Transversal or Key Competences

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Successful and relevant application of learning happens when individuals activate and apply knowledge, attitudes and skills in a specific situation. This ability can be described as competence. Competence-centered learning might happen at work, during leisure activities, or in one’s personal life. 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 as active citizens and changemakers. In a broader sense, the outcome of the learning process is turned into a practical skill and a new attitude which allows people to act accordingly in complex social situations. Competence-centered learning processes help individuals develop key competencies and an open attitude to lifelong learning. Achievement of goals and the feeling that learning is relevant occur when learners activate and apply knowledge and skills in concrete situations. This might take place at work, during free time, as part of a public engagement, or in the private sphere. When competencies are universal, they are called "transversal" or "key competencies."[1]

Definition: Key Competencies 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 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):

Transversal Focus: OECD Key Competences

Using Tools Interactively

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

Interacting in Heterogeneous Groups

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

Acting Autonomously

  • Act within the big picture.
  • Form and conduct life plans and personal projects.
  • Defend and assert rights, interests, limits, needs.[3]

Transformative Competences - Learning to Create Impact

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 competencies, "that students need in order to contribute to our world and shape a better future" [4]. In this sense, the concept is setting focus on active citizenship and the contribution of citizens to progress, (social, economic, cultural) value creation, and innovation.

OECD: Transformative Competencies

Creating new value

Innovation is at the core of inclusive growth and sustainable development

Reconciling tensions and dilemmas

Balancing competing, contradictory or incompatible demands

Taking responsibility

Considering the ethics of action

Source: OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030

Also other competency frameworks are aiming to include this dimension of impact of learning and are consequently inlcuding transversal dimensions. In particular in the debates on upskilling and preparing Europeans for the challenges of larger transformations such as digital transformation or climate change, the necessity of the question is becoming evident: "learning for what?" The digital conmpetence framework DigComp is answering it with "learning to swim in the digital ocean". The framework on EntreComp is aiming to strengthen proactivity and a sense for innovation in the broader propulation. The Council of Europe's framework in the domain of Education for Democratic Citizenship is aiming to contribute to "a Democratic Culture".

Active Learning

Within any learning process, there is a difference between the cognitive mobilization of knowledge and active learning. Facilitating the acquisition of competencies 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.”[5]

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 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 the 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. [6]

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. 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. This begins on the team level where diverse opinions are moderated and transparent decision-making is applied.

Personal Competence and a Learner-Centered Perspective on Education

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 a process of self-development. Therefore, empowerment strengthens a sense of personal responsibility, initiative and the capacity for self-development.

All change begins with an individual’s self-perception (self-efficacy) as a potential changemaker 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 competencies with a gain in this social and individual competence dimensions.

The current EU project LifEComp of the EU's Joint Research Council is focusing mainly on this dimension, while earlier developments were including personal competence more or less implicitely.

A catalysator might have been the EntreComp framework which was developed under the roof of the same institution, giving the sense and attitude of initiative and proactivity specific attention, since it is a necessary condition for self-efficacy and susscessful action:


"Development of the Personal, Social and Learning to Learn competence is crucial. It has the potential for boosting inclusion and resilience to uncertainty and change, through socio-emotional skills that are often found to be as important as cognitive and meta-cognitive skills for academic attainment, career, health and wellbeing."[7]

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 Competencies

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 competencies

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, sin a selforganized and reflective way: Observing and evaluating challenges, requirements, or options. Assuming responsibility.


Evaluative and reflective skills

Another important 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 to reflect in a conscious way. Holistic learning is therefore giving enough space and putting emphasis on reflective tasks, evaluation and goal-alignment.

Example: Lifelong Learning Key Competencies

The 2006 recommendations “on key competences for lifelong learning” have introduced a reference framework with a definition of eight transversal (key) competences in accordance with EU standards. Here competences are seen as a "combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context"[9] After a revision process the commission announced a redefinition in 2018.[10]

The European Key Competences show how broadly competence-based learning can contribute to personal and social development. [11]

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

For specific stages of the educational process there are other more specific competency 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”.

Case Study with Checklist

Theory, especially written by others, can sometimes be challenging to apply practically. In the following case study you will see how organizing a small local project can lead to the development of skills, competencies and knowledge in the organizers and the target group: Planning with Key Competencies


  1. OECD: The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies
  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. PISA
  4. OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030. Transformative Competencies Conceptual learning framework. Transformative Competencies for 2030
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Caena, F., Developing a European Framework for the Personal, Social & Learning to Learn Key Competence (LifEComp). Literature Review & Analysis of Frameworks, Punie, Y. (ed), EUR 29855 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2019, ISBN 978-92-76-11225-9, [], JRC117987.
  8. 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)
  9. European Commission/European Parliament 2006: Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for lifelong learning;
  10. European Union, European Council: Fact Sheet: Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, 2018
  11. Description of each of the eight Key Competences in: “The Youthpass Guide”; section A.4:

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:


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