Competencies in Art Education: Assignment, Assessment and Educational Contexts
ENViL conference, Paris, March 12 – 13, 2018

Introduction to the Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Competency: background and consequences.


Diederik Schönau

ENViL is the acronym of the European Network for Visual Literacy. ENViL is an open network and platform for all people who are professionally involved in this domain, like teachers, researchers, teacher trainers, artists, etcetera. Such a network is highly needed, as there is no such network at European level. Curriculum development and research in the domain Visual Literacy is very much based on national and even sub-national networks and traditions. So you are all welcome to take part in this international network, its working groups and meetings. It is an English-speaking network, thus making it possible for almost all European citizens to communicate.
In the context of ENViL ‘Visual Literacy’ refers to all school subjects and domains of learning in education that relate to the making, experiencing and understanding of images, visual objects and visual processes, being this objects of art, design, entertainment, advertisement, instruction, etc.
In 2016 ENViL published its prototype of the ‘Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Literacy’. The name of this prototype was based on the name of the network. But it turned out that the use of ‘visual literacy’ as title for this framework that tries to (re-)define the content of visual competency generated criticism with regard to its reference to linguistic ways of thinking. Preceeding this Paris meeting the ENViL Board therefore decided to change the name of the framework into ‘Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Competency’ (CEFR-VC). Giving the concept of ‘competency’ a central position in the name of the framework is in line with its the content in which competencies play a central role. The name of ENViL will not be changed, as here the notion of ‘Visual Literacy’ is used to cover all related (school) subjects and domains of visual learning.

To make a good start as a network in 2012 ENViL decided to begin with a very practical research question. It was observed at that moment that there was a great need for research on competencies in the domain of Visual Literacy. Also in order to contribute to the quality development of the school subjects in this domain, it was decided to work towards a framework that would cover the essence of what is common in European education in the domain of Visual Literacy. Thus a research project was started. It was hoped for that this research might bring ENViL quickly to common grounds. Thanks to colleagues all over Europe researchers of ENViL were able to collect information on 37 curricula representing 22 European countries. Based on this information a framework was developed that covers what is common in all curricula and thus common to almost all views on the role of Visual Literacy in education. The purpose of the framework is to inform and to stimulate discussions at national level to review existing curricula in the domain of Visual Literacy.
This framework is a prototype. It is not the final word. It is more or less the first word. This prototype is open for comments, ameliorations, amendments and fundamental criticism.

The approach taken by the research group was not limited to finding the greatest common divisor. It was decided to also look to how in Europe comparable research was done for other school subjects. The best-known example is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This is the result of a massive research project that was developed by the European Union to arrive at common and comparable descriptions of levels in language skills. Also the current discussions at European level – and also global level – on the needs of contemporary education were taken into account, like the European project for life-long learning in vocational education which introduced the concept of ‘competency’ into the discussion on the future of education in Europe.

Based on this input the network adopted three central notions for inclusion in its framework:

  • the notion of competency as a leading approach;
  • the notion of levels in competency;
  • the notion that the framework should relate to all European citizens and to all ways of learning, not to students in formal education only. For learning in this domain also takes place in daily life or in museums, or outside schools like in creativity centres.

This does not mean everyone agreed on how the notion of ’competency’ relates to the domain of Visual Literacy, or on the descriptions of the three levels, nor on what is specifically European about it. But it is a start, and a very helpful start. It is always much easier and productive to comment on existing texts, than to exchange points of views with no common text in front of everyone. ENViL has already started intensive discussion on the improvement of the framework.
It will be no surprise as well that the result, the prototype, is rather abstract. It has to be so, as it should be possible to relate any curriculum or any approach in the domain of Visual Literacy in Europe to this framework.

The framework

What is the notion of ‘competency’ all about and why is it useful?
In the tramework a competency is described in the following way.

  • A competency always addresses the combined use of learnable knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
  • A competency is demonstrated in specific (professional) situations: one is competent with regard to a domain and in situations that are relevant for the domain (or: in situations in which this domain is addressed or made use of).
  • A competency is described and presented as outcome or demonstrable behaviour, not in terms of input.
  • A competency can also be thought of as dispositions: ‘The student is able to …’

To stress the most important characteristics: a competency relates to the combined use of knowledge, skills and attitudes, a person is competent in a specific domain-related situation, and it is described in terms of demonstrable behaviour or ability.

Why is the notion of competency helpful? By concentrating on what students actually can do in realistic and challenging situations the goals of learning become more insightful and interesting for both teachers and students. This is contrary to the traditional approach in which education is formulated in terms of input, and in which knowledge and skills are presented as goals in themselves, and often presented in contexts that have little to do with the world students live in. The notion of competency helps to reformulate educational goals in terms of observable behaviour that is relevant in society.

