Training areas and curriculum approaches*

By Massimo Amadio, Renato Opertti and Juan Carlos Tedesco.
UNESCO International Bureau of Education (Geneva, Switzerland, 2013)

Competence-based approach: Opportunities and challenges

Over recent decades, in many national contexts, the focus of attention and concern has progressively shifted from access to education, and necessary resources, to the results (outcomes) of the education process, increasingly expressed in terms of generic or cross-cutting competences that students should have acquired by the time they complete general education, in order to enjoy success in their ongoing education career, for full personal development, and to enter the workforce and the knowledge society. A number of organisations, including associations and NGOs, have drawn up and proposed different reference frameworks for competences – including definitions of “key competences”, “basic competences”, “life competences” of “21st century competencies” – using different approaches, classifications, and terminologies, which at times can lead to ambiguity and confusion.

For instance, in the European Union, a competence is defined as “a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context” and key competences “are those which all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment” (European Parliament, 2006). The European reference framework includes eight key competences for permanent learning: communication in the mother tongue; communication in foreign languages; mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology; digital competence; learning to learn; social and civic competences; sense of initiative and entrepreneurship; and cultural awareness and expression. Competence in the fundamental basic skills of language, literacy, numeracy and in information and communication technologies (ICT) is an essential foundation for learning, and learning to learn supports all learning activities. The European reference framework includes a number of “themes” – essentially, cross-cutting competences – that are applied to the eight key competences: critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, risk assessment, decision taking, and constructive management of feelings (ibid.).

Many of the competences considered in the European framework are largely reflected in other reference frameworks – some put forward the four “Cs” of communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking – although there is some variation in the way in which they are classified – for example, as cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competences – and in the relative importance assigned to each. On the other hand, stakeholders are also beginning to concentrate on a number of personal qualities sometimes defined as “soft” skills or competences, such as integrity, empathy, responsibility, flexibility, or leadership, which are seen as necessary for entry into the workforce and which are valued by employers alongside professional competences (the “hard” competences; this issue is discussed in further detail below). One conclusion can clearly be drawn: with the exception of the digital literacy or competence that has dawned in our current century, most of these competences are nothing new to educators, and were also taken into consideration in centuries past.

It appears that today’s emphasis on generic or cross-cutting competences, alongside desired learning outcomes in traditional disciplines, is not limited to the countries that make up the EU and OECD. A rapid analysis of a considerable dataset of curriculum policies and frameworks in countries around the world, conducted by the UNESCO International Bureau of Education, shows that almost 90 countries – including a number of sub-federal bodies – refer to cross-cutting competences in general education curricula. Communication competence (first language and foreign language) and social competences are most frequently highlighted, followed by problem solving, creativity, digital competence, and mathematical competence. Almost half of the countries showed attention to civic competences, collaboration, critical thinking, and initiative. References to reading and writing are somewhat less frequent – often implicitly included in communication competence – as are basic competences in science and technology, information handling and usage, and learning to learn. It must be borne in mind that this analysis concentrated on cross-cutting competences, presented in curriculum documentation as a result of the education process at a level beyond subject matter learning, without taking into account references to the same skills in specific disciplines – for example, basic competences in the sciences in the natural science disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology.

Another aspect worthy of further emphasis is the presence of transversal axes or themes in the curriculum documents of at least 70 countries. These themes are generally seen as a response from the teaching sector to relate contents across different disciplines, to promote a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach, to broaden and enrich the curriculum without overloading it, to facilitate cooperative learning, to address issues that are relevant to students’ lives, and in some cases to contribute to the development of key competences. Additionally, in secondary education the cross-cutting themes should promote collaborative work by teachers in different subject matter areas to plan teaching activities and reinforce collective responsibility for students’ learning. The cross-cutting themes address a huge variety of topics and constructs, such as education in values, civic and citizenship education, health education, HIV/AIDS prevention education, human rights education, ICT, and gender equality, with environmental education – often associated with the problem of sustainable development – being the most common theme mentioned in the curriculum documents (in at least 50 countries).

A full treatment of pending challenges and complexities associated with the competence-based approach, or an analysis of different current debates on the issue and sometimes conflicting visions of the curriculum reforms that have been adopted would go far beyond the scope of this article. Instead, here we attempt to underscore certain aspects that strike us as of particular relevance, in broad strokes.

