Thursday, January 02, 2014

Competent students vs. competent systems

This is an old paper that need to be reviewed, but as the importance on basic competences learning is growing up related with scholar success, I think we don't have to miss what is actually the "real horizon".


In 2006, Spain adopted a new Education law (LOE-Ley Organica de Educación) and in 2009 all schools in our country were required to implement their curriculums based on this law.
Its major change came in the treatment of the basic competencies (Key Skills in UK) in all the areas of the curriculum and the necessary skills students need for the learning process along their lifetime. The European Education Commission encouraged its Member States to direct their educational policies towards this direction for the improvement in quality and efficiency of the different systems of education.

Basic competences in the Spanish Curriculum
The Basic Competence is defined as “the capacity to respond to complex demands and carry out diverse duties successfully. It involves a combination of practical skills, knowledge, motivations, ethic values, attitudes, emotions and other social components that work jointly in order to achieve an effective action”. (1)

 “The improvement of students’ performance and the mastering of key skills is a challenge for all European countries, which will assess their achievement revealing the evolution of essential skills in students. They will take into account every socio-cultural and economic context to establish appropriate measures for improvement in schools and to review education policies in general”. (2)

For more than two years we have been using this new curriculum. I think most teachers have a clear concept about basic competencies and they design activities, projects and tasks to develop them. But, have real changes been taken place in the classroom? Are we using competent methods? Are we lack of ideas?

It was supposed, by the school year 2010-2011, that the application of this new curriculum will cut dramatically, the number of students with low results in reading, mathematics and science, reported in the National Evaluation tests. But we are far away from this goal. We are facing several drawbacks, impedes and paradoxes to develop lesson plans based on Basic Competences.

I think it is time to reflect about it.

Planning and working by basic competencies in the class has led most teachers (nursery, elementary and secondary) to a considerable change in its methodology.
Premises for a competent activity

Of course, many teachers have already been using project working for years: globalizing the proposals, taking into account the cross curricular studies, designing multidisciplinary tasks and giving value to the procedures as a way of research in the preparation of the final learning goal. But, it is unfortunately true that many other teachers have "stuck" either in the "ready to use" lesson plans, offered by textbook publishers, or in the “few” guidelines provided by the curriculum framework.

Spanish curriculum has changed very little due to its saturation of content, and that makes it a tool rather useless according with the flexibility and connectivity that demands the competencies. And this led the whole system to a strong contradiction.

Inventing gadgets as a way to integrate competencies
The spirit of teaching by competences and its ultimate goal is Learning for Life. This is something impossible to follow when we need our students to take their own responsibilities in the learning process and when we have not yet defined what exactly students need to know to success in life.

So perhaps, the first thing we should have reflected is about what are those skills of paramount importance students must develop during their compulsory schooling. And, of course, listen to the professionals (infant, primary and secondary teachers) and respect their opinion on whether this is suitable a curriculum based on basic competences, or what competences they should have more weight in the teaching-learning process.

In general, the curriculums of the most successful countries in PISA reports are flexible instruments, adaptable and changeable in its content and its application. They are tools to ensure their usefulness to professionals who use them. They are a reflection of the society in which they apply and they are significant tools, full of values and content for the students’ education in all areas of life.

So what happens to us?

Basically we have a crowded curriculum in any area, making it difficult to link the transversal competencies with the basic ones. This makes it clear a static view of knowledge and the impossibility to give dynamism and diversity which it is an essential demand of our classrooms, our schools and their socio-cultural contexts.

Art, the most estrategic competence
Planning units of work by competencies should focus on students and its learning, with a maximum contextualization. This is the only way that students will interpret the world around them and will provide them with tools to modify, transform and build their society.

The main objective aim of our job is to teach for life. This can be achieved planning from a focus topic or a centre of interest or a scenario based on the experiences, knowledge, and aspects of everyday life of children and their environment. But, the different life streams, the emotional and cultural experiences established in the classroom entails the constant need to review the annual, quarterly, weekly, or even daily planning!   

There is no lesson planning that supports the life of the class.

Planning by competencies has many advantages but also some disadvantages. The topics which have been designed and focused on an area have no limits. The real-life situations that we try to work are, sometimes, highly complex and always go beyond their limits, becoming "oil spots" that spread in all directions. So if we want to systematize the teaching-learning process from this topic, this will drive us to coordinate with other teachers of the school involved in the classroom and spend an indefinite time in developing an interdisciplinary program based on real contexts.

Identifying, sorting, classifying...Thinking and organizing!
We do not either forget to think if the planned activities really develop transversal as well as specific competences:  they must be functional tasks; they must facilitate students’ autonomous work; and the contents must be integrated into the constellation of concepts, procedures and attitudes, as rated in our previous educational system.

Reprogramming or "restoring" the planning?

The few instructions given by the new curriculum on lesson planning by competences have left us with a dilemma. It can be assumed that, by simply adding a section in the planning with the competences we want to cover in the unit, will be enough: it is just an "upgrade" of our planning. Maybe this will make us feel comfortable but we will be still far away from working by competences.

There should be a deep reflection that goes beyond the names and words in a grid. We must move towards fundamental changes in education. And these changes have to be produced in the classrooms from Preschool to High School.

Along with content, tools, strategies and procedures, we must insist on values associated with cooperation, pluriculturalism, multilingualism, sustainability, tolerance ... that drive our own methodology to cooperative work and dialogue, project work, analysis and problem solving situations, criticism and discussion. And above all, to observe and take care of complex relationships of children with the group, taking benefit of the wealth that the group brings to children...

But who knows about that?

The society itself who is directed the curriculum, knows nothing of it. We can check it at the meetings for parents at the beginning of the school year.  There has not been a public debate or adequate information. The professionals of teaching, who are those who have first hand information, neither took part in the construction of the new curriculum.

Furthermore, we do not forget that basic competences are not a cure for all problems and endemic illnesses of our educational system.

For the future it sees a choice between two policy directions:
  • a pragmatic approach, as inBritain, of strengthening the existing base of key competencies.
  • an alternative view that a broader and more holistic set of key generic skills is required.
Project working and problem solving: the right moves!

We are still far from a global change in the system. I feel that our curriculum has remained in a draft, in a statement of intent. It lacks definition. It needs to establish clear criteria on the fundamental contents. It must be flexible enough to be put into practice in each and every school situation of our country. It must take into account immigration. It must be more holistic than pragmatic and, especially, it must teach for life, which means to educate for democracy.

© Enric Calvet 


  1. I couldn't agree more with you.
    What an inspiring blog I found!

    1. Sorry for delay in publishing your comment. I've been very busy these days. Thanks for your recognition!