Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

The competence approach: Constricting development or the freedom to learn?

Llandis Barratt-Pugh
Faculty of Business
Edith Cowan University

This paper argues that there are many elements of the competence based approach to learning that higher education, which focuses upon student thinking and learning skills, might benefit from reviewing and incorporating.

The current withdrawal and resistance to the competence approach has been largely based upon the perceived restraints that it would introduce to both institutional control and student learning direction and flexibility.

This paper suggests that on the contrary, there are many effective learning principles within the competence approach from which higher education could benefit from incorporating, in recognition of the fact that this approach is destined to be the dominant educational and learner perspective. Rather than opposing the movement, higher education needs to focus upon the adaptation of the diverse educational philosophies which the approach encompasses, in order to enrich the current higher education experience, specifically in the area of cognitive strategy development.

It is specifically the changes in the assessment structure which have the capacity to develop more student centred reflective learning. The establishment of clear outcomes should be seen as not a limiting and constructing framework, but a motivating target which allows the learner freedom to learn. There is in fact a compatibility in terms of philosophical stance between the true aims of higher education and the competence approach.

The challenge for HE is to utilise the benefits of such an approach in a structure that can facilitate more effective student learning. This approach might incorporate many of the major elements of the competence approach but could be viewed more as outcome based development. Here the outcomes would specifically focus on cognitive development as well as content replication. Such a system might provide a more effective learning experience for students and a more rational articulation to the surrounding educational and development environment.

Introduction - The quest for the Higher Education Grail.....

When I question myself about what might be better in a unit, I am inevitably asking myself how I can facilitate more effective student thinking and learning skills (Flannery 1993). But all too often the aspirations that existed in curriculum development are somehow lost within the reality of delivery. The content seems to dominate the process. The aspirations of developing thinking can become secondary or even incidental to securing content and institutional requirements (Clarke, 1986). There appears in the end to be more rhetoric concerning developing student thinking than substance.

While some learners may question continually, many actually accelerate the emphasis on content by demanding facts, concrete answers and "off the shelf" strategies for future situations. Where we concede to their demands, many will develop only limited learning skills and continue to be largely analytically and critically unaware. The proposal of this paper is that the competence based approach, far from restricting student learning, offers an agenda for development towards such real learning (Biggs, 1991).

Currently the government is placing considerable resources (Keating, 1992) at the disposal of the vocational and educational and training sector (VET) to restructure towards a competence based agenda and meet the deficiencies that they perceive exist between the system and future national needs (Finn, 1991). There are similar pressures on Higher Education both to respond to related articulation issues and to be more precise in terms of outcomes (Guthrie, 1994).

There is no reason why such pressures should be viewed as cumulative and in addition to the perennial struggles to facilitate more effective learning. The proposal of this paper is that by taking a fresh look at the opportunities offered by a competence based approach some answers to both the need to clarify outcomes and the need to enhance the development of student cognitive strategies may be forthcoming. There must be a recognition that some incongruities do exist between the current national competence framework for Vocational Education and Training and the aims of the Higher Education system. However this paper takes the view that there are sufficient flaws in the current delivery of higher education to indicate that further examination of any system which might enhance real student learning should be pursued (Carmichael, 1993).

Competence is not enough - But it is not a bad place to start...

Higher Education will shortly find itself at the peak of an educational pyramid which will be increasingly based in the competence approach (NOOSR, 1993, Sanders, 1994). There will be continued pressure upon higher education to embrace the competence based approach that is permeating all other segments of the educational and training system (AV-CC, 1994). Resistance to such incursions have been largely based upon the argument that a competence based system would constrain the learning horizons of higher education students and construct them through externally determined content, at the expense of learners developing their own critical abilities and cognitive skills. Many would criticise the competence approach because such an framework (Gale, 1994, Hedberg, 1993, Hayes, 1992); Upon further examination many of these arguments appear to be either unduly pessimistic or at least rather biased interpretations. Appropriate responses to each of those arguments might be as follows (Hager, 1994, Bowden & Master 1993); These perspectives might be accepted as a more valid interpretation but there still remains the underlying fear of being industry's lackey (Baumgart, Collins, 1992). This political concern is that the competence approach means handing over control of the curriculum. Institutions will be no more than supervising the mastication of boxes of learning defined and composed by others, where students are mere consumers of facts and generic strategies. However the contention of this paper is that the competence approach should not be seen as a system change to realign the focus on power with industry, but an opportunity to develop more relevant learning activity be overhauling the roots of a system that was devised to serve and deliver in a very different environment (Start, 1988).

The roots of the approach - Tracing the family tree...

It is wrong for Higher Education to respond to a system primarily devised for the VET sector. As with any system, it is not just the basic structure of the competence approach that should be considered, but both the underlying educational philosophy and then the realities of implementation which deserve much closer inspection. First a search for the philosophy.

The competence approach should not simply be viewed as a national system as defined by the NTB (1992) in Australia or the NCVQ (1991) in the UK. It has its roots in the dissatisfaction that a number of writers felt with the current system in the sixties and seventies and their suggestions for structural development. Exploring the more recent literature to locate the germination of the competence approach is not an easy task as there is a poverty of academic justification but considerable government rhetoric (Duffy, 1992). Research would suggest that the following figures from diverse fields have been the most influential and have contributed the main thrusts of the competence approach. They produced the four main components that interlink to provide the conceptual development of the competence approach currently in implementation.

