Competence concepts mapped

(10th in my logic of competence series)

In this series of posts I’ve used many terms as a part of my attempts to communicate on these topics. Now I offer definitions for or notes about both the concepts I’ve used in the blog posts so far, and related ones drawn from a range of other work, and I link to posts where the ideas behind these concepts are discussed or used prominently. Then, towards the end of this post (placed there solely for readability) there is a map of how the concepts I’ve used relate to each other.

There are two main sources for borrowed definitions: first, the European Qualifications Framework (EQF); and second, the European Standard that is currently in the process of being published, EN 15981, “European Learner Mobility Achievement Information”, and its published precursor, CEN Workshop Agreement CWA 16133. While I was nothing to do with the creation of the EQF, I am a joint author of CWA 16133 and EN 15981.

Definitions and notes

term in definition and notes
ability 1;
something that a person is able to do
(Abilities cover both skills and competences, and are normally expressible in the form of a clause starting with an active verb. EQF uses the word “ability” in both definitions. Many learning outcomes are also abilities.)
assessing body organisation that assesses or evaluates the actions or products of learners that indicate their knowledge, skill, competence, or any expected learning outcome [CWA 16133]
assessment process process of applying an assessment specification to a specific learner at a specific time or over a specific time interval [CWA 16133]
assessment result 5; recorded result of an assessment process [EN 15981]
assessment result pattern People most often look for patterns in assessment results, like “over 70%” or “rated at least as adequate” rather than specific results themselves: not many people are interested in whether someone has scored exactly 75%. This concept represents the idea of what people are looking for in terms of assessment results.
assessment specification description of methods used to evaluate learners’ achievement of expected learning outcomes [CWA 16133] This covers all the documentation (or the implicit understanding) that defines an assessment process.
awarding body organisation that awards credit or qualifications [EN 15981]
common contextual term 3;
In any domain, or any context, there are concepts (at various levels of abstraction) that are shared by the people in that domain, that serve as a vocabulary. It is important that the terms used within a domain for the related frameworks, standards, ability definitions, criteria and conditions are consistent in their meaning. This box indicates the need for these concepts to be common, and that terms should not be defined differently for different purposes within a domain.
criterion or condition of performance or assessment 5; (see below)
educational level one of a set of terms, properly defined within a framework or scheme, applied to an entity in order to group it together with other entities relevant to the same stage of education [EN 15981]
effect, product, material evidence material results of a person’s activity If something material endures, it can be used as evidence. If there is nothing enduring, the original evidence need to be observed by witnesses, after which the witness statements substitute for the evidence.
employer agent employing an individual
employer activity actions of the employer
framework or occupational standard 3;
description of an occupational or industry area, conceivably including or related to job profiles, occupational standards, occupational levels or grades, competence requirements, contexts, tools, techniques or equipment within the industry
generic work role what is signified by an appropriate simple phrase appearing in a job advertisement, job specification, or occupational standard
industry sector 4; system of employers, employees and jobs working in related areas that share some of: common concepts and terminology; contexts; a framework or standards; or job requirements
job description or requirement 1;
expression used to describe what abilities are required to perform a particular job or undertake a particular role
knowledge / understanding outcome of the assimilation of information through learning [EQF] (Knowledge is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of work or study. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, skills are described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments).)
level 4; educational level (q.v.) or occupational level (q.v.)
material and social reality This means all of the common objective world, whether described scientifically, or according to social convention, or in any way.
occupational level 4; one of a set of terms, properly defined within an occupational framework, associated with criteria that distinguish different stages of development within an area of competence
(This is often related to responsibility and autonomy, as with the EQF concept of competence. There may be some correlation or similarity between the criteria distinguishing the same level in different competence areas.)
person as agent This represents the active, conscious, rational aspect of the individual.
personal activity set or sequence of actions by a person, intended or taken as a whole
(An activity may be focused on the performance of a task, or may be identified by location, time, or context. Activities may require abilities.)
personal claim 1;
statement that an individual is able to do specified things
practiced skill ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve problems [EQF]
(In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, skills are described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments).)
qualification status awarded to or conferred on a learner
(Many formal learning opportunities are designed to prepare learners for the assessment that may lead to an awarding body awarding them a qualification.) [latest draft of MLO: prEN 15982]
record of experience or practice 3; (This refers to any record or reflection about things done, but particularly in this context about tasks undertaken.)
task specification for learner activity, including any constraints, performance criteria or completion criteria
(Performance of a task may be assessed or evaluated. Specified tasks are usually part of job descriptions.)

Criteria and conditions

One particular area that is harder than most to understand is represented by the box called "criterion or condition of performance or assessment" — and this is evidently fairly central to the map below, being the most connected box, and directly connected to the concepts which I originally proposed as logically basic: personal claims may be about meeting these conditions or criteria; job descriptions or requirements may have them included.

Assessment and performance criteria and conditions as general terms are fairly easy to understand in themselves. For assessment, they specify either the conditions under which the assessment takes place, or the criteria by which the assessment is measured. For performance, conditions in effect specify the task that is to be undertaken, while criteria specify what counts as successful performance.

What is less easy to see is the dividing line between these and the ability concepts and definitions themselves, and perhaps this is due to the same fact that we have reckoned with earlier — that how much is abstracted in an ability concept or definition is essentially arbitrary. One can easily read, or imagine, definitions of ability that include conditions and performance criteria; but some do not.

For the purposes of the concept map below, perhaps the best way of understanding this concept is to think of it as containing all the conditions or criteria that are not specified by the ability concept or definition itself; recognising that the boundary line is arbitrary.

