My research looks at the influence of online communities on learning and I have been investigating in particular the case of an eTwinning Learning Event for teachers. One of the aspects that I have been investigating is competence development and I have been reading work by Eraut (1994; 1998) to understand better how the meaning of the term has changed over the years.
Eraut suggests there is a difference in perception as to what competence means, depending on the context and who is using the term. He suggests that if a member of the public were to use the term competent to describe someone who had offered a service, it would imply that the quality of what they had received was good and that the statement, used in this context, relates to a high level of performance. He suggests, however, that the scope of the competence is very specific. For example, if we heard that a solicitor is competent in handling divorce cases we would make no assumptions about her ability to handle fraud cases.
On the other hand, if an employer were to describe a member of staff as competent, this would perhaps suggest that they were good at their job, but not necessarily excellent. Eraut cites Pearson:
If we can think of a continuum ranging from just knowing how to do something at the one end to knowing how to do something very well at the other, knowing how to do something competently would fall somewhere along this continuum (Pearson, 1984, p.32, cited in Eraut, 1994, p. 167)
Eraut goes further, 'Where there is need for extra quality or expertise the description 'competent' is tantamount to damning with faint praise' (Eraut, 1994, p.166). So according to the context, competent can have the positive meaning of 'getting the job done' or the negative one of 'adequate but not excellent', he suggests.
For professional development, which is the subject of my research, Eraut explains that competence has two dimensions, scope and quality. A professional's competence will change over time, as they become more specialist in new areas according to the needs of their work. In some cases, they may become proficient or even an expert. Often, however, a professional strives to be simply competent in an area which is necessary for their work, but not core – an example would be becoming competent in the use of ICT without expecting to become an expert in it. Again the level of quality associated with being competent will depend on the context. For example, a school teacher who is competent is likely to be held in high regard as his work involves little supervision and a degree of autonomy.
Eraut takes us through the development of the term competence, from the days of behaviourism when competency-based training (CBT) was in vogue, especially in the US, through to contemporary use for cognitive psychology. With the former, there was a focus on normative behaviour and it was important to have a clear definition of what was expected of the professional. Indeed, CBT was criticised for the tendency to break down the professional role into small, well defined tasks. One example is teacher training, where Eraut describes the mistake that was made of trying to atomise the teaching process into micro activities with autonomous objectives. Thankful, such approaches are now less popular as a more holistic and flexible approach is taken to teaching.
The focus on ability to perform specified tasks to an agreed level of performance reinforced the importance of qualifications as a means of recognising competence. Moreover, for certain skills and professions, the professional associations played a leading role in certifying whether a person was qualified and competent, eg certified account.
Eraut describes the move towards general competence, changing the emphasis from training professionals to do what is required of them, towards educating them to be capable of doing it. Often the latter is associated with personal qualities and hence the trend towards assessment centres and other tools to help with the recruitment of competent staff. Here we see also the link with the EU's definition of eight key competences that need to be taught to all school children (EU, 2004), where competence is referred to as ' a combination of skills, knowledge, aptitudes and attitudes, and to include the disposition to learn in addition to know-how' (2004, p.3).
Cognitive psychology seeks to distinguish competence from performance, according to Eraut. Citing Messick (1984) he explains how performance relates to how someone acts under specific conditions in a particular setting, for example when one undertakes an exam. Here one is subject to a particular environment, the exam room, and may be motivated, stressed, distracted, etc depending on how one feels at that instant in time. Whereas competence refers to what one is able to do under ideal circumstances. In otherwords, competence reflects one's potential. So competence can only be inferred from performance.
Eraut goes onto explain the difference between competence and competency. However, I am still left wondering what the difference is in reality. From what I understand, competence reflects a general capability of a person. Whereas competency reflects specific capabilities in a particular vocational context. At least that is what Eraut argues. The situation becomes less clear when one uses the plural; is the plural of competence competences or competencies? I have seen both used interchangeably, sometimes within the same document.
Returning to my research, in my questionnaire to all participants of the Learning Event, I asked them whether they felt more confident and competent as a result of having followed the session. The answers were generally positive and whereas there seems to be little doubt that competence has developed, what this means in practice is open to interpretation. For I failed to ask the participants how they would define competent – is it a level of quality and performance that reflects a high level of teaching practice, or is it middling someone between not capable and proficient. Perhaps it is not too late to return to the respondents to ask them to clarify their perception and to check it with my own.
Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence, Routledge.
Eraut, M. (1998) 'Concepts of competence'. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 12 (2), pp.127-139
EU (2004) Key Competencies for Lifelong Learning, a European Reference Framework Brussels, European Commission. (ONLINE - http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/2010/doc/basicframe.pdf - accessed 13.06.2009)
About my research
My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.
I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.