Transversal or Key Competences

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Successful and relevant application of learning happens when individuals activate and activate knowledge, attitudes and skills in a specific situation. When competences have universal characteristics they are named transversal or key competences - in contrast to specific competences which are required more or less only in one specific field or learning context.

Key competences help people to easily transfer what they have learned into their lives. Due to their transversal character they enable people to act accordingly in complex social situations.

When competences are universal, they are called "transversal" or "key competences."[1]

Key competences are developed constantly in different social roles, at work, as citizen or in private life, very often informally. Education addressing transversal competences aims to identify and address these transversal competences in all these fields. If citizenship competence is the ability to actively and successfully participate in social, political and cultural life und enjoyment of democratic and fundamental rights, this entails the ability to participate in and shape the public sphere alone or with others, to contribute and be heard. Along the way, one acquires skills in solving problems, dealing with others, seeing oneself as capable of taking initiative, or creating and using social structures for one's own goals. Certainly such ability supports people also in the labor context and also has a positive effect on the personal/family sphere. Conversely, skills acquired in a professional context will benefit navigating other contexts.

Definition: Key Competences for Lifelong Learning

Competences are defined as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes, where:

  • knowledge is composed of the facts and figures, concepts, ideas and theories which are already established and support the understanding of a certain area or subject;
  • skills are defined as the ability and capacity to carry out processes and use the existing knowledge to achieve results;
  • attitudes describe the disposition and mind-sets to act or react to ideas, persons or situations.

Source: EU [2]

The recommendations “on key competences for lifelong learning” have introduced a reference framework with a definition of eight transversal (key) competences in eight fom the EU commission identified key fields. The framework received in 2018 an update after initial publishing in 2006 [3]

The European Key Competences show how broadly competence-based learning can contribute to personal and social development. [4]

1- Literacy

Strengthening literacy as a basis for further learning and communication in different societal and cultural contexts

2 - Languages

Enhancing the ability to use a variety of languages to be active and better cope with the challenges of today’s multilingual and diverse societies

3 - Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

Focusing on improving acquisition of these competences to nurture scientific understanding

4 - Digital

Strengthening the confident and critical use of digital technology , including coding and programming, safety and citizenship related aspects

5 - Personal, social and learning

Improving the skills necessary to participate in an active social life

6 - Civic

Stressing the importance of democratic participation, European values, sustainable development and media literacy

7 - Entrepreneurship

Enhancing entrepreneurial attitudes to unlock personal potential, creativity and self-initiative

8 - Cultural awareness and expression

Increasing intercultural skills and the ability to express ideas in a variety of ways and contexts

Transversal and Transformative Focus: OECD

The OECD developed a very universal model around this definition: it has three main dimensions, which become more detailed through sub-categories in order to be applicable for various programs and studies (for example the PISA studies):

OECD Key Competences

As identified by the DeSeCo project in 2005[1], OECD came up with a more universal concept of key competences

Using Tools Interactively (methodological dimension)

  • Use language, symbols and texts interactively.
  • Use knowledge and information interactively.
  • Use technology interactively.

Interacting in Heterogeneous Groups (social dimension)

  • Relate well to others.
  • Co-operate, work in teams.
  • Manage and resolve conflicts.

Acting Autonomously (self dimension)

  • Act within the big picture.
  • Form and conduct life plans and personal projects.
  • Defend and assert rights, interests, limits, needs.

It is evident that this model is able to fit many fields of learning. On this basis OECD was shaping the concept of of transformative competences, "that students need in order to contribute to our world and shape a better future" [5]. The concept is setting focus on active citizenship and the contribution of citizens to progress, (social, economic, cultural) value creation, and innovation.

OECD: Transformative Competences

Creating new value Innovation is at the core of inclusive growth and sustainable development. Action-oriented.

Reconciling tensions and dilemmas Balancing competing, contradictory or incompatible demands. Reflection-oriented.

Taking responsibility Considering the ethics of action. Anticipation-oriented.

