Competence Theory

"Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful."

George E. P. Box

We are aware that there are a number of competence models out there. However, we tried to develop LEVEL5 based on the ones that we consider most useful and convincing to achieve utmost feasibility (to be easy to understand and operate, to befit for purpose, to show utmost flexibility, to connect to other European instruments) – and all that based on our competence definition (LINK).

As defined by various European bodies, as well as by educational experts throughout and beyond Europe, competences consist of three interrelated ingredients:

  • Knowledge (cognition),
  • Skills (capabilities and the overt behavioural repertoire) and
  • Attitudes (related to emotions, motivation, volition and values).

Competences consist of a combination of cognitive, behavioural and affective elements required for effective performance of a real-world task or activity. A competence is defined as the holistic synthesis of these components.

If we see it this way it may be explained as the (inner) potential of a person to tackle a task.

From another (an external) perspective a competence may again be divided in three aspects. A competent person is able to:

  • demonstrate behaviour
  • in a specific context and
  • at an adequate level of quality.

Eventually the context also becomes a crucial factor since it determines the environment in which the individual has to perform – and it is certainly a different matter to solve an exercise or to engage in  role play or to tackle a challenge in real life.  At the same time, this critical element of contextualisation brings in the quality aspect.

The “bow-tie model” is a visualisation of all competence components and their interdependencies, brought together in one picture. In the model knowledge (as is quality) is only one component. We know that what is often criticised in formal education, is that feeding knowledge into learners’ heads and then assessing the extent of its retention is simplistically used to measure ‘quality’. In this more accurate representation, the circle where the two triangles meet can be understood as a kind of “performance lens”. Here, skills and capabilities are acted out and become externally visible with the activities and behaviours (of the learners). At the same time the performance lens also covers the other internal aspects (cognitive and affective) and external aspects (quality and context). Knowledge and cognition are needed to understand the content matter, theories, principles, functionalities and the own behaviour. The affective dimension is vital since learning is always connected to emotions and values which bring in curiosity, motivation and volition (commitment) to learn and develop more.
Bow tie model of competence components

The bow-tie model visualises that, for a holistic understanding of a competence, the performances should neither be reduced to just the knowledge and quality aspect or only the behaviour.

It demonstrates that the shape and the size of the performance lens will indicate the level and quality of a competence. Competence levels are schematically indicated as circles in this model – meaning that an individual is more competent the larger the area covered by the circle is and the more equally all the aspects are covered.

This is how educational scientists may describe what competences are.

To put this in terms perhaps better understood by the layman, this implies that what matters is not only what we know about things, but more importantly it is what we are able to do with this knowledge, and whether we are able to go on developing our abilities.

Should education make learners knowledgeable, or should it make them competent? That is no longer the question.