Summary part 1 of “Competences in Education for Sustainable Development. Critical Perspectives” (Vare, Lausselet, Rieckmann, 2022)

Continuing my mission of “I am reading it so you don’t have to” on a new book: Competences in Education for Sustainable Development. Critical Perspectives by Vare, Lausselet, & Rieckmann (2022). This is my summary of their Part I, and I was really positively surprised by how much I enjoyed reading the book so far, especially the critical perspectives! And very much worth reading in the original, not just my super brief and very biassed summary!

Part I: Conceptualising Competencies

In this blog post, I am wildly summarising ideas that spoke to me, and which come from across all the chapters in this first part. First, starting out with

How we came to use competencies as learning outcomes

The “competence turn” is the shift from teaching to learning, or curriculum as content to be transmitted to curriculum as product, that happened before and with the Bologna reform. I vividly remember writing learning outcomes with many different teachers for even more courses at TUHH, to take them from lists of content to something that described knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students were supposed to be able to demonstrate (and how) at the end of the course. That was perceived as cumbersome and unnecessary by many, but I think over time, many came to appreciate that having good learning outcomes makes it easier to design both assessment and learning activities (constructive alignment, yay!). But a next step in the development might be to shift further to curriculum as process, where teachers become “facilitators of knowledge production and values identification”.

But now that we are using competencies as learning outcomes, there are a lot of different frameworks out in the world, for students at different levels, but also for educators.

“Being able” and “being willing” are not the same thing

One chapter by Shephard “on the educational difference between being able and being willing” left a big impression on me, even though what they write is not revolutionary. The main point is that critical thinking is always difficult and takes a lot of energy, so just because we are able to do it does not mean we are willing to put in the work in all situations (oh how I can relate to that!!). Competence however, they argue, is not just being able, but also being willing.

Competency-based education developed when the US tried keeping up with the USSR in the space race in the 1950ies, and, Shepard argues, is basically an extension of behaviourism — a certain trigger leads to a certain behaviour — so education becomes training with minimal free choice and maximal abilities. So the “being able” part is easily achieved. But teaching the “being willing” part can be seen as brainwashing, since of course what we are and are not willing to do depends on what we value. This leads to the question of which affective outcomes we should teach, and which not?

A focus on sustainability “competences” comes with risks

I really enjoyed reflecting on this part! There are several risks associated with a focus on “sustainability competencies”:

  • Conceptual confusion: in different traditions and languages, “competence” (competency, competencies) mean different things, so it is important to clarify what is meant, what the goals are, and how they are to be achieved
  • Centrality of context: a competence can only be acquired and demonstrated in a context. But since we are teaching competences for an unknown future, it is not possible to practice in an authentic context, and it is not clear if/how the competences will be transferrable to the unknown future. Also, competences will (need to!) evolve over time. One framework (the “Rounder Sense of Purpose”) suggests a view of competences as colours on an artist’s palette, that are to be combined in unique ways depending on context, and can be added to.
  • Impacts on pedagogy: if we think about competences as observable behaviours, they should probably not be taught through transmission but rather through experience and practice. And they should not be assessed in atomic pieces of knowledge, skills, etc, but more holistically. Assessment of tiny checkboxes also influences how students see their role, and can hinder them from seeing the bigger picture, taking a stand, becoming who they want to be. An alternative to competences as goals is aiming for a broader “sustainability commitment”, which consists of intellectual, emotional and practical aspects (including competences, just not described in as much detail — this is my favourite head-hands-heart model!).
  • Distractions from fundamental issues: If we focus too much on teaching too detailed competencies according to some framework, we might lose sight of the bigger picture and not stay critical: “However, if there is one competence that any self-respecting educator for sustainability might usefully burnish, it is the ability to maintain a critical eye in the face of any framework that comes their way, even (or especially) those that come with the full weight of official compulsion. If education is about anything, it is surely about opening our minds to the myriad possibilities presented by our changing, uncertain world— and recognising the dangers of focusing on too few of them.“. If competency frameworks seem to small, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which is about “empowering individuals to think about sustainable development issues for themselves and to find their own answers” is another useful approach.
  • Educators need to learn how to teach competences, both in terms of what to teach (content knowledge) and HOW to teach it (pedagogical content knowledge).
  • Educators need to see themselves as change agents! Do we really want able teachers (in the sense of their knowledge and skills) teaching our young people anything to do with sustainability unless they choose to role model what it is that they are obliged to teach? … Might we be contributing to a generation of knowledgeable bystanders to social, economic, and environmental collapse?

