How to use competence frameworks?

G. Pirker, N. Zimmermann, R. Martínez (2021) in: Patricia Hladschik, Claudia Lenz, Georg Pirker (Ed.) (2021). The Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture and the Non-formal Education Sector. With articles of O. Jantschek, L. Meijer, S. Oesterle, H. Lorenzen, T. Nieselt and contributions from P. Carega, N. Zimmermann, R. Martínez. 91 pages, DARE network Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, DARE Blue Lines, Brussels, 2020.

Some thoughts about learning

Learning can take place everywhere, at any age and in any situation. Successful and relevant application of learning happens when individuals activate and apply their knowledge, attitudes and skills in a specific situation. Knowledge, skills and attitudes complete and support each other and by doing so, they help people to master complex challenges in private, social and professional situations.

From a lifelong learning perspective, people spend a short amount of time in education institutions. But does learning stop afterwards, and does it only take place in formalised structures? Probably not. Even those that are uneager to learn in a conscious way will do it often unconsciously, or in educational jargon, ‘informally’: describing ‘forms of learning that are intentional or deliberate but are not institutionalised’ (UNESCO Glossary).

Outside of formal learning settings, there are vast frames and opportunities where learning continues and where people use opportunities for self-development. People learn intentionally based on interest in groups or in provision of youth work, in and out of school, in society, jobs, families, from books, trainings, or through civil engagement and volunteering. Learning experiences form a lifelong learning biography and are part of a continuing process. Learning relates to connecting experience acquired in different social roles and in different fields of education. At the end, the impact of education, training and of learning tests whether a learner is able to draw from diverse experiences in order to apply them in concrete (new) situations.

Competence frameworks describe the goal of learning as an individual ability, while traditionally, goals often follow an overly strong topical logic. Instead of thinking about ‘what elements do I have to teach?’, the question shifts rather to: ‘What should learners be able to do afterwards?’ or even more broadly, recognising that what is being perceived as the relevant learning paths from any designed learning can vary a bit from the participant’s perspective.

A competence-centred approach assumes that it can be most effective to combine these learnings outside the formal setting with a conscious learning design – to transform informal learning into ‘non-formal’: ‘Learning which is embedded in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view’ (CEDEFOP Glossary), but accompanied by professional educators/facilitators and oriented on a topic. Competence frameworks support creating such embedded learning outside the formal context so that learning does not take place only in formal education institutions. They also provide orientation to educators and learners in the absence of a curricular structure and help to see the golden thread in activities that go beyond a simple topic-structured agenda.

Youth Work Principles and Non-formal Learning

There are seven guiding characteristics of non-formal learning activities:
1. Voluntary, holistic and process-oriented
2. Accessible for everyone (ideally)
3. Organised process with educational goals
4. Participative and learner-centred
5. Based on experience and action and the needs of the learners
6. Provides life skills and prepares learners for their role as active citizens
7. Includes both individual learning and learning in groups

In outlining the central aims of non-formal citizenship education with youth, one can also draw a connection to competence frameworks in the context of democracy learning:

  • They aim at personal growth and development of learners as individual and social beings and prioritise self-reflection and self-directed learning with a focus on personal attitudes and democratic self-efficacy.
  • They enable learning in the practical skills dimension – achieving social impact, participating and civic engagement (capacity building).
  • They include, certainly, the learning dimension of classical knowledge about democracy.
  • In addressing knowledge, skill and attitude competences, they evolve and support the application of democracy in a holistic way: as a form of governance, form of organising social processes, intellectual concept and as a form of living.

Civic education with youth, as also mirrored in European Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (EDC/HRE) and youth policies, as set out by the European Youth Work Agenda, aims to develop competences for democratic (inter) action and critical action and thinking and supports awareness-raising to understand power relations in our societies. A core of democracy learning with young people is to acknowledge our reciprocal responsibilities as educators and learners for human rights and for emancipatory and power critical effects of learning.

As diverse as the interests and social contexts of individuals are, in EDC/HRE, we understand education not from the definition of who the learning providers are (formal, non-formal) but what kind of impact it aims for (civic competence). There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but a variety of valid contextual factors, experiences, spaces, and socio-cultural and political backgrounds in which EDC work with youth is embedded. It is for this reason that it is important to demand public responsibility in providing youth with spaces for emancipatory and power-critical learning about democracy, thus acknowledging the fact that a democracy needs to be learned, thought over, fought for, understood and recognised by every new generation again. It cannot be taken for granted.

Non-formal education has been a recognised feature of vast activities of the European youth field, but it has also become increasingly recognised at the EU level. The Council of Europe’s Conference of Ministers included non-formal education as a key contribution in its Agenda 2020, and the Council of Europe’s Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education states the importance of non-formal learning specifically for democracy and human rights education. Non-formal learning was also included in the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for Education 2030 in working towards Sustainable Development Goal 4.7. Efforts to set quality standards have evolved alongside this increased recognition, although there is debate over whether increased standardisation actually changes the core characteristics of this type of learning, which prizes a learner-responsive approach (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, 2008).

Non-formal education is considered a subsection of youth work and is one of the original aims set out in the European Youth Work Agenda (published in 2020), which provides strong statements for democracy-building and civic education. Although non-formal education is considered to be part of the field of youth work, it is a more specific and intentional educational opportunity. It can certainly take place in classic youth work spaces such as youth clubs, but in the aftermath of the European youth work conventions, there has been an increasing recognition of the need to develop institutions which focus more exclusively on non-formal education, where programming is pedagogically planned but does not offer a certificate or degree. In particular, EDC/HRE approaches put emphasis on active citizenship (or in newer terminology: critical youth citizenship) and see the importance of providing spaces and opportunities for self-directed and autodidactic learning, treating these guiding characteristics and ideas as necessary conditions for political participation. Therefore, competence orientation demands EDC/HRE provide youth space for emancipatory deliberation and asks that EDC/HRE accompany the learner in a supportive way, rather than in an instructive, ‘all-knowing’ role.

