Competencies: promises and pitfalls
Alberta Education’s decision to focus its curriculum-redevelopment initiative on cross-curricular competencies offers promises and pitfalls. The government’s rationale for adopting cross-curricular competencies is outlined in Framework for Student Learning: Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit (Alberta Education 2011). A shift to competencies was announced by the government on May 7, 2013 (Ministerial Order No. 001/2013).
To understand the implications of the shift, the ATA sought the assistance of Kent den Heyer, an associate professor of education, University of Alberta, and Stephen Murgatroyd, Innovation Expedition. Their work will be published this summer as an ATA Research Update. Featured here are highlights from their report.
The Shift to Competencies—A Global Trend
The ministerial order describes a competency as “an interrelated set of attitudes, skills and knowledge that is drawn upon and applied to a particular context for successful learning and living, [that] are developed over time and through a set of related learner outcomes” (Ministerial Order, 1). The ministerial order identifies 10 cross-curricular competencies “for an inclusive Kindergarten to Grade 12 education”:
- Know how to learn—to gain knowledge, understanding or skills through experience, study and interaction with others
- Think critically—conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate to construct knowledge
- Identify and solve complex problems
- Manage information—access, interpret, evaluate and use information effectively, efficiently and ethically
- Innovate—create and generate new ideas or concepts
- Create opportunities—through play, imagination, reflection, negotiation and competition—with an entrepreneurial spirit
- Apply multiple literacies—reading, writing, mathematics, technology, language, media and personal finance
- Demonstrate good communication skills and the ability to work cooperatively with others
- Demonstrate global and cultural understanding, considering the economy and sustainable development
- Identify and apply career and life skills through personal growth and well-being
Alberta Education is adapting Alberta’s curriculum to reflect the ministerial order. This work includes developing competency indicators informed by current brain research, deciding how to assess and report student progress, and developing processes for mapping the 10 competencies against current programs of study.
Ensuring a more holistic approach to curriculum design, which is promised by the focus on competencies, will require efforts to avoid the wrong drivers of reform (Hargreaves and Fullan 2012, 10–23). For example, education partners must not rely too much on technology to deliver programs or use inappropriate measures to demonstrate student and system performance. Care must be taken to ensure that competencies do not become one more layer of expectations and accountability for schools. Alberta teachers now work an average of 56 hours per week, with documenting and reporting student progress consuming increasing amounts of time (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2012). Currently, 68 per cent of teachers report “moderate stress” to “high stress” associated with student reporting.
While the ministerial order’s overriding vision for students to become “engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit” attempts to advance a holistic and socially responsible approach to student learning, it’s important that competencies not be reduced to simply demonstrating basic workplace skills.
The competency-based learning model outside Alberta is driven by the corporate world’s fixation with efficiency, flexibility and personalization. Equipping students with so-called 21st-century competencies is another manifestation of an economist approach that views education primarily as a way to prepare workers to function in knowledge-intensive economies or work for a particular firm. Dede (2007) and Kalantzis and Cope (2008) observe that the growing focus on competencies in education is driven by a parallel trend in business: the notion that employees in need a distinct set of generic skills and competencies for learning and life.
What are the immediate pressures that Alberta might experience? In the United States, educational reforms are driven by organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills(www.p21.org) and Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills (www.atc21s.org). The latter organization is funded by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft. Patrick and Sturgis (2013) call on schools “to move away from the current factory model based on seat-time credit requirements and toward a new competency-based learning model that supports mastery-based, student-centered, personalized learning environments.” Similar reforms are afoot in Canada. In 2010, New Brunswick’s department of education launched 21st Century Education, an initiative heavily reliant on technology.
Most competency-based learning provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to perform specific tasks. In such an approach, broader competencies (such as problem solving and critical thinking) are too often dismissed as being too “academic” to have any real value.
We can learn from previous competency-focused implementation efforts. In North America, many community colleges were founded on a competency-based framework for learning and instruction, known as DACUM (Developing A CurriculUM). DACUM looks at skills by occupation and classifies them in terms of competencies. Increasingly, colleges are developing short modules for credit, each designed to teach a specific competency or cluster of competencies. Assessing broadly defined competencies is complex, which explains why there’s a tendency to focus on assessing narrowly defined competencies with short-term instructional cycles, such as modules.