Problems with how competence frameworks are currently used

Following up on the point above that teachers need to learn how to work with competency framework, here are a couple of common problems:

  • Instead of treating frameworks as frameworks where all competencies are covered and integrated, they are treated as “grocery lists”, where people pick and choose what to address. But in a framework, all competencies need to be addressed, and combined, in teaching. There also seems to be a tendency to neglect interpersonal competency development (teamwork, …) and assume that it will happen automatically just because people are working in groups.
  • Competency frameworks are often insufficiently operationalized and coordinated at program level, and instead the responsibility is left to instructors who are typically not equipped to work with it. It is difficul to distinguish key competencies from each other and from general other competencies; competencies are practiced in isolation rather than combined; it is difficult to see and point out the relevance for future jobs; and there is no base for assessment.
  • There is insufficient alignment between competencies and pedagogies: different competencies require different pedagogies (e.g. anticipation through creative didactics, normative through discursive didactics, interpersonal through experiential and project-based didactics)
  • There is insufficient assessment of competence development, which makes it difficult to demonstrate successful learning in assessment, and also difficult to demonstrate mastery to future employers
  • There is insufficient assessment of professional success: can graduates actually make a positive impact in the real world?

Good practice for using competence frameworks

Now that we know the difficulties with implementing competence frameworks, here are some good practices:

  • Covering and integrating competencies — in a competencies-oriented curriculum planning, where all courses contribute, and some courses combine and integrate several competenes. On curriculum level, we need a roadmap with different pathways to acquire all competencies.
  • Operationalizing competencies in specific learning objectives relevant to each course (See Wiek et al., 2016, for examples!), to make them tangible and relevant, assessable, and to reinforce through repetition.
  • Aligning pedagogies to competencies: different competencies need different methods (see above)
  • Assessing competence development. See for example Redman et al. (2021) for an inventory of what is used, compiled into three meta-types (self-perceiving, observation, and test-based approaches), with examples for all
  • Assessing professional success in e.g. simulations

Should we develop our own competence framework?

I really like a bold statement: While more momentum needs to be created in changing the educational practice and underlying drivers, from institutional support to individual responsibility, one aspect we feel compelled to advise against: no more reinventing competencies in sustainability! There is so much work to be done to make the practice of sustainability education more effective and efficient, before running out of time, that all of our collective effort should shift there. The existing convergence on a framework of key competencies in sustainability problem solving seems sufficient for moving forward on advancing the educational practice that the well-being of people and planet depends upon, at least to a significant extent.

And those were my main take aways of part 1 of the book!

Featured image: Our coffee corner in the office, where I sat and started reading this book a long time ago, when we had just gotten the new furniture (that is a real upgrade from what we had before!)

Redman, A., Wiek, A., & Barth, M. (2021). Current practice of assessing students’ sustainability competencies – a review of tools. Sustainability Science, vol. 16, pp. 117-135.

Vare, P., Lausselet, N., & Rieckmann, M. (2022). Competences in Education for Sustainable Development. Critical Perspectives. Springer International Publishing.

Wiek, A., Bernstein, M., Foley, R., Cohen, M., Forrest, N., Kuzdas, C., Kay, B., & Withycombe Keeler, L. (2016). Operationalising competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In: Barth, M., Michelsen, G., Rieckmann, M., Thomas, I. (Eds.) (2016). Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development. Routledge, London. pp. 241-260.

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