Competencies and uncertainty

In one of my last pub outings in late February, I met up with a friend, a retired NHS consultant, now a life coach to practicing doctors. She had just been to a  presentation by the existential psychotherapist Ernesto Spinelli and was inspired by his talk on ‘uncertainty’.  Over my large G&T, I asked her to do a bit of on the spot coaching on me with what she had just learnt, which she did. Simply put Spinelli seems to say that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing and it is not, as we often think of it, a temporary state either. Uncertainty is a constant in life and we should work with it to stimulate us into creative thinking and effective decision-making. Now, in the Covid19 crisis, and even if we are among those lucky enough not to be affected healthwise, there is no denying that uncertainty is looming large in all our lives today. For some of us to an unmanageable extent.

This also got me thinking about students; where has their certainty gone? Are they certain about completing their studies? Gaining the skills needed to go into the future with confidence? Or of getting a job? In this, my last write up about the ELSE European project (see my introductory blog here) I will reflect on some of the final discussions within this framework of uncertainty.

One of the final keynotes was by Professor Paolo Paolini from the Polytechnic of Milan. We started off by looking at how knowledge can be defined as  “what you know” and competences as “how you do things”.  Developing competences means that you learn through the process of doing something rather than just aiming for the end goal. However, a lot of assessment in education is still heavily based on the endpoint; just tell us what you know rather than how you learnt what you know. 

The point here was that developing competences are key in an uncertain world; we need to continuously change the way we work, the way we acquire factual or conceptual knowledge, the way we live socially, and finally the way we learn; which again takes us back to the idea of process. This also reminded me of a term I came across recently in an OU innovations report, which was ‘making thinking visible’: 

‘Instead of basing lessons on assumptions about student understanding, strategies for making thinking visible can be used to provide both teachers and students with a more accurate picture of students’ learning needs’ (OU innovation reports.2020)

Paolini mentioned a European skills index study (2019) on competency-based education across European institutions. He pointed out that even though institutions recognise competencies as being key, in practical terms institutions are still mostly organized around knowledge transfer. Of course, many students do develop competencies on their courses, but these tend to be haphazard or even “side effects” of a project activity for example. Furthermore, students that are lucky to develop these competencies may have done so through a natural inclination and in spite of the fact that there was no systematic process in place to support them, as well as any measure of their learning. Indeed it is this measuring which is the real challenge. How can you measure a target level for skills such as collaboration and thinking visibility for instance? Some of the difficulties are that it would involve highly subjective (or arbitrary) qualitative assessments, there would be no ‘standard definition’, it would potentially be a heavy load on the teacher, students themselves might not accept the decisions and even argue that they are not being ‘taught’ properly.

However, the 2019 European skills study does show that across different countries in Europe there is a push to develop innovative educational environments where general competencies such as decision making as well as deep competencies such as creativity and problem solving are explicitly favored and encouraged. Finland was particularly singled out as a country where this competency education is being approached in a systematic and pervasive way.

As the discussions ensued throughout Paolini ‘s talk, as well as the following one given by Aldo Torre that looked at exploiting creativity for innovation; there were more questions than answers. However, one thing is certain; change is always happening and maybe, as Spinelli suggests, there is no choice but to work with uncertainty rather than against it.


Find out more about the ELSE project and the free open-source educational technology tools being developed to support innovation in education in Europe. 



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2 thoughts on “Competencies and uncertainty

  1. thanks for sharing this series Elisabetta and the toolkit, I hope to spend a little more time exploring it in depth. I would be looking forward to a chat over lunch in the LEaD office of course, but we can save that for later.

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