In 2005, the Australia Department of Education Science and Training (ADEST) rewrote its competency-based vocational training manual (which is based on competencies similar to those proposed by Alberta Education) because the broader “key competencies were too generic in their approach and no longer reflected the needs of contemporary workplaces” (ADEST 2005, 160). Although this initiative promised to split the learning of complex concepts into manageable tasks bundled into credit modules, the resulting competencies were often too vague and general.
According to the logic behind some competency-based education reforms, the same strategic thinking involved in running a football team should be transferable to a team of curlers. The central contradiction of competency-based education in some jurisdictions is that it claims to be generic and specifically applicable in situations that may have different rules, languages and goals.
The Finnish government’s reform of its education system was based on trust in teachers and programs of support for curriculum implementation driven by locally determined priorities. Rather than identifying elaborate lists of competencies and competency indicators, the Finns focused on helping teachers assess competence as it manifests itself in each school community. The Finns, in other words, focus on assessing demonstrable competence, not on looking for evidence of generic competencies.
If not implemented thoughtfully, cross-curricular competencies may lapse into instrumental and generic skills training. Indeed, inspectors in England’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted 2009, 12) documented one case of how competency-based education can result in system confusion:
[Problems] included the loss of subject content and subject skills development; lack of continuity from primary school experience; lack of rigour and challenge; uneven quality of teaching and artificial “links” or themes. These problems were especially manifested where courses had been given insufficient planning time and where the component subject departments were not fully involved in planning.
Research in the United Kingdom suggests that competency-based education reduces the opportunities that students in disadvantaged communities have to acquire content. Under the guise of creating more economic opportunities for these children and meeting external standards, schools focus on so-called foundational literacy, absent of substantive academic content. Harris and Burns (2011) note that some practices are even more subtle, such as denying students who want to study history the opportunity to do so because they are unlikely to do well initially on standardized tests: “This is not necessarily a deliberate attack on the teaching of history, but the subject in schools is suffering what Haydn and Harris (2009) describe as ‘collateral damage.’”
Harris and Burns (2011) found that while disadvantaged students received a content-poor, intellectually inadequate curriculum, students in wealthier schools continued to receive a strong, content-rich history education.
Young (2008) argues that competencies run the risk of contributing to what Higham and Yeomans (2007, 295) refer to as the “attenuated and emaciated curriculum dialogue” that characterizes the decision-making process in schools. According to Young, teachers may not pay enough attention to questions of knowledge and subject disciplines. Harris and Burns (2011) describe the problem as a lack of attention to curriculum theory. With policymakers so focused on achieving competency indicators or targets, “the question of knowledge, or what it is important that students learn, has been neglected” (Young 2008, xv).
Competence: Getting It Right in Alberta
Based on lessons from other countries, the following three strategies will ensure that the good work related to cross-curricular competency continues.
1.Avoid the temptations of “mission” creep
The shift to cross-curricular competencies is a small but important part of the reform needed to achieve the goals of Inspiring Education. The research is clear: simply changing the language and terminology in curriculum documents will do little to influence positive change in schools.
Some who support a competency model of education see schools as drivers for economic growth. Yet, predicting what Alberta’s economy will look like in 10 years is difficult, if not impossible. Schools prepare students for a rapidly changing world and for jobs that do not yet exist. The ministerial order underscores the complexity of the world and seeks to create a student who “adapts to the many changes in society and the economy with an attitude of optimism and hope for the future.”
Patrick and Sturgis (2013) observe that adopting a competency-focussed model raises complex issues that have yet to be fully addressed in Alberta: the appropriate role of technology in education, the effectiveness of this model in meeting the diverse needs of learners, the need to ensure that education is of a high quality, the importance of ensuring that all students have equal opportunities and the best way to fund education.
Developing quality-assurance processes that meet the needs of accountability and continuous improvement requires the development of metrics different from those used previously. These metrics need to take into account the point at which a student starts learning, the pacing and depth of the learning, and what level of learning is required to achieve graduation. Because today’s students can access learning through classroom instruction, a blend of classroom and online instruction, online instruction only, practical experiences in the community and independent learning, policymakers must ensure that all students have equal opportunities. Measuring the speed with which students attain competency will help teachers determine the effectiveness of various learning programs. Determining cost-effectiveness will become a more important criterion than gathering snapshots of inputs and outputs (Patrick and Sturgis 2013, 30).