Competence-centred Learning

Considers all learners’ experience of diverse situations, roles and life phases as a
relevant resource.

Goes beyond knowledge-centred teaching to understand competence as knowledge
and critical understanding, skills, attitudes, behaviours and values, and an
understanding of how they interact.

Takes the individual learner seriously and tailors the learning design to their needs

Strengthens individual ownership of their learning biography.

Sees learning as a social and cooperative process – between classroom and real life,
formal, non-formal and informal learning, and between sectors.

Appreciates the diversity of perspectives and learning styles in a group as a potential (instead of trying to even these qualities).

Is relevant, because it allows learners to apply their abilities in many different social roles and situations.

Is flexible, because it understands learning as a process instead of forcing it into an
overly linear curriculum.

This does not mean that content is less important. Rather, the idea of competence- centred learning responds to the fact that learning is more effective when treated as a non-linear process involving head (knowledge dimension), heart (attitudes dimension) and hands (skills dimension), taking place in an area between theoretical reasoning and practical experience, and practised in a mix of individual and social forms.

The challenge for educators has always been to compose learning designs that give these aspects appropriate attention, which quite often happens implicitly. Competence concepts encourage educators to make this explicit and explain how this holistic learning happens and what kind of attitudes, skills and knowledge are involved in particular.

The focus automatically shifts toward the individual learners’ capacities. The questions arising from such a resource-oriented perspective are:

  • What exactly are they doing well?
  • Where exactly do they see potential or feel a need for improvement?

A competence-centred description of learning goals and learning outcomes also helps educators and learners to (self-)assess and describe competence level and progress during a learning process more precisely, because it invites one to look at the individual capacities and areas for development. Concretely, during a learning process, a competence reference can work as a good frame for regular reflection and for assessment.

Levels of Proficiency

Competence frameworks define the competences and indicators distinguishing different levels of proficiency. The way in which the RFCDC tackles this proficiency is very interesting. The descriptors of each competence are ordered as basic, intermediate and advanced. In this way, for the competence of knowledge and critical understanding of politics, law and human rights, being able to explain why everybody has a responsibility to respect the human rights of others would represent a basic form of the competence, while being able to describe the diverse ways in which citizens can influence policy would represent an advanced one.

On the other hand, in the same form that most frameworks define competences as the sum of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, they provide a reference of proficiency levels for each competence. For instance, in the EntreComp competence framework for entrepreneurship and initiative, these are:

foundation Relying on support from others
intermediate Building independence
advanced Taking responsibility
expert Driving transformation, innovation and growth

Some models have a schematic understanding of the proficiency levels, which leads educators to presuppose the need for an equal fulfilment of competences on one proficiency level as a condition for the step to another one. Other models, in exchange for the level of proficiency, introduce an approach following a model of growth and process-orientation of learning. They make us aware that learners do not need an expert level of competence in every domain and regarding every required skill, attitude or knowledge. Designers of other competence frameworks, such as the authors of EntreComp, make this more realistic perception of individual competences clear: ‘We are not suggesting that the learner should acquire the highest level of proficiency in all 15 competences, or have the same proficiency across all the competences’ (Bacigalupo, Kampylis & Punie, 2016, p. 10) . Therefore, competence frameworks allow a realistic view of one’s own capacities and potential.

Competence frameworks: Explore the commonalities and differences

When the Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture came into existence, it joined a well-established family of competence frameworks. Competences in these frameworks overlap at times, while others are specific for that frame. Educational practitioners working for human rights and democracy operate in schools, youth work and outside of these settings in personal and group processes. Other times, the approach to participation or citizenship education might be through sport, language or entrepreneurship.

The competences for democratic culture are centred on the competences of the learner in formal settings. There are other more general competence frameworks with a focus on non-formal education or ones that support the educator in their development process.

In the context of Competences for Democratic Culture and EDC/HRE these conceptions are – among others – worth to take notice of:

  • Council of Europe Youth Work Competence
  • ETS Competence Model for Youth Workers to Work Internationally
  • ETS Competence Model for Trainers
  • Key competences for lifelong learning
  • DigComp 2.2: The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens
  • EntreComp, The European Entrepreneurship Competence Framework
  • LifeComp: The European Framework for the Personal, Social and Learning to Learn Key Competence
  • GRETA, Professional Teachers Competence Model in Adult and Continuing Education

When competences have universal characteristics, they are named transversal or key competences, in contrast to specific competences, which are required more or less in only one specific field or learning context.

Key competences help people to easily transfer what they have learned into their lives as active citizens and changemakers. In a broader sense, the outcome of the learning process is turned into a practical skill and a new attitude, which allows people to act accordingly in complex social situations (OECD: The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies).

Lifelong learning outside of schools and universities requires that learners identify their challenges, needs, and motivations for self-development, as well as for social development. It also requires a capacity for self-discipline to overcome challenges successfully. In this sense, becoming an active citizen is a process of self-development.

Therefore, when we talk about emancipation, we need to consider a sense of personal responsibility, initiative and the capacity for self-development as key factors.

There is no competence framework covering all transversal competences, and different frameworks may have different focuses. In this sense, educators have to develop educational designs, which put together ingredients from different competence frameworks and specific learning goals of their organization or education institution into a meaningful whole. Sticking to the example, it is worth reading different frameworks to spot differences in order to decide how much effort one would like to invest and what kind of methodology one would use in order to address certain competences.

Competence frameworks help educators understand the nature of a single competence better and also to understand more clearly how it relates to other competences relevant in their learning context.

  • This is a shortened version of the article. The whole article can be found here