Whether you are just entering the field of education or you’ve been in it for decades, you’ve likely been baffled by what seems like educational alphabet soup. What is the difference between a proficiency and competency? What about the differences between goals, aims and objectives? How are objectives similar to outcomes? how do standards fit in the mix? While I will attempt to explain some distinctions and offer a few definitions in the following article, it is not always that simple. Sometimes the different terms have significant overlap in meaning, but they have different histories or discourses surrounding them. Regardless, I hope that the following short explanations will add a measure of clarity to your thinking.
Another reason that I share these definitions and short histories is to shed light on a contemporary conversation about education, namely the influence of business in modern education. There is no shortage of concern about the McDonaldization of education, the turning of education into a business, and negative corporate influences in education. This is an important conversation, and there are thoughtful and valid critiques. However, even as we look at basic vocabulary that we use to talk about education, you will see that the influences of business are found within the histories of many of these terms. In fact, the same field that shaped much thinking about management and business over the last century and a half has also given us much of our vocabulary for talking about student learning. That field is, of course, psychology. Both education and business have histories that are older than modern psychology, but the influence of this field remains a significant one. And, as you will see, there are also direct influences from management theory that have found their way into education, especially as more treat education mainly as a social science and less as an interdisciplinary child of the humanities (I admit that this battle persists in my own ideas about education.).
Be assured that people will disagree with some of these definitions or parts of them. That is not because these people have necessarily thoroughly studied the usage of a given word in all literature and practices around the world. I have not either. It is instead more likely because they have become familiar with its usage in one or more contexts where they have lived and worked. As such, it is common for people and organizations to establish working definitions, even though there is likely more variety around the same word beyond those contexts. That is a good thing, given that these words do not exist to serve themselves, but instead to help us think about teaching, learning, and curriculum. However, in the spirit of a broad and open appreciation of the terms, I invite you into my messy world of thinking about education, one where I allow some conflicting concepts to co-exist. This is not to suggest that I am free of strong convictions about the best way to proceed, but when it comes to understanding the terms, an accurate view is one that tolerates competing definitions and discourses.
This is a term popularized by outcome-based education advocates and it is a concept that goes back to at least the 1960s. It remains a common term today, having reached and been applied around the world: Japan, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, the United States, and beyond. It is present in medical school, elementary school, secondary, and tertiary education. Specific applications of OBE have been adopted and abandoned at different times and places, with some still applying it. It is important to note, however, that the applications vary from one context to another. Outcome-based education is a broader approach to education, and it is important to note that the term “outcome” is often used without intending to associate it with outcome-based education.
An outcome, within OBE and more broadly, is focused upon what a learner should know or be able to do upon completion of a given lesson, unit, course or even program. Outcomes are often described in contrast to a focus upon presenting or covering content where there is less attention upon what new knowledge or skill is acquired by the learner. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like objective and goal, but has a distinct history due to the outcome-based education movement. Outcomes-based education is also influential in popularizing the concept of what is known often referred to as backward design curriculum development. Start with what we want learners to know or be able to do at the end, and then design backwards from there.
An objective is a statement about a measurable behavior desired of a learner as a result of a lesson. Learning objectives are often used to describe lesson-level measurable behaviors of students. However, it is also common to see objectives uses for measurable behaviors on a full course level. Objectives are sometimes written using the SMART criteria, a concept that appears to come from the business world. As explained by Peter Drucker, SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant and/or Realistic, and Time-framed.
In 2013, I wrote another article where I share a brief history of learning objectives. I’ve included an excerpt below.
If you are an educator, then there is little doubt that you are familiar with the idea of a learning objective. Learning objectives have become so central to the field of education that many might argue they are essential to a quality formal learning experience. And yet, the idea of learning objectives is not that old, at least not if we are looking at the entirety of human history…not even if we are looking at the history of formal education. In fact, some point to a 1918 text called The Curriculum as the starting point for the modern idea of learning objectives. The utilitarian approach to education asserted in this text (clearly informed by the industrial revolution) sought to design lessons and units of instruction by first analyzing humanity in society, breaking down the necessary skills and knowledge into “objectives” that can then inform what one teaches in the classroom.
