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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



The skills approach: one tool among many others

by Sébastien Pesce
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR


On 16 February 2017, Erasmus+ France and CNAM (Science & Technology School) , in partnership with François-Rabelais University (Tours), held a study day entitled "Mobility and skills: recognition and acknowledgement", to coincide with the publication of the fourth issue of the Journal of International Mobility. I take this opportunity to sum up the remarks which inspired me: the voicing of participants' opinions, and the many valuable open discussions on the themes of mobility and skills; on which I am not an expert, but which I have the opportunity to encounter in the course of my work as a teacher, then a trainer.


The skills approach: one tool among many others


What this day reminded us, first and foremost, is that a skill is a tool, as was emphasised by Mariela de Ferrari; and, as was stressed by Anne-Lise Ulmann, that we 'do things' with tools, things which have consequences on training, on the career, and on the experience of those with whom we are working,. A tool, I might add, among others; and one which is not necessarily imposed on us just because everybody is talking about it. A tool: that is, something which is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad, and whose effects will essentially depend on the way in which the user chooses to implement it. We need to know that we should use it when it serves our purposes, and not to use it, if it threatens to create the undesirable effects which were mentioned by Anne-Lise Ulmann in her opening remarks.


The various contributions helped to point out that mobility allows the acknowledgement and recognition of acquired skills, and that the skill terms of reference offer a way to organise mobility by providing a common language, not just between countries, but also between different worlds: most importantly the worlds of of 'business' and 'school'. If skills are tools, they are first and foremost tools for communicating between the players who, especially on an economic level, are complementary. This feature of the skills approach was particularly noticeable in the results of the relationships between players mentioned by Thierry Joseph. Moreover, if skills are tools, this is as a notion or concept; indeed, as a way of observing reality (the practices, actions, knowledge, and relationships with his environment which the student forms during his training or at work).   Gaston Pineau often reminds us that it is the concept which puts the iron into the fire: in the words of Vermersch, it's an abstract handle which contributes to the understanding of the activity's everyday reality.


On the point of the adverse effects of skills, we can recall, with Anne-Lise Ulmann, the extremely ideological dimension of the concept.  The skills approach can lead to an over-emphasis of economic issues, and to relegate the existential issues of mobility, as raised by Pierre Courbebaisse, to a secondary level, and to ignore phenomena such as those mentioned by Cécilia Brassier-Rodrigues: returning students who are different, not simply because they have acquired new technical skills, but also because, in the course of their meetings and experiences, they have developed what many call transverse skills.


Skills are tools, tools which sometimes tend to move to the forefront of economic concerns, and which sometimes become overly technical in  everything they affect: training, mobility, interaction between players, careers … tools which I would like to suggest are not always very poetic … or, in other words, things which sometimes overcome the human, social or existential dimensions of the trainees' experience. But this is the downward spiral to which all the contributors have referred: for example Florent Teyras, by mentioning the symbolic dimension involved in the initiation of the Compagnons; or Mariela de Ferrari in her allusion to the measures which restore dignity to those who are trapped, by recognising their skills.


Because if we are not careful, the gap between what we are trying to do in using the skills model and what is actually achieved could move our activities a long way from the laudable aims we set in the first place. Above all, what we are trying to do is to make know-how visible, to develop our ability to talk about it, and then quite simply first to be aware of it, and then to account for it. Moreover, what we are trying to do is to express the point of view of the person who is learning, or who is carrying out an activity: the skill is seen from the perspective of the person engaged in the activity ("he or she is capable of…"), while the Knowledge, with a capital K, is always on the side of the person who is teaching, passing on or directing.


But while aiming at these praiseworthy objectives, these terms of reference also have another effect: they lead to organising know-how, creating themes or classifications, conforming to predetermined progressions, and at the end of the day, very often, to scheduling, planning, and controlling (training programmes, the recognition of acquired knowledge, mobility, etc.) Terms of reference are by definition tools whose field is normative, and who by 'providing' sometimes simply stop things from occurring.  And the most obvious result, which summarises all those risks, arises when the skill ceases to be a tool, when experience becomes the means of the skill, where the skills approach should serve the experience.


If we return to a skill, in the first place it is there to serve a project, such as a mobility: a mobility which, in a relatively technical, material way, describes a movement, a simple physical displacement, which is part of something more extensive: a journey, a journey which we should not reduce to a mere mobility. It is in this sense that we have enjoyed (because I use the hypothesis that this has been shared by the public, and by all of those involved) a great deal of pleasure during this day, by seeing mobility described as setting thought in motion, as an accelerant of experience and skills; or as a means for young people being trained to come back 'changed'. It is because we wanted to give a place to these essential dimensions in mobility that we felt the need to think of the forms of skill reporting which prohibit the dismissal of the experiences of travel, of submitting to technical discourse, and to the reduction and concealment of referred human, social, and humanitarian goals.


If skills are tools, then we must, just as is the case with any other tool, make them apt for our hands. The value of the day lies precisely in the testimony of the experiences in which the institutional players, trainers and certifiers, choose to think of the 'home' terms of reference, or more precisely try to escape certain situations (for example terms of reference which are too full or too complex). This was the case in Pierre Courbebaisse's report on the FPP's certifications, and in Mariela de Ferrari 's remarks on transverse skills; in both cases referring to bespoke tools, designed to be neither too general or vague, nor too precise, which would make them unusable. Another issue, for the same reasons, and as we have been reminded, is to think of linking this recognition and certification tool, which forms a skill-based approach, to organisational and institutional, as well as symbolic and inter-subjective, situations.


This excellent day of discussion and debate forms part of a series of events and projects, some taking the form of joint research ventures, to which Erasmus+ France / Education and Training, CNAM and the François-Rabelais University, Tours, are committed. Other closely-related events will continue the exploration of the concept of mobility… and on the journey. I would like to invite any reader wishing to continue his exploration of these themes to read No. 211 of the magazine Permanent Education, on the theme of 'Travel, mobility and self-training', which will be published in early June 2017; or perhaps to join us in Rennes, from 15 - 17 June 2017, for the symposium The Journey; and self-training; but especially to consult, as soon as it is published, No. 5 of the Journal of International Mobility, of which the title will be 'International Mobility: brain drain, brain gain?' Developments in situations and concepts.

Sébastien Pesce is a teacher and a researcher in education

Team « Education, Ethics, Health», François-Rabelais University, Tours

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  • Roseline Le Squère's picture


    Merci pour cet article. Je comprends mal cette notion d'outil.

    Les procédés de gestion de compétences, les référentiels de compétences, les bilans de compétences, etc. sont effectivement bien des outils au service du développement des personnes, de leurs activités, des structures. Mais comment considérer la compétence comme un outil en tant que tel en la déssaisissant d'un support au travers duquel elle peut être travaillée, analysée, accompagnée?

    Liée à la mobilité, la compétence peut, en effet, être un outil de réflexion. Mais à nouveau, la compétence en tant que tel n'est pas un outil. C'est la réflexion qu'elle permet qui va servir à penser les actions de mobilité comme des actions dans lesquelles les compétences se développent, se mobilisent, etc.

    Merci de votre retour.