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The tyranny of competence: why it is bad for us to be ‘good enough’

By John Preston

Our modern working lives are ruled by the concept of competence. Competence based interviews are used to decide if we should get a job. If we do get the job, we are then trained to achieve competency in the workplace. And we might lose that job if we don’t maintain at least a competent performance.

The idea that lies behind competence is quite simple: that one can specify what people should do in behavioural terms, and then measure whether a person has succeeded or failed in meeting that task.

This approach to how work and education should be organised started in the slaughterhouses of Chicago at the end of the 19th century. It was then used in the car production lines of Ford at the beginning of the 20th. Nowadays the idea of competence can be found in every sector of the economy, from manufacturing to finance and retail.

We rarely pay a second thought to whether the idea of measuring and achieving competence is a good one or not. In fact, the whole edifice of competence is a controversial one that doesn’t provide a sound basis for thinking about how people learn and work. Because although machines can be competent, humans cannot.

Grounds for complaint

Humans do not learn and work in ways that can be captured through the concept of competence. Take the example of a barista in a coffee shop who is being trained to make coffee.

The job title of “barista” suggests a degree of skill and craft in making a beverage. However, in the main, baristas in large coffee chains are trained through competence based qualifications. One part of these qualifications is to produce a cup of coffee to meet a minimum standard. It might have to achieve a certain taste, aroma and appearance and to be served in a particular way with no spillage. This might seem perfectly reasonable, but there are two reasons why such an approach to training baristas does not work (and why many independent coffee shops argue for a different, more individual approach to the drinks they serve).

First, the production of a cup of coffee to a certain standard is a binary outcome. The barista can either produce a coffee of a certain standard or they cannot. If they happen to produce the best cup of coffee in the world, with the finest taste and the best flavour, it does not matter, as competence based training does not reward exemplary performance. It can only determine if the standard is attained.

Likewise, producing the worst cup of sludge in the world which was tipped onto the floor would be a fail in the same way as producing a cup just below the standard. There is no room for skill, artistry or improvisation in competence. In fact, competence is not interested in the process of producing a coffee at all – only the final binary outcome.

I, Robot?

Second, if the barista does produce a coffee to a certain standard, competence is not interested in why the barista can do that. Competence is simply about ticking a box, not about looking at how the person learns and how they have come to acquire that skill. It treats people as empty, hollow shells with no activity going on within. Competence is not a human form of learning. All other prior forms of learning, from classical ideas of pedagogy to apprenticeships, have assumed a human subject who undergoes some form of physical, mental or spiritual change.

But humans are not machines that simply produce binary outcomes. They have bodies and minds which change through learning. Humans can meet competences but competence does not suit how humans work and learn. It dehumanises people and makes them the equivalent of dumb and soulless, machines. We can’t be competent if we are to retain our human characteristics.

Your competence test results are here … Shutterstock

Paradoxically, competence itself makes it less likely that learners or workers will consistently meet a certain standard. By rewarding performance which is just good enough, competence rewards a strategy of just doing enough to get through. This makes it more likely that people will sometimes fail to meet that level of performance as it rewards minimal attention to the task.

Yet we are increasingly forced to fit the mould of competence in our schools and workplaces. As I argue in my recent book, such an approach diminishes us as people in terms of ignoring craft, improvisation and even our thoughts. We are not empty machines that simply produce binary outcomes. If we want to be truly human in our learning and our workplaces we need to be exemplary, creative and idiosyncratic. Learning and innovation involve failure in aiming for something that is exceptional. By definition, such things simply cannot be judged by the criteria of competence where the mediocre is the gold standard.

This story first appeared on The Conversation

John Preston is a professor of education at University of East London.

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