Later, new movements challenged this utilitarian approach to education, but they also managed to further entrench learning objectives in educational discourse. All of this happened along a growing collective desire to improve the quality of schools and education by moving beyond rote memorization and tasks (think “progressivism”). This called for assessment and evaluation. In order to improve something, people argued that one needed to know how we define improvement. In terms of learning, that led to very specific and measurable objectives. Behaviorism, which emphasizes the importance of observable behaviors in learning, helped provide the paradigm from which to think about such measurable objectives. It is at this point that we see the introduction of the now well-known Bloom’s taxonomy, a tool for creating clear, specific and measurable learning objectives; ones that make evaluation attainable.
In the 1960s, with the work of people like Robert Mager, behavioral objectives gained even more ground. Mager’s work centered largely upon training for military and industrial settings, so his focus upon measurable objectives was, in many ways, a return to the initial utilitarian reasoning behind objectives. If you are an educator and you remember being chastised for writing a learning objective that started with “to know” or “to understand”, then you can thank Mager for that correction, given that he wanted objectives to focus upon observable behavior. The story continues into the 1970s right up to contemporary times, with new ways of categorizing and developing various types of learning objectives.
In contemporary education, talk about learning objectives, outcomes, goals and standards are commonplace. There are, of course, newer terms and phrases that people use for curriculum planning and lesson development, especially with the influence of Understanding by Design, where we talk about things like essential questions and enduring understandings. And still, schools of all levels find themselves building curriculum on the basis of internal or external standards, breaking those down into smaller segments that are, for all practical purposes, learning objectives.
While many use objective, goal, outcome and aim as synonyms; others use a goal as a broader measurable behavior, something that would be demonstrated across a unit instead of a single lesson or learning experience. For example, Leslie Wilson describe a goal as more specific than an aim, but more general than an objective.
As with most educational concepts, goals have a history in psychology. In the cases of goals more broadly, Edwin Locke is among the more notable contemporary scholars of goal-setting, with initial publications in the 1960s (although he traces goals back to people like Aristotle). While the use goals precedes Locke, his work and that of others in psychology and business management appear to have influenced, if not shaped, modern understandings of goals within learning organizations and beyond.
This is a term with a long history, one that is found in education texts of the early 20th century. It is, for example, a term used in the writings of John Dewey, although it was certainly not a term unique to him. However, it is often used to describe that which is learned over an extended period of time, like a year or even an entire multi-year course of study. Aims tend to be broader than objectives, and many describe them as not needing to be as specific or measurable as outcomes, competencies or objectives. This is a term that is seen less often in many educational contexts, although it is indeed still in use both within the United States and other parts of the world. As a second definition, aim are also sometimes used to describe the purpose for a given course or course of study as opposed to outcomes which are meant to describe knowledge and skills acquired from the course of study.
A competency is a term often used to focus upon measurable student learning instead of seat time and the number of hours engaged in learning activities. Competencies are typically defined in terms of knowledge, skills and abilities. There is a focus upon students demonstrating that they meet “competencies” through performance on various assessments. While proponents of proficiency sometimes describe proficiencies as describing higher level of performance than competency, that is not how most advocates of competency-based education see it. For example, competency-based education proponents sometimes talk about competencies as demonstrated mastery. The one nearly universal distinction of people who use the term competency is that it is a focus upon what students have or have not learned as opposed to a measurement of seat time, and that they are in preparation for real-world contexts. As such, there are several commonalities between how some write about outcome-based education and competency-based education. In fact, Malan traces competency-based education back to the 1960s, with advocates calling for learning in school that truly prepares people for the knowledge and skill required in real world contexts. IF you read Malan’s explanation of competencies, you will note that she defines competency by making reference to outcomes, proficiency, and standards; reminding us that there is significant overlap in the use of these terms. While some proponents of a given model might be emphatic about the distinctions between terms, the broader educational discourse about student learning represents a diversity of definitions and understandings.
