towards practical action.

Curriculum as praxis

Phronesis, usually translated as practical judgement, relies upon a human disposition towards well-doing as an end in itself. The practical action which results from phronesis is praxis. (The term praxis has assumed a specific meaning within liberatory education). Here I focus on phronesis or the process which gives rise to praxis. The eidos – the guiding principle – which leads to praxis is the human disposition towards good. Since there is a human disposition towards good, then phronesis involves a process of deliberation about how to achieve this good rather than whether to do so. That process will typically involve participants in actively judging and interpreting. A curriculum model which is based on process therefore involves active participation through learning rather than a passive reception of t eaching. The focus is concentrated on the participants and their actions rather than upon predetermined products.

In conclusion

Here we can see the contrasts with a product or competency orientation – in fact we return to the virtues that we saw originally connected with the idea of competence. The language of this area is confusing – but the political and educational differences between competence and competency are profound.

Books on competence and competency

There are any number of dire and uncritical ‘how to do it’ guides to constructing competency based programmes. Here I have selected some of the better critiques of the movement.

Barnett, R. (1994) The Limits of Competence. Knowledge, higher education and society, Buckingham: Open University Press. 205 + x pages. Critique of the state of higher education in relation to current buzz words such as skill, vocationalism, competence, enterprise.

Hodkinson, P. and Issitt, M. (eds.) (1995) The Challenge of Competence. Professionalism through vocational education and training, London: Cassell. 163 + vii pages. Collection exploring issues around competence in different sectors.

Hyland, T. (1994) Competence, Education and NVQs. Dissenting perspectives, London: Cassell. 166 + x pages. One of the best, critical, overviews of recent developments in the UK and of the nature of competence.

Other references

Brezinka (1988) ‘Competence as an aim of education’ in B. Spiecker and R. Straughan (eds.) Philosophical Issues in Moral Education and Development, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Davies, B. and Durkin, M. (1991) ”Skill’, ‘competence’ and ‘competencies’ in youth and community work’, Youth and Policy 34: 1-11.

Fromm, E. (1979) To Have or To Be? London: Abacus

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or Praxis, Lewes: Falmer.

Jessup, G. (1989) ‘The emerging model of vocational education and training’ in J. W. Burke (ed.) Competency Based Education and Training, Lewes: Falmer Press.

Kliebart, H. M. (1983) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958, New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Stenhouse, L. (1974) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London: Heinemann.

Taba, H. (1962) Curriculum Development. Theory and practice. Foundations, process, design, and strategy for planning both primary and secondary curricula, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Tight, M. (1996) Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training, London: Routledge.

Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth, London: Penguin Books.

Acknowledgement: The picture Tomboys – The guide-board to health, peace, and competence; or, the road to happy old age (1872) – is from Wikimedia Commons pd.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2005) ‘Competence and competencies’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [www.infed.org/biblio/b-comp.htm].

© Mark K. Smith 1996