It is generally recognised that many key competences or 21st century competencies are interlinked, complementing and supporting each other, and it is assumed that they can be transferred, at least to a certain extent, although it remains unclear in which contexts they can be transferred or how to facilitate the transfer of students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills through different disciplines (National Research Council, 2012). It seems that a consensus has been reached regarding the principal competences that students must acquire, although apparently similar terms can be interpreted differently in different contexts. For instance, it has been observed that there is no unanimous agreement on the definition of “critical thinking” or a widely accepted definition of “creativity” (Lai & Viering, 2012), and in European contexts the term “attitudes” – one of the principal components of competence – is very differently interpreted in different countries (Gordon et al., 2009). “Learning to learn” is certainly an essential competence, yet uncertainty remains regarding how best to bolster its development or assess its acquisition (ibid.). An analysis of OECD countries has shown that almost all recognise the relevance of 21st century competencies, and confirm that they have been included in national curricula, although clear responses on how these competences are defined have not always been forthcoming (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009).

A cross-curriculum approach is often recommended for the development of these competences, but some are more closely linked to traditional disciplines or “basic” areas of learning – such as languages, mathematics, or the sciences – and some competences are seen as more important or fundamental than others as they underpin learning in different sectors of the curriculum. Returning to the case of the European framework, a study on the implementation of the initiative showed that four competences – native language communication, foreign language communication, mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology – are linked to traditional disciplines, while the others and the “themes” are rather seen as cross-cutting competences; nonetheless, the distinction between the two groups remains somewhat unclear (Gordon et al., 2009).

A large proportion of studies and analyses of competences agree that the most pressing challenges lie in implementation and assessment. The role and place of competences in the traditional disciplinary curriculum, and the manner in which the “basic” disciplines and other disciplines are to contribute to competence development remains an open and controversial issue (Voogt & Roblin, 2010). It is also clear that highly sophisticated implementation strategies are required, as well as profound changes in how the teaching and learning process is organised, and in how teachers receive training and ongoing professional development, as they are unlikely to be able to support their students in developing competences that they themselves lack.

Assessing competences is another critical aspect, and the inescapable need to put new assessment systems into effect is a major challenge and may prove fraught with difficulties, as shown by Olivier Rey (2012) in his analysis of the situation in France. Non-cognitive skills, personal qualities, and attitudes have a major impact on the learning process, but are rarely taken into account in national or international assessments. What is more, the concept of competence falls upon a wide range of contexts in which it must be applied, requiring an evaluation that is never too far removed from “real life”. In his analysis of key competence assessment in the countries of the European Union, David Pepper (2011) observed that assessment tends to place undue emphasis on “traditional” competences – languages, mathematics, and sciences – and associated disciplines in a limited range of contexts, with an emphasis on knowledge and skills while other cross-cutting capacities receive far more limited and sporadic attention. The same author underscores the risk that assessment may distort the curriculum if only some competences are assessed, and the danger of distorting the competences themselves if only some components are assessed (Pepper, 2012: 2).

It should also be pointed out that a number of challenges are pending with regard to the cross-cutting themes, most of all in terms of implementation. Teachers are often called upon to cover a curriculum that is already “congested”, and it can be hard to find sufficient time for cross-curricular issues that demand a high level of commitment and interaction between teachers, and between teachers and students. Not only teachers, but also students and their families can sometimes see these themes as irrelevant additions, particularly if the learning outcomes are unrelated to their formal assessments. Finally, in secondary education the well-established disciplinary structure of the curriculum and teachers’ discipline-based training continue to represent a major obstacle for the adoption of an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach.

Instead of arguing in favour of a competence-based approach, it strikes us as more productive to underscore at least three significant aspects of how and what to teach. First, the need to adopt and develop an integrated approach to learning that considers not only academic knowledge, cognitive development, and skills, but also the “non cognitive” dimensions – attitudes, values, emotions, personal qualities – that are of increasingly recognised importance (see, for example, Levin, 2012; Brunello & Schlotter, 2011). Secondly, the need to consider the applied dimension of knowledge, as knowing things is not everything - there is also the question of what students can do with their knowledge. Finally, the importance of entirely rethinking the traditional disciplinary structure of the curriculum, the organisation of learning experiences, the way in which students are taught, and assessment systems, in order to promote the true development of skills.

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*This text is an extract from the publication “Porque importa hoy el debate curricular” (The curriculum debate: why it is important today)
IBE Working Papers on Curriculum Issues Nº 10

JUNE 2013

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