Design and Technology
My Own Personal Yellow Brick Road
What is Competence?
Categories: Competence

Ok, what is competence?

I should start with the work I did way back when at the start of the course, the passage below is the introduction to my skills audit:

As this journal is designed to assess my capability in the subject areas listed at the start of each section of this document I thought it best to start by finding out what capable means. I looked at the dictionary definition of competence, capability and capable, the three best I have listed below:

Definition of Competence:

  • 1, Having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc., for some purpose; properly qualified
  • 2. Adequate but not exceptional.
  • Synonyms: fit, capable, proficient, able.

Source: Unabridged, based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2011.

Definition of Capability:

  • 1. The quality of being capable; ability
  • 2. A characteristic that may be developed; potential aptitude

Source: Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged© HarperCollins Publishers 2003

Definition of Capable:

  • 1. Possessing ability, qualification, or susceptibility; having capacity
  • 2. Possessing adequate power; qualified; able; fully competent
  • Synonyms: Able; competent; qualified; fitted; efficient; effective; skillful.

Source: The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48

All of these definitions state the need for a certain level of knowledge or experience, not to be an expert but to be effective. In effect I need to define this capability myself, when do I feel capable in an area of my subject? Is it when I feel able to take a test? Able to teach it? Or is it a confidence in myself, a state where I feel comfortable that I have a bedrock of knowledge and experience to build on and draw from. Where I can understand why something is as it is, not just how something works but why it works.

After being immersed in this course for the past 6 months I think I now have a better idea of what is expected of me and it moves beyond the definitions above. After doing some research into competence based assessment in education I can see the general characteristics that assessors are looking for in a student that is meant to be developing competence and also why there has been this move towards competence based assessment.

To order my thoughts it’s probably best if I start from the top. My first thoughts on competence is that it conveys a sense of ability, if you are competent in an area or skill you are able to carry out work related to it with little or no supervision. This linked in with the definitions I collected above, I had a general feeling of what I needed to do to reach the standard needed. After revisiting this I began to wonder, why are we being assessed this way? Would it not be easier to organise a course like that of GCSE D&T with focused practical tasks, course work and an examination at the end just more concentrated? Wouldn’t this ensure that all of us would understand and learn what was expected of us? To be given such an open brief on developing competence with no solid guidelines on the exact content of our outcome initially felt overwhelming. I felt like asking ‘but, aren’t you going to tell us what we need to know?’

The problem is that an intensive course with everything that we need to do laid out for us to just pick up, memorise and practice would not help us to really understand our chosen subject. The problem would be the tendency to fall into surface learning, like having a tick list, do these things and you’ll pass rather than really getting us to engage with our work. A quote from a recent program on education and assessment really stuck with me. One student was asked how she was finding being given comments to aid her progress rather than using the traditional grading system, her answer was really telling ‘The comments are OK but I want them to bring back grades, the only reason I do the work is to get the grades’. Giving us the skills audit and asking us to autonomously make our own investigations encourages us to go deeper, to develop our interests and build a body of knowledge that will stay with us, not just fade away over periods when it is not being used.

Another problem with traditional assessment can be the wording in the documentation given to students. It’s not often clear what is being said by an assessment criteria, sometimes things that are supposed to help make this clear can in fact make things worse. For example: essay writing guides, it may say that to get a good grade you need and incisive introduction, but what does that really mean?!? Some feel that this opacity can lead to the student becoming uncertain about what they need to do, resulting in reverting back to strategies ingrained in their schooling, strategies that stem from surface learning and can lead to simple regurgitation of facts and ideas (Edwards and Knight 1995)

Competence bases assessment is much more flexible, it works by giving you a clear goal but the method of achieving it is left open. You can choose what ever learning/investigating/development method that suits you best, maximising your potential (as long as you stay motivated!). This autonomous investigation also has the added benefit of encouraging deeper learning, you are free to pursue what you find interesting therefore the knowledge gathered is personal to you, it means more than just having it given to you to memorise.

At this point in my research I have collated a list of terms assiciated with competence: autonomy, self motivation, problem solving, reliability, reflection, well rounded, self monitoring, aware of wider knowledge/issues, practical, replication and engagement. Below is a table of a taxonomy of objectives for professional education; it’s easy to see the similarities:

Mental characteristics Attitudes and values Personality characteristics Spiritual qualities












Emotional resilience



Mental skills Information skills Action skills Social skills










Decision making

Problem solving






Factual knowledge Experiential knowledge









(Edwards and Knight, 1995, pp.125)

So, what is competence? In doing this research my original definition now seems deficient. Competence is not just about having knowledge or understanding the theory of a subject, or even about being able to pass on that knowledge, it’s about being able to ‘do’ as well as ‘say’. To be competent in a subject you need to understand it but also to be able to apply your understanding, to make a product or to be able to understand why something isn’t working and how to fix it.

Tall order… I’ve made a start in the keypad safe project but I have so much more to cover before I reach competence!

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