2.Create public assurance by linking curriculum design and assessment
In adopting a competency-focussed model, Alberta Education should continue to reach out to other ministries and organizations to ensure that assessment practices are appropriately revised; that the public has confidence in the quality of education; that governance structures allow adequate input into educational decisions; that students with special needs are included; and that schools are funded adequately. The ATA believes that a high-level provincial advisory panel of experts on educational change could help the ministry coordinate these and other aspects of educational transformation, including assessing the effect of these changes on teachers’ workload and student learning.
Successfully implementing competency-based education requires (1) working collaboratively with teachers and curriculum experts (university partners and the Alberta Assessment Consortium) to develop new forms of assessment (performance assessment or competency-based assessment); (2) creating opportunities for teachers to exchange ideas across jurisdiction and national boundaries as they learn to implement the new process; (3) providing school leaders with support to act as instructional leaders; (4) monitoring implementation on an ongoing basis; (5) garnering parental support and involvement; and (6) developing new learning resources (textbooks, digital resources, access to technologies and other resources) that lend themselves to outcomes-based learning.
Historically, governments across North America have focused on specifying elaborate learning outcomes, thereby creating burdensome curriculum documents. Good work is now underway to insure” competency indicators” do not fall into the same trap. Peters (1966) argues that a fixation with outcomes can be construed as antidemocratic. “Worthwhile activities,” he says, “have their own built-in standards of excellence, and therefore they can be evaluated according to the standards inherent in them rather than according to some externally determined end or outcome.” Insisting that students use knowledge creatively and then informing them that the desired learning outcomes are already specified is profoundly contradictory (Kanpol 1995).
Alberta’s transition to a competency focus will be made easier by supporting local innovation in identifying indicators of student success. This is in contrast to the United States, where the shift to competencies and the Common Core is ramping up narrowly defined standards for learners. To be effective, competency-focused education requires well-designed teacher assessments and their complementary rubrics. In a valid competency approach, students will progress through stages of learning. The cognitive pathways along which students will advance from one level of understanding to the next are based on teachers’ professional judgment. These pathways are the road map for learning. Patrick and Sturgis (2013, 20) note that if we can’t define what we want students to know and be able to do, how will we ever help them to get there?
Finland, Ireland and New Zealand, in implementing competency-based education, have ensured that competencies do not evolve simply into another layer of accountabilities for students and schools. These countries have taken a holistic approach—while defining broad competencies, they have given local authorities autonomy in deciding how such competencies are taught and assessed. New Zealand has taken this approach a step further by defining competencies as “capabilities for living and lifelong learning. … They are integral to teaching and learning in the learning areas and should therefore be assessed with these [competencies]” (Ananiadou and Claro 2009, 13).
Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway have minimal national guidelines for teaching specific subjects or competencies. Schools and teachers are given a high degree of autonomy in determining strategies for infusing and assessing competencies across subject areas and disciplines.
3.Do not confuse competence with competencies
Basing curriculum redesign on competencies increases the likelihood that the curriculum will be trivialized and that inappropriate methods will be used to determine whether students have acquired knowledge. Curriculum content gives meaning to a particular set of outcomes. Organizing knowledge around discrete competencies does not lend itself to the kind of cross-curricular, interdisciplinary approach that is essential to complex learning. Holland (1994) notes that competency-focused education runs the risk of mistakenly assuming that knowledge acquisition proceeds linearly, such that one outcome is linked stepwise to the next.
Teachers worldwide are trying to figure out how to assess and report student learning focused on developing student competence. The most encouraging models are those in which assessments of competencies are part of overall general assessment practices. The Finnish National Board of Education (2011), drawing from case studies of innovative practices at the school-community level, has published a guide to curricular reform based on a focus on developing competence. In New Zealand, local authorities have autonomy in how they report student progress, and they use a variety of assessment and data-gathering approaches.
In an accountability redesign pilot study, Murgatroyd and Sahlberg (2010) concluded that changes to curriculum and assessment must occur in tandem—expecting students to develop a broad range of competencies while continuing to measure their progress on a few core skills is a setup for failure. The pilot project also demonstrated that teachers are unlikely to take risks and try new approaches if the culture in which they work fails to actively acknowledge and support their professional judgment. The Finland–Alberta partnership has also demonstrated that implementing competency-based education effectively requires a broad curriculum framework built on trust in teachers and support for collaborative professional autonomy.