To make common sense and to be usable, conditions and criteria have to be grounded in material or social reality — they have to be based on things that are commonly taken to be observable, rather than being based on theoretical constructs.

Concept map

The following diagram maps out several of the ways that the concepts above can be understood as relating to one other. Note that generic language is used in a neutral way, in that for instance the verbs are all in the present tense. However, many of these relationships are in fact tentative or possible, rather than definite, and they may be singular or plural.

Map of related competence concepts

Map of related competence concepts

The diagram is a concept map constructed with CmapTools, and includes various other concepts that I haven’t discussed explicitly, but on which I have suggested definitions or notes above. I reckoned that these other concepts might help explain how it all fits together. As always with these large diagrams, a few words of caution are in order.

  • This is of course only a small selection of what could be represented.
  • It is from a particular point of view, and cannot be perfect.
  • Such a map is best looked at a little at a time. Focus on one thing of interest, and follow through the connections from that.

I hope that the definitions and the concept map are of interest and of use. What the map does not clarify sufficiently is the detailed structure and relationships of ability concepts and structures that contain several of them. This will follow later, but before that, I will review the requirements I have collected for implementation.

Standardization process – ISO SC36

In mid March I spent several days at the ISO SC36 meeting in Strasbourg, an experience which was … how can I say this … frustrating. Let me give some background, explain my frustration, then offer ideas about causes and possible remedies.

ISO/IEC JTC1 SC36 (official ISO page; own web site) is the International Organization for Standardization’s committee on ITLET — information technologies for learning education and training. It currently meets twice a year at points round the globe, and as it was meeting relatively close by, and was dealing with an item of considerable importance to my work (e-portfolio reference model) I chose to attend: not, however, for the full week and more, but just for the WG3 meetings, which spanned 4 days. These meetings are attended by representatives of national standards bodies — in our case, BSI.

What happens at these meetings is governed by procedural rules that participants explain are necessary, and to which they are resigned, rather than interpreting creatively. The problem is not just the process itself, which would not be too bad if everything ran according to plan, but the way in which it is applied inflexibly. Even if it is clear that a draft presented to a committee needs a lot of revision, participants have to stick to wading through as many comments as national bodies have provided. As each national body provides comments independently, many of the comments conflict. Comments can be general, technical, or editorial, and the committee has to find a resolution on each one, fitting in to just one of the few acceptable formulae. This might be fine if everything was going the way the procedure writers imagined, but when it isn’t, it can be excruciating. The only way I found to make it tolerable is to multi-task, and to do other work at the same time as the committee proceedings when the matter in hand was of no great importance (though this does depend on having a good Internet connection available).

The result is great inconvenience, and either an inefficient process where people are only giving part of their attention, or a frustrating waste of time if you try to give the whole of your attention. It’s not that these processes don’t need to be gone through — they do — but better ways must be possible, and surely need to be implemented. For instance, what if the editors received feedback from national bodies, and produced an integrated redraft, dealing as well as they can with all the comments? No physical meeting is needed for this. This inability to change the process to suit the actual situation seems to feed the whole procedural problem.

The consequence of inefficiency could be that busy people are less likely to engage with the process than they might otherwise have been. Or perhaps the people who are really influential in large organisations will just stay at home, and send some minion to do the negotiation for them. That would compromise the nature of any agreement that is able to be reached. Many of the people who do appear at such meetings are either academics, with their own research agenda, or independent or semi-independent professionals, who use the opportunity to network, and in the worst cases (happily not evident at all among the people I met) such people can even use the processes to advance their own business interests at the expense of others. This is hardly the ideal recipe for an effective, meaningful, significant standards-setting body.

Sometimes, committee output is “just a technical report”, with no official status as a standard. Now in CEN, the processes is usefully differentiated: in our area there is an informal Workshop (WS-LT) to discuss things and come to agreements, and a formal Technical Committee (TC353), made up of national body representatives, to take decisions on standardisation. But in ISO, there is no similar division of role.

It seems to me that, particularly in the current economic climate, the SC36 mode of operation may not be sustainable, as people come to apply some kind of cost-benefit analysis. If we want such standardisation bodies to continue in the future, I’d say we need to review the processes deeply, coming to a new understanding of what structures and practices are helpful towards what ends. (We can then ask those who care about those ends to finance the process.)

Of course the following speculation is not of itself going to make changes happen. However, it is just possible that conversations about the issues may help towards a consensus about how to move things forward. (Co-incidentally, see my private blog about the piece by Theodore Zeldin on the Pont de l’Europe in Strasbourg.)

First, I would move most of the ISO process away from face-to-face. We do need to get to know others personally, but this could be done more effectively through something more like an annual conference, with the majority of time devoted to networking, and some presentations of the live issues that most need discussion, in preparation for the consensus process.

Second, I would adapt the processes so that they are better tuned to producing durable consensus. How to do this is too large a topic to address here.

Third, I would put in several checks at different stages of the work to confirm that whatever was being discussed was genuinely of importance to significant stakeholders. When a work item failed such a test, it would be dismissed. This would probably reduce the workload very significantly.

Fourth, I would try (though I don’t know how) to ensure that all participants

  • properly understand consensus process
  • are committed to acting transparently
  • come to the proceedings with good will

Even if bodies like ISO don’t get round to it, it would be good for those who care to formalise some set of principles such as the ones I am suggesting above, resulting in what could be seen as agreed standards for standards bodies. If we had a list of criteria by which to judge standards bodies and standardisation process, we could agree to support and attend only bodies that conformed. This would apply not only to official “de jure” standardisation bodies, but also to the many other bodies (including all those we know in CETIS) that prepare and publish interoperability specifications.

If anyone knows of any such existing guidelines, I’d be grateful to learn of them.