With that said, the Council for Adult and Experiential Education (CAEL) published this 2012 document the describes the importance of competencies in the following way:
“Promoting degree completion is good. It is also necessary. But it is not sufficient. Today our higher education system is facing a crisis regarding its perceived quality. The public is putting pressure on institutions to show the value of their degrees. Not only do employers complain about college graduates who lack skills, but students also question the meaning and value of a college education… One model for improving quality is competency-based education, in which an institution clearly defines the specific competencies expected of its graduates. A competency framework sends a message to those outside the institution about what a college degree-holder should know and be able to do. When the institution also assesses for those competencies, the message is one of transparent rather than abstract expectations.” (p. 8)
This is a terms that is sometimes used in contrast to others because it is interested in holistic performance. Instead of simply meeting a series of goals, objectives or competencies that are supposed to lead to a real world performance, proficiencies try to get at demonstration of the real-world performance, or something as close as possible to it. In higher education in the United States, with the growth of the Degree Qualification Profile, competency and proficiency are used separately. Competency is understood in terms of course or unit level learning, while proficiencies are something broader and more holistic, learning that “can’t be developed in a single learning experience.” The authors of the DQP used proficiency to describe that which is learned across courses and discrete learning experiences, calling for curricular planning that looks at the broader development of proficiency as learners progress through an entire program. In addition, some use proficiency to represent a higher level of attainment than competency, but a lower level than expertise.
Like objectives and outcomes, standards are short statements about what students should know or be able to do, but they are typically written to create benchmarks for performance at difference levels and stages of one’s education. For example there might be standards for 4th grade math, and then more advanced standards for 8th grade math. In addition, national organizations, state department’s of education, and professional associations have established standards related to a profession or discipline, frequently used as a guide for the establishment for curriculum in K-12 schools or for specific majors and programs on the higher education level.
Academic standards are benchmark measures that define what students should know and be able to do at specified grade levels beginning in kindergarten and progressing through grade twelve.
When reviewing sources that define or explain academic standards, they often use the term “benchmarks”, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “a point of reference against which things may be compared.” This is a helpful description of standards, noting that they are intended to serve as a measure of comparison. They set the bar for academic performance. This is a concept that is found in academic standards for K-12 education, for professional standards in fields like medicine and nursing, and even when we read about standards for performance in business or for the quality of products and services. As such, standards is a concept that was born out of the vision and demands of the industrial revolution.
At the request of one reader, I added this word to the list. Many authors of standards are quick to note that standards are not the curriculum. Yet, some standards are very specific, leading people to wonder how they are different from a curriculum. Curriculum comes from the Latin for a running course. So, it is historically used to describe the “course” of study. More recently, people include a number of elements into curriculum design: standards, objectives/outcomes/goals/competencies, scope and sequence of these elements (order of units, extent of the content in each unit, etc.), assessments, learning resources/materials (texts, videos, software, etc.), as well as learning activities/methods/strategies.
In the case of standards not being a curriculum, most state standards are written to include some measure of scope and sequence, but they don’t typically include the other pieces. They don’t usually dictate which learning activities. The standards are usually written in a way where we might need to break them down into smaller objectives (or pick your favorite word from the list above) that are tied to each lesson and learning activity. Standards do not usually state which learning resources to use. Nor do they define which assessments should be used and when they should be used. Add those elements along with a more detailed scope and sequences, and you have what we usually refer to as a curriculum.
The alphabet soup continues. I hope that these descriptions provided you with greater understanding of the terms, their histories and discourses, and the common usage in education. At the same time, I recognize that this is no glossary or lexicon. While glossaries can be valuable in clarifying terms, I find that they do so at the expense of accurately representing how the words are used across contexts. By having a bit more context, as I intended to do in this article, it is my hope that it gives a foundation upon which we can develop shared meaning while also demonstrating tolerance for the fact that education is not a field that has the precision of biology.