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Viewpoint: Contemplating Competence

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The recent Education Report cover story, "Lifelong Learning: Engineers Grapple With Barriers to Access and Delivery", emphasized the importance of lifelong learning for engineers, focusing primarily on classroom and online instructional settings. However, engineering is as much an art or craft as it is a science; it requires experience and know-how as well as information. In other words, it involves the exercise of skill, not just an awareness of facts and techniques.

That is why engineering prowess is usually described in terms of competence, rather than in terms of intelligence. Engineering licensure is meant to authorize only those with sufficient competence to practice legally, and continuing professional development is mandated in many jurisdictions to ensure that licensed engineers maintain adequate competence over the course of their careers.

But what constitutes competence, and what degree of competence is an appropriate minimum? To gain a better understanding of what it means to be competent and what it takes for someone to become and remain competent, it is helpful to consider how people typically develop skills.

Skill Acquisition

Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus and his brother Stuart, an industrial engineer, conducted a phenomenological study of various "unstructured" problem areas, such as task environments that contain a potentially unlimited number of details that may or may not be pertinent. The resulting model of skill acquisition:

1. The "novice" complies with strict rules based on context-free features of the task environment.

2. The "advanced beginner" recognizes situational aspects of the task environment and follows maxims to adjust his or her actions accordingly.

3. The "competent performer" does not try to account for all discrete elements of the task environment; instead, he or she selects a plan, goal or perspective to establish which elements are relevant and which may be safely ignored.

4. The "proficient performer" no longer reflects on the task environment as a detached observer; without having to evaluate multiple options, he or she simply sees what needs to be done and then chooses how to go about doing it.

5. The "expert" intuitively perceives both what needs to be done and how to do it, making extremely subtle and refined discriminations in a variety of task environments that are sufficiently similar to those previously encountered.


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