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This Iceberg Could Sink the Titanic

A few days ago I received a notice about a report on teaching students in the lower levels of vocational education, blinked a couple of times and then checked whether the notification was real or whether it came from The Onion, or in this case - as the report was Dutch - from De Speld. Why? Because of the following illustration and its explanation.


Learnability and importance of competencies and personal characteristics from the iceberg structure [Report - Translated by me]


The research was meant to answer questions regarding the competencies that teachers need to have and develop in order to do a good job teaching at the lower levels of vocational education. I have always learned and taught that, regardless of the rest of a piece of research (that is its methodology, data analysis, etc.), he basis is its theoretical foundation. The report’s authors state in their introduction that the theoretical foundation underlying their research is what they call the competency iceberg. As far as I have been able to discern, the competency iceberg holds that “a competency has some components which are visible like knowledge and skills but other behavioural components like attitude, traits, thinking styles, self-image, organizational fit etc [which] are hidden or beneath the surface”. The authors add two things to what I have found about this model.

First, they add that deeper lying personal characteristics –I myself prefer the term higher order - are on the one hand essential for functioning in one’s chosen vocation or profession, but are hard to learn and train. [Note: I really don’t understand the authors’ use of “but” since the preposition “but” signals that something contrasting with what has already been mentioned is being introduced and this is not the case here]. Other than the use of “but”, there’s not a cloud in the sky nor on the horizon. Indeed, such things are really hard to convey as a teacher, let alone acquire as a learner.

The authors then add a second feature to the iceberg, namely that such domain knowledge and skills are relatively easier to teach than the personal characteristics [still no problem], but are less important for a professional for carrying out a task. And this is where the sky filled with storm clouds and I had to blink twice as I really couldn’t believe my eyes.

How can the knowledge and skills that are required to understand and carry out a task be less important than what follows (i.e., what lies under the surface of the water)? Do the authors really mean this? Do they mean that they would want to go to a mechanic, plumber, doctor, or whatever professional you can think of who is highly motivated, persuasive, passionate and so forth, but who knows very little about her/his professional domain and doesn’t have the skills to work on their car, pipes, bodies or whatever? And since their research is about teachers in the lower levels of vocational education, does this mean tit isn’t important that these teachers are competent in the subject areas that they are teaching, just as long as they have good self-concepts of themselves and are motivated, persuasive, effortful, and passionate?

In any event, I don’t, and I hope not, especially for the students they teach!

Let's stop with such absurd dichotomies! Yes, one is harder to achieve than the other. But saying that one is less important than the other, especially that which is at the foundation of the rest, is like building a house on (quick)sand. It's just going to sink in.

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