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On the important differences between literacies, skills and competencies.

Literacies, skills and competencies

I’ve currently knee-deep in web literacies stuff for Mozilla.

Or should that be web skills?

Or perhaps web competencies?

It’s a complex, contested, and nuanced area. The differences between literacies, skills and competencies shouldn’t merely be glossed over and ignored. These differences are important.

Let me explain.

Literacies

Literacy is the ability to read and write. Traditionally, this has meant the ability to read and write using paper as the mediating technology. However, we now have many and varied technologies requiring us to ‘read’ and ‘write’ in different ways. As a result we need multiple literacies.

Because literacy depends upon context and particular mediating technologies there is, to my mind, no one literacy to ‘rule them all’. Literacy is a condition, not a threshold.

Skills

A skill is a controlled activity (such as a physical action) that an individual has learned to perform. There are general skills (often called transferable skills) as well as domain-specific skills.

Skills are subject to objective thresholds. So, for example, badges awarded by Scouting organisations signify the reaching of a pre-determined level of skill in a particular field.

Competencies

A competence is a collection of skills for a pre-defined purpose. Often the individual with the bundle of skills being observed or assessed has not defined the criteria by which he or she is deemed to be ‘competent’.

Competencies have the semblance of objectivity but are dependent upon subjective judgements by another human being (or beings) who observe knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Conclusion

The important point to make here is that whilst competencies can be seen as ‘bundles of skills’, literacies cannot. You cannot become literate merely through skill acquisition – there are meta-level processes also required. To be literate requires an awareness that you are, indeed, literate.

That sounds a little weird, but it makes sense if you think it through. You may be unexpectedly competent in a given situation (because you have disparate skills you have pulled together for the first time). But I’m yet to be convinced that you could be unexpectedly literate in a given situation.

And, finally, a skill is different to a literacy in the sense that the latter is always conditional. An individual is always literate for a purpose whereas a skill is not necessarily purpose-driven and can be well-defined and bounded.

Does this resonate with you?

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