Alberta Education’s work to support the shift to competencies is under way. As well, the government’s decision to end the provincial achievement testing program will create opportunities for richer assessments of student learning consistent with the competency focus outlined in Inspiring Education.
Engaging education partners in the shift to competencies outlined in the ministerial order will be the catalyst for successful curriculum redesign. If not supported by comprehensive professional development and engagement with Albertans, the risk is that the ministerial order’s current list of competencies will be of little use to Albertans in coping with major societal changes and in managing the world’s largest industrial project. It is through teacher collaborative inquiry that the competencies will find their meaning.
Alberta must abandon drive-by measurements of student achievement and assure the public that students are learning in holistic ways. Changes to the provincial achievement testing program are a promising first step. Teachers will play the defining role in making the shift to student competence a success. The key is not to develop elaborate curriculum documents or to rely on a labyrinth of data-gathering and accountability processes. Rather, success will result from allowing teachers and curriculum experts to determine the appropriate role that competencies should play in enhancing student learning.
Alberta Education. 2010. Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Education.
———. 2011. Framework for Student Learning: Competencies for Engaged Thinkers and Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Education.
Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2012. A Great School for All—Transforming Education in Alberta. Edmonton, Alta.: ATA.
Ananiadou, K., and M. Claro. 2009. “21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries.” OECD Education Working Papers 41, OECD Publishing. Also available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/218525261154.
Australia Department of Education Science and Training (ADEST). 2005. Training Package Development Handbook. Canberra: ADEST.
Dede, C. 2007. Transforming Education for the 21st Century: New Pedagogies That Help All Students Attain Sophisticated Learning Outcomes. Raleigh, N.C.: NCSU Friday Institute. Also available at www.thenetwork.typepad.com/files/dede_21stc-skills_semi-final.pdf.
Finnish National Board of Education. 2011. Schools Reaching Out to a Global World. Helsinki: Finnish National Board of Education. Also available at www.oph.fi/download/139354_Schools_reaching_out_to_a_global_world.pdf.
Hargreaves, A., and M. Fullan. 2012. Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Harris, R., and K. Burns. 2011. “Curriculum Theory, Curriculum Policy and the Problem of Ill‐Disciplined Thinking.” Journal of Education Policy 26, no. 2: 245–61.
Haydn, T., and R. Harris. 2009. What Factors Influence Pupils’ Commitment to History as a School Subject? A View from the United Kingdom. Paper presented at the annual international meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 12–18, San Diego, Calif.
Higham, J., and D. Yeomans. 2007. “Curriculum Choice, Flexibility and Differentiation 14–19: The Way Forward or Flawed Prospectus?” London Review of Education 5, no. 3: 281–97.
Holland, D. 1994. “ABE Assessments for Levels I and II: A Summary Paper for the Independent Examinations Board.” Unpublished report. Johannesburg Independent Examinations Board.
Kalantzis, M., and B. Cope. 2008. New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kanpol, B. 1995. “Outcome-Based Education and Democratic Commitment: Hopes and Possibilities.” Educational Policy 9: 359–74.
McKernan, J. 1994. “Some Limitations of Outcome-Based Education.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 8, no. 4: 343–53.
Murgatroyd, S., and P. Sahlberg. 2010. “Accountability, Learning and the Teacher—Looking at Real Learning First.” Unpublished report.
Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). 2009. “Planning for Change: The Impact of the New Key Stage 3 Curriculum (080262).” Available at http://bit.ly/17mtGwq.
Patrick, S., and C Sturgis. 2013. Necessary for Success: Building Mastery of World-Class Skills. A Competency Works Issue Brief. Vienna, Va.: International Association for K–12 Online Learning.
Peters, R. 1966. Ethics and Education. London: Allen & Unwin. Quoted in McKernan 1994.
Shane, K. 2013. “Finland and Alberta Join Forces to Keep Their Schools on Top of Their Game.” The Embassy (February 13): 14–17.
Young, M. 2008. Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.
Dr. J-C Couture is the ATA’s associate coordinator, research.
 Pasi Sahlberg coined the acronym GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) to describe these and related trends that threaten to undermine public education: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdgS--9Zg_0.
 This approach to assessing competence is evident in school projects undertaken in conjunction with the Finland–Alberta partnership: http://bit.ly/13VptvP. See Shane (2013).