Source: OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030

Transversal Competences

A set of competences gains importance the more it appears as relevant in very different contexts. Transversal skills and competences (TSC) are learned and proven abilities which are commonly seen as necessary or valuable for effective action in virtually any kind of work, learning or life activity. They are “transversal” because they are not exclusively related to any particular context (CEDEFOP 2021)[6]. Following CEDEFOP’s proposal one could imagine them as a cluster:

  • Core skills at the center provide a minimum basis for individual learning and interacting with others „ability to understand, speak, read and write language(s), to work with numbers and measures and use digital devices and applications“
  • In a second circle around the core skills: Self-management; social and communication; physical and manual; thinking (cognitive) skills and competences.
  • around these different life skills and competences: General Knowledge; Health-related; Civic; Environmental; Entrepreneurial and Financial


→ The example illustrates the transversal nature of some competence clusters and how they relate to others.

→ Different competence frameworks and holistic educational approaches give certain aspects different weight. In example, Active citizenship education would address democracy-related aspects also more carefully in the core while Education for Sustainable Development would build a competence set for a programme more around resources and sustainability.

→ Life skills and competences respond to transformations and change in societies "more dynamic and subject to change than the previous categories".

→ Such models are an orientation and navigation tool for educators and learners, not consistentent catch-all models for all educational purposes. The idea is, that learning should offer (more) experiental and reflective moments for learning in order to tackle the transversal dimensions.


Competence Explorer

  • Our tool for an overview of different competence frameworks: Competence Explorer
  • Browse the competence models and their definitions
  • Learn which of these are relevant to your work

General Specifics of Key-competence-related Learning

Active Learning

Within any learning process, there is a difference between the cognitive mobilization of knowledge and active learning. Facilitating the acquisition of competences has been well described by the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training puts it: “The cognitive approach tends to emphasize the individual acquisition of certain kinds of learning, while approaches based on ideas of active learning tend to emphasize the dynamic role of social relationships and the situations in which learning takes place.”[7]

A competence-centered learning is especially useful in order to create a change in the attitudes and to promote active implementation of this change in the participants’ every-day lives. Especially when participants may combine knowledge and practice in the form of project work, study visits, or simulations.

Emphasis on Universal Applicability

The term competence describes a broader definition of learning and its outcomes which takes into account knowledge, attitudes and skills acquired in different learning environments. This also includes non-formal learning and advocates for competence-based understanding of life as a learning process which reflects the interdependency of different learning opportunities: in schools, at the workplace, when part of a civil initiative, a project group or a youth organization. [8]

Let us consider a practical example: A cognitive approach of Human Rights Education would focus on the content of the Declaration of Human Rights and other key texts. For example, If you know the current definition of Human Rights you may act as a Human Rights activist and advocate for this idea. On the other hand, there are many other aspects which are essential for successful action such as presentation skills, strategic thinking, involving supporters, etc. They are equally contributing to success in this activity (advocacy for Human Rights) and need equal attention in education. Which competences beyond knowledge do you think that one needs for successful advocacy?

Secondly, the spirit of cooperation is especially important in making social change sustainable. That is why the participants can be taught to involve relevant stakeholders and the broader public in the processes of creating social change, from teamwork to networking and cross-sectoral exchange.

Toward a Holistic Understanding of Applicability

Refering to this example it is becoming evident that "applicability" does not mean to create learning which only prioritizing workplace-demanded skills while theoretisation and open imagination are not relevant. It means that education proves its impact when learners can make use out of it in workplaces, civil society private life or where else, but exactly not limiting them in predescribing what use case this could be.

Training Personal Competence, especially Autonomy and Learning-to-learn

Lifelong learning outside of schools and universities requires that learners identify their challenges, needs, and motivations for self-development, as well as for social development. It also requires a capacity for self-discipline to overcome challenges successfully. In this sense, becoming an active citizen is connected with becoming a continuous learner - a process of self-development.

