I stumbled across a rather good little book called Key Competencies the other day… It’s an edited book of essays, so…
Chapter 2: A holistic model of competence, by Dominique Simone Rychen and Laura Hersh Salganik
In this chapter, Rychen and Salganik work on a definition of competence, writing: “Our premise is that notions and concepts do not contain their definitions in and of themselves; they are social constructs that can facilitate the understanding of realitywhile also constructing it in a manner that reflects and reinforces prevailing ideological assumptions and values. Thus, defining explicitly the meaning and nature of competence constitutes a crucial step in enabling a coherent and substantial discourse on competencies from a lifelong learning perspective.
A review of theory-grounded approaches to the concept of competence (Weinart, 2001) reveals that there is no single use of the concept of competence and no broadly accepted definition or unifying theory. Multiple and varied definitions of competence exist in social science literature. In line with Weinert’s recommendation and subsequent discussions within the project, we opted for what he called a ‘conceptual pragmatism’ in the sense of defining the term competence in a scientifically plausible and pragmatically relevant way.” (p.42)
“A competence is defined as the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context through the mobilization of psychosocial prerequisites (including both cognitive and noncognitive aspects). This represents a demand-oriented or functional approach to defining competencies. The primary focus is on the results the individual achieves through an action, choice, or way of behaving, with respect to the demands, for instance, related to a particular professional position, social role, or personal project.” (p.43)
“Possessing a competence means that one not only possesses the component resources, but is also able to mobilize such resources properly and to orchestrate them, at an appropriate time, in a complex situation.” (p.45)
“The underlying assumption of our model of competence is that the relationship between the individual and society is dialectical and dynamic. Individuals do not operate in a social vacuum. Actions always take place in a social or socio-cultural environment, in a context that is structured into multiple social fields (such as the political field, the fields of work, of [-p.46] health, of family), each consisting of a structured set of social positions dynamically organized around a given set of social interests and challenges. It is within these fields that demands and the criteria for effective performance and action take form and manifest themselves, and individuals act to meet them. The necessary contextualization of competence echoes well with situated learning theory, which views competence as inseparable from the context in which it is developed and used (Gonczi, 2003; Oates, 2003), and with cognitive science research, which rejects the distinction between what is stored in the brain and what exists in the environment. Andrew Gonczi (section 5) writes, ‘To clarify, it is not that the patterns [of mental resources] are stored in the mind, rather they are in the environment and that our brain interacts with the environment to produce the appropriate pattern, i.e., to act intelligently and competently.’ Thus, because competence is a product of the interaction of attributes of individuals and the context in which they operate, ‘scrutiny of the ‘characteristics’ of the individual alone is insufficient to explain effective performance in a range of settings’ (Oates, section 4.1).” (pp.45-46)
“The notion that context is an integral element of competent performance raises the issue of whether an individual who is competent to meet a demand in one context or situation would be able to meet a similar demand in another context. Frequently, this topic is addressed in terms of transfer, the benefit obtained from having had previous experience in acquiring a new competence or performing successfully in a new situation. This raises the question of when a situation is new. As Oates (2003) points out, every situation we face is in one way or another different and new. Some of the differences may be trivial, some may be significant – and the significance of these differences can vary from person to person.” (p.47)
“The disparity between existing competencies and competencies needed to meet new demands is resolved through adaptation (Oates, 2003). This approach leads away from the notion of transfer in the sense of transferring a skill or a competence from an old situation to a new one to a conception in which the adaptation of existing skills or competencies to meet the demands of new contexts is at the center.” (p.48) “In cases where competencies are applied in different domains of life, adaptation entails actively and reflectively using the knowledge, skills, or strategies developed in one social field, analyzing the new field, and translating and adapting the original knowledge, skills, or strategies to the demands of the new situation.” (p.48)
“A competence is manifested in actions, behaviors, or choices in particular situations or contexts. These actions, behaviors, or choices can be observed and measured, but the competence that underlies the performance, as well as the multiple attributes that contribute to it, can only be inferred (Gonczi, 2003; Oates, 2003; Weinert, 2001). Stated another way, attributions of competence (i.e., that an individual possesses a certain level of competence) are fundamentally inferences, made on the basis of evidence provided by observations of performance.
‘What evidence is necessary to infer that a competence exists?’ becomes a critical question.” (p.48)
Individual vs. Collective Competence
I found this discussion really very interesting – and quite relevant to a multicultural society like NZ, in which tangata whenua take a more collective approach to many things than the ‘English’-derived education system might allow for… Rychen and Salganik explain that “Within the DeSeCo Project, the focus has been on the individual rather than on the collective concept of competence. The latter focuses on demands facing groups of individuals or institutions, such as teams, firms, organizations, communities, or nations. For an organization to be competent, that is, to meet the demands facing it, its members may need a range of competencies, but each individual may not need them all (Weinert, 2001).” (p.50) This really caught my eye, because this is my impression of how things get done on the marae! The authors continue: “The conception of collective competence raises fundamental questions not answered in DeSeCo related to the division of labor, the distribution of resources, and principles of equal opportunity and justice (see chapter 4). Other issues concern interrelationships between structural and institutional factors and collective competence, and the manner in which collective competence is the result of a dialectical relationship between the competencies of individuals and the structural and institutional characteristics of the context. Depending on the cultural context, collective competence may also serve as a reference point for individuals’ judgements about their own competence, with individuals attributing to themselves what they view as the competence of the group (Featherman & Carson, 1999)” (p.50)
Ref: Dominique Simone Rychen and Laura Hersh Salganik (c2003) ‘A holistic model of competence’, pp. 41-62 in Eds. Dominique Simone Rychen and Laura Hersh Salganik Key Competencies for a successful life and a well-functioning society. Hogrefe & Huber: Cambridge, MA.
Reference is also made to: Gonczi, A. (2003). Teaching and learning of the key competencies. In DS Rychen, LH Salganik, & ME McLaughlin (Eds),
Selected contributions to the 2nd DeSeCo symposium. Neuchatel, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Statistical Office.
Featherman, D. & Carson, J. (1999) Commentary on Concepts of competence. In Comments on the DeSeCo expert opinions (pp. 89-90). http://www.statistik.admin.ch/stat_ch/ber15/deseco/comments_deseco_expert_opinions.pdf (although this link didn’t work for me… still its a clue, I suppose)
Oates, T. (2003) Key skills/key competencies: Avoiding the pitfalls of current initiatives. In DS Rychen, LH Salganik, & ME McLaughlin (Eds), Selected contributions to the 2nd DeSeCo symposium. Neuchatel, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Statistical Office.
Weinart, FE (2001). Concept of competence: A conceptual clarification. In DS Rychen & LH Salganik (Eds), Defining and selecting key competencies (pp. 45-65). Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe & Huber.