Based on what was found in the curricula and using the concept of competency a framework was developed that hopefully reflects the majority of all curricula in one way or another, is consistent and covers all aspects of the domain.
First the franework reflects the position of the domain of Visual Literacy in the wider context of education. Visual competency should contribute to the larger goals of education. These larger goals are: citizenship, personal development, social cohesion and employability.
Second, the framework it relates to the fundamental building stones of any competency: knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Third, visual competency is related to or part of more generic competencies: self-competencies, methodological competencies and social competencies.
Fourth, in the domain of Visual Literacy, a clear division can be made between productive and receptive competencies.
Fifth, sixteen sub-competencies were identified, covering all aspects of the productive and the receptive domain: analyse, communicate, create, describe, draft, empathise, envision, experience aesthetically, experiment, interpret, judge, perceive, present, realize, use and value.
Finally, a special position was given to the notion of metacognition or reflection, that relates to all aspects and sub-competencies.
As mentioned before it was decided to define three main levels in competency: elementary, intermediate and competent. These levels are independent of age. If and when citizens should arrive at one of these levels is up to the educators, the education system and in the end for politicians to decide.

Developing and assessing visual competency

In contemporary education, and in competency-based education in particular, an output-based approach is advocated. This means that in education assessment has to concentrate on what students are actually able to do, not on how much input they have been able to absorb.
Therefore, ideally speaking, competency-based assessment has to take many things into account:

  • the use of knowledge, skills and attitudes as demonstrated in the process and the product;
  • the relationship between knowledge, skills and attitudes used;
  • the situation: its complexity, uniqueness, and predictability;
  • the analysis and interpretation of the situation by the acting person in terms of problem(s), possible solutions, constraints and opportunities (availability of means) and choices to be made;
  • the interaction of all these aspects;
  • the qualities of the solution in relation to the problem, the means available and the (interpretation of the) situation.

It will be clear that students need to develop an understanding of what a competency actually refers to. The best way to do so is to explain a competency to students. What is meant by ‘drafting’, ‘analysing’, ‘communicating’, ‘envisioning’, ‘experiencing aesthetically’, et cetera? To explain things one can talk, indicate, compare, discuss, look carefully, and demonstrate. This explaining is an ongoing process that in the end will hopefully lead to a deeper understanding of what a competency refers to. But the best way is to invite students to make work in which these competencies are intentionally addressed, so they learn to work with and think in a ways that addresses these competencies.
But competencies are still generic descriptions of types of behaviour or abilities. They do not describe the specific knowledge, skills and attitudes that play a role while working on a given assignment. One can think of the use of symbols, specific materials and techniques, the use of colour, but also of the effects on the audience to be addressed. These specifications are up to the teacher or the student to introduce. This is dependent on the goal of the assignment and the educational level of the students.
In education assessment is the inseparable counterpart of learning: in order to make sure if the learning process has been effective, one needs to assess the expected results. It will be clear that the assessment of competencies introduces an amount of uncertainties that make a valid and objective assessment more difficult. In the domain of Visual Literacy assessment is even more complicated as in this domain students are often expected to come up with original or personal products. So how can the validity and objectivity of competency assessment in the domain of Visual Literacy be optimized?
The following discussion is related to the productive domain of visual competency only.

Developing competency-based assignments

The first step is to arrive at assignments that invite students to demonstrate competent behaviour. From a competency point of view, an assignment has to refer to a ‘situation’ to which the maker has to relate. This situation will include two types of restrictions.
The first type of restrictions regards its relevance. What is the relationship of the situation presented to the student to its wider context? Is it related to the personal domain, the educational domain, the occupational domain or the public domain? To give some examples: does the assignment demand for the expression of personal memories? Or does it relate to the production of images for instruction, or to the visual presentation of oneself on one’s personal website? Or does it address the understanding and criticising of images in politics? Each domain – and therefore situation – has its own characteristics, for instance the purpose of the work or the type of response or behaviour the work is expected to generate with the viewers. But an assignment will also have a relationship with the learning situation, to assignments made before or with the overall goals of the learning period.
The other type of restrictions is more practical. What materials and tools can be used? How much time is available? Is it possible to cooperate? What information is needed and where can it be found? The answers to these questions, whether presented or implied, will determine to a large extent the possibilities ‘how’ to make a work and therefore the character and level of competencies to be demonstrated.
To improve competency development it is therefore recommended to develop assignments that include clear instructions for the students. However, it is also possible to challenge students to design their own assignment as part of an approach in which students become more responsible for choosing their own ‘situation’, their own artistic development and in which they learn to develop and use criteria to be used in assessment by both the learner and the teacher.
More specifically in developing an assignment has to take into consideration the following aspects.