Carroll (1963)Mastery LearningEmphasised the need for individual learning programmes not fixed to time periods
Mager (1975)Behavioural ObjectivesFounded the basis of vocational educational programmes being tied to workplace outcomes
AssessmentGlaser (1963)Criterion ReferencingConsolidated an alternative approach to the existing norm referenced assessment process
Tofler (1971),
Illich (1971)
Lifelong LearningProposed that the response to post industrial Ed. needs was a flexible one which replaced front end loading by continual learning

The competence approach is therefore based upon a diverse and complex conceptual framework.. Governments have drawn these components together to form prescribed competence based educational systems (NTB, 1992). However there is no reason why these underlying components could not be examined and reinterpreted in a framework more suitable for the educational aims of Higher Education.

The reality of conflicting models - Building in real learning....

Second, having looked at the roots of the approach, it is important to examine the variation that has occurred in implementation. Often what we propose and then design looks very different in delivery, stranger still to the participants, and possibly dysfunctional after we have evaluated the outcome. How does the competence model built upon the previously detailed principles look in practice? There are evidently some sound educational concepts in the underlying conceptual framework of the approach but there still exists scepticism with the way such concepts are being implemented. Perhaps this is one case for shooting the piano player and then refocussing on the original composition.

The government has proposed that the country requires skills for tomorrow and lifelong learners (Moran, 1993). Logically in an environment of rapid change that should equate to flexible learning skills and aligns with the traditional aims of Higher Education (Berryman, 1993, King 1993). How can a competence based approach deliver such goods? Let us examine what kind of learning benefits an approach based upon such principles and needs can bring to learner development. The change in the assessment process is at the heart of such a system (Jessup, 1991, Thompson, 1989, Knowles, 1983).

The stated outcomes of the competence approach provide visual goals for the learners giving motivation and security to the learning process.

The transparent and continuous nature of the assessment process promotes ownership by the learners and responsibility for evidence collection. As Winter (1989) has suggested they also seek to remove the educational glass ceiling by providing greater access for the culturally disadvantaged.

The individuality of each learners' needs is recognised in charting personal learning patterns towards the learning outcomes giving each learner choice and responsibility.

The continuous assessment and planning process provides the opportunity for reflective learning through the continual review of process and promoting the development of cognitive strategies.

The negotiation of assessment according to the learners' needs allows for individual learning differences.

The removal of competitive hindrances focuses the learners on the true learning struggle with the outcomes.

The focus on practical application provides motivation by connecting the learning to the real world.

So why has a system that offers such andragogical benefits not been embraced (Knowles 1990). There are two main obstacles. The first is that the approach is still erroneously viewed as rigid in structure and the second that the implications for institutional change are realistically daunting.

In the first case there may well currently be examples of those who have used such an approach to further mechanise their training control (Lange, 1993). These examples are a dysfunctional interpretation of the principles that we have reviewed. The more recent trend within several more enlightened practitioners within VET in WA is to focus upon learning skills within their competence approach. There experience is that many students in fact need development in their learning skills to manage their own learning in the more open environment that is being offered to them through the competence approach (Weinstein, Goetz, Alexander, 1988).

In the second case real student focus and choice is not an easy option for institutions. Where handbooks have grown to include many hundred units, the prospect of controlling thousands of individual learning routes is not immediately appealing. Yet there must be the recognition that tackling such an issue is the challenge of the future. If not to promote more customer options from a business perspective, then to develop the learners' own self management abilities through learning responsibility.

The proposal is that while change towards such a competency approach is neither inevitable nor compulsory, improving the current system is necessary, and that these concepts provide a focus for such change.

Outcome based development - A creative interpretation...

Developing learning skills and the cognitive strategies of learners will equip them with the vital resources that they will need tomorrow. While a National competence based system designed for VET may be an incompatible instructional design for Higher Education, it does not provide a framework for change in higher education by providing rational underlying philosophies which could form the basis of a restructuring towards more outcome based development.

Here the outcomes would specifically focus on cognitive development as well as content replication. The outcomes would not be limited to defining just skills and content.

They would specifically encompass the abilities of students to construct and manage their own learning process and reflect upon that learning process (Jonassen, 1991, CTG-VU, 1991). Such outcomes could also specify the relationship and responsibilities of both the learner and tutor. Furthermore they would develop the ability of the learners to analyse the outcomes of the unit and become critically aware of the agenda that was being set for them and the underlying rationale of that agenda. Deconstruction of their learning outcomes would become an integral learning activity (Yeaman,1994). In addition the emphasis upon practical outcomes would necessitate a more phenomenological methodology for such a course structure.

Such an approach would not only demonstrate that Higher Education was listening to the needs of the professions and developing a congruent approach for articulation with the rest of the educational environment, but it would also be underpinned with the deepest concern to develop critical student thinking.


This paper does not intend to sell the competence based approach in terms of the current Australian national system. Rather it recommends that such an approach is based upon an epistemological framework which deserves further scrutiny and that may provide a methodology for achieving greater success in developing learners' cognitive strategies (Le Grand Brant, Farmer, Buckmaster, 1993). The central recommendation is that the core of the competence approach provides us with the appropriate paradigm for learner assessment (Buckle and Riding, 1988, TGAT, 1987, Torrence, 1992).

An outcome based development approach which recognises process goals might enable Higher Education to clarify what it wants to achieve and provide a more effective monitoring platform to see if it has been achieved. By developing the current system with consideration for the concepts inherent in the competence based approach there is the opportunity to produce greater self management and more reflective learning for the learners. This would provide a more fertile environment for the development of student cognitive strategies, their toolkit for the future.


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Please cite as: Barratt-Pugh, L. (1995). The competence approach: Constricting development or the freedom to learn? In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p13-19. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/barratt-pugh.html

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