All change begins with an individual’s self-perception (self-efficacy) as a potential change agent and with an individual's ability to relate with other individuals or groups. For sustainable citizenship education, competence frameworks need to give these social and personal competences enough importance. In order to create a holistic learning experience, they need to balance the topical and methodological development of competences with a gain in this social and individual competence dimensions.

Maybe this self-competence is foundational for any competence-centered learning, which implies that it would need to get specific attention in all educational activities aiming to address key competences.

More: Learning to Learn

Evaluative, reflective and (critical) thinking skills

Another key aspect in attaining competences is the capacity to observe, analyze, and then draw conclusions based on the observation (i.e. evaluate). This ability helps people to transform experience into behavior which in turn is the basis for new experience. When learning is a lifelong process, learners need the capacity to observe themselves and the society while in the same time being subject in it = meta-perspective. Holistic learning is therefore giving enough space and putting emphasis on reflective tasks, evaluation, critical thinking.

Specific Competence Frameworks

For specific stages of the educational process there are other more specific competence sets which complement the transversal models. For example, the United Nations and UNESCO promoted the Education for Sustainable Development and the Council of Europe - Citizenship Education: Definitions , which are specific models of civic education developed in different countries which relate to Civic Competences and the idea of “Human Rights Education”.

The German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training provides one example of how this may be described in concrete learning environments.

BiBB Key Competences

Abstract Competences

Task-specific Factual Competence

Identifying adequate solutions for tasks and problems on the basis of knowledge about the specific field, and how it is systematically related within its field and to other fields.

Methodological Competence

Acting consciously, adequately and in a goal-oriented way. An ability to choose methodologies and to evaluate outcomes.

(Inter)Personal competences

Social Competence

Living in relation to other people and acively shaping social relations. Reflecting different interests, needs and tensions. Team and conflict management skills.

Personal Competence

Acting autonomously, in a self-organized and reflective way: Observing and evaluating challenges, requirements, or options. Assuming responsibility.



  1. 1.0 1.1 OECD (2005). DeSeCo - Definition and Selection of Competences: Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations. Definition and Selection of Key Competences - Executive Summary
  2. European Council: EU Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competences for lifelong learning (Text with EEA relevance) (2018/C 189/01)
  3. European Commission/European Parliament 2006: Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for lifelong learning;
  4. Description of each of the eight Key Competences in: “The Youthpass Guide”; section A.4:
  5. OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030. Transformative Competences Conceptual learning framework. Transformative Competences for 2030
  6. Hart, J., Noack, M., Plaimauer, C. & Bjørnåvold, J. (CEDEFOP 2021) Towards a structured and consistent terminology on transversal skills and competences. 3rd report to ESCO Member States Working Group on a terminology for transversal skills and competences (TSCs). 02 June 2021 Cedefop, European Centre for Vocational Education and Training, Thessaloniki
  7. European Center for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop): The shift to learning outcomes Policies and practices in Europe; Cedefop Reference series; Thessaloniki 2009; p. 35
  8. A. Galfayan, S. Wehrsig, N. Zimmermann (2013) [ Environment and Civil Involvement. How Can We Connect Sustainable Development Education and Active Citizenship Empowerment?] MitOst-Editionen, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-944012-01-8
  9. Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB): K. Hensge, B. Lorig, D. Schreiber: Kompetenzstandards in der Berufsausbildung; Abschlussbericht Forschungsprojekt 4.3.201 (JFP 2006)

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. He writes and works on the topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Coordinator of European projects, in example DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship, DARE network.

Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience.

Handbook for Facilitators: Steps toward Action


M. Gawinek-Dagargulia (ed.), N. Zimmermann (ed.), E. Skowron (ed.) (2016). Steps toward action. Empowerment for self-responsible initiative. Help your learners to discover their vision and to turn it into concrete civic engagement. Competendo Handbook for Facilitators.



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M. Gawinek-Dagargulia, E. Skowron, N. Zimmermann

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