  • The issue at stake. What to make and why? This relates to relevance and the purpose of the assignment.
  • Level of development of the student. This relates to the content and levels of abilities of knowledge, skills, attitudes needed to execute the assignment. A situation or assignment should address the student at her or his level of competencies or the next higher level: the zone of proximal development, to use Vygotsky’s notion.
  • Constraints: amount of time given; means available or needed; individual or cooperative work.
  • Sub-competencies to be demonstrated. Here it is important to keep in mind that in an assignment not all sub-competencies that play a role need to be assessed. But the student should know what sub-competencies have to be assessed.
  • The criteria by which the sub-competencies, the work and the working process will be assessed.

It should be mentioned here, that next to competency-based assignments students can also be given assignments to exercise skills or to expand knowledge.


How can the assignment actually be assessed?
Learning in the productive domain of visual competency is demonstrated in the qualities of the working process, in those of the final product or in both. The results are indicators of the way a student has deployed her or his of sub-competencies.
Some sub-competencies relate to a phase in the making process, like drafting, experimenting, realising. Other sub-competencies relate to aspects that can play a role at any moment, like perceive, analyse, interpret and judge. Whether these qualities are assessed when looking at the process (e.g. preliminary, research, studies, drafts), at the final product or at both is up to the teacher to decide.
For the assessment of competencies one can make use of ‘rubrics’. A rubric is a coherent set of criteria that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality. The criteria refer to intended learning outcomes, in our case: sub-competencies. As indicated before, the framework gives a description of sub-competencies at three levels: elementary, intermediate and competent. Each rubric should then describe the expected knowledge, skills and attitudes at a specific level. It will be no surprise that in this way rubrics will develop into long texts most students will not understand. Therefore it is better not to include these extensive descriptions in the rubrics themselves. It will be more effective to introduce the rubrics in the learning period before, as background information. In this way the rubrics can become a generic tool for learning. The actual information with regard to knowledge, skills and attitudes, again, is specific for a school type or age level.
A special way is to make use of visual rubrics. As part of the framework development, research has been done on the use of visual rubrics in (self-)assessment of students (Haanstra & Groenendijk, 2016; Groenendijk & Haanstra, 2016).

To summarize: assessment in competency-based education demands for criteria as descriptions of expected types and content of knowledge, skills and attitudes and of descriptions of the qualities of the behaviour demonstrated at specific levels of accomplishment. Students should be informed about the criteria and the rubrics beforehand, as part of the assignment or as part of the learning period before.

Rubrics are helpful, but how to decide on the quality of the results? Quality is an elusive concept, especially in the domain of Visual Literacy. Is it an aspect of the work or is it a private sensation? Referring to inner sensations or feelings is subjective and not very helpful to the student. One should try to relate these internal reactions to external aspects in the work, as without the work no sensation of quality would arise. So one can use the concept of quality in two ways: to indicate visible aspects (qualities) of the work and the inner experience of quality.
The external, visible qualities can relate to the following aspects:

  • The choice and combination of aspects of content (symbols, stories, elements from reality or fantasy) with regard to the (intended) meaning of the work.
  • The choice and handling of materials and techniques, elements and principles and the way they contribute to the expression of the meaning as observed: how they contribute to the ‘power’ of the image.

Each of these aspects can be specified into more details and sub-qualities. Here the use of rubrics becomes very helpful. During assessment it will turn out that some sub-competencies have played a bigger role than others. So assessing the overall quality is not an adding up of the results on the constituent sub-competencies. It is more or less the other way around. It is the overall impression, the general quality of the image or object that has to be seen and appreciated first. This overall and global impression is inevitable and it should not be negated, on the contrary: it must be the starting point. Then a detailed analysis of all constituent aspects has to relate to support, correct or refine this general impression. Thus one can arrive at a better understanding of the quality of the overall impression and the contributions of the different sub-competencies and their constituent elements.
Maybe it will seem to you that assessment of visual competency has been done like this for ages. Maybe this is true. But how exactly is and was this done? In an educational context one should try to be as explicit and transparant as possible, be conscious of our own habits and prejudices and work together with students to arrive at a better understanding of what visual competency is really all about.


Groenendijk, T. & Haanstra, F. (2016): Evaluation der auf dem Kompetenzmodell des CEFR-VL basierenden visuellen Rubriken durch Lehrende und Schüler/Schülerinnen, in: Wagner & Schönau, pp. 300 – 318.
Haanstra & Groenendijk, T. (2016). Erstellung eines auf dem Kompetenzmodell basierenden Instruments zur Leistungsbeurteilung, in: Wagner & Schönau, pp. 292 – 299.
Wagner, E & Schönau, D. (Hrsg.): Cadre Européen Commun de Référence pour la Visual Literacy – prototype – Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Literacy – prototype – Gemeinsamer Europäischer Referenzrahmen für Visual Literacy – Prototype. Munster / New York: Waxmann Verlag, 2016. ISBN 978-3-8309-3428-8