Publish at May 22 2017 Updated November 17 2022

Competences versus theoretical knowledge in our society today

Competencies related to the different knowledge areas

In contrast to yesterday's preferred diplomas, practical know-how is favored today.

For a long time, universities, schools have trained professionals on the basis of theories, leaving the young graduate unprepared for the world of work. He then had to train on the job to the world of work by iterations or internships. Today, jobs are sometimes scarce and only the best find a first job. The others find themselves unemployed or in a race for degrees that will ultimately cause them to plunge further down the ladder because overgraduated, they will be in theoretical overcapacity compared to their status as young professionals.


Schools, universities are looking for alternatives to this situation. The Sorbonne, for example, to solve this problem, is now trying to make associations of skills between the tasks performed by its alumnis (former students) as part of their work, with the theoretical teachings that it provides in order to find arguments for valuing its students on the labor market.

Here is an applied example:

"This eighteen-hour UE (six three-hour sessions) is mandatory in the LLD and LLCSE degree programs: ...identify the skills they will be able to bring to the job market, lay the foundations of a skills portfolio methodology that can be reinvested in the rest of their curriculum to find internships or prepare for their professional insertion." Member Skills Approach - Construction of the skills portfolio - Sorbonne University 

"Naming the competencies that students develop during their university education is therefore no longer only interested in what they have been able to store as knowledge or know-how (which is most often described in the objectives) but it is also interested in what they will be able to do with them later, once their studies are completed, in complex and varied professional situations." Text by Amaury Daele from 2009, extracted from University Pedagogy

Where once the degree was the sesame-king, today it is replaced by the range of skills.

What is a skill? What is knowledge?

A skill is an ability applied to a knowledge. We can identify 4 typologies of knowledge:

  • Constructivist knowledge known as strictly intellectual knowledge, is a construction of thought that requires having a capacity for abstraction. It is the knowledge of philosophers, that of theorists, mathematicians, thinkers, statisticians,...that also of degrees, theory, thought.

    Latin learning is considered the typical example of constructionist knowledge. It is a dead language, learned with the aim of structuring thoughts and understanding the etymology of complex Latin words. This knowledge is associated with "Knowledge".
  • Constructivist knowledge which implies knowing how to do, focuses on the ability to formalize. This is a term that was brought to prominence by MIT in the 1970s. The idea was to convey knowledge through application rather than theory. The exercise at the time was based on learning computer code to put computer and robotic systems into motion.

    Instead of learning the theory of knowledge, students learn through the application of that same knowledge. Today, the concept of flipped classes has developed directly from this movement of the time. This knowledge is generally equated with skills and ability.
  • Connectivist knowledge which is based on the social capacities of each person, on the knowledge of living with others in person or via communication technologies. We can also associate this knowledge with that of "knowing how to publish" which appeared in 2012.

    "In this skill of knowing how to publish, there is not only the technical dimension of writing online, but also, above all, knowing how to manage one's digital identity, knowing how to discern the credibility of an online source, and knowing how to
    engage in powerful conversations in one's networks, on issues that we care about." 
    Text by Jacques Cool in 2012 in his text
    The 'knowing how to publish'

    It is the knowledge of interactions with others and managing one's identity.
  • Cognitivist knowledge, which is the knowledge of being, the inner, emotional knowledge, comes through experience, intuition and is directly related to the abilities to process information. It is the ability to make connections between one's inner world, body, brain and environment.

To each of its knowledge are interrelated skills. Yet, today, there is a bias in the popular definition of "Intellectual Knowledge" of degrees, theoretical knowledge that opposes the practical "Skills" of the trades. 

Some landmarks in Western history

In the Middle Ages, there were only 2 typologies of knowledge, boorish knowledge and noble knowledge. They corresponded perfectly to the social structure of the time. The "Knowledge" was held by the nobility and the church who relied for their material needs on the "know-how" of the serfs, the peasants, the little people and the guilds. It is for this reason, moreover, that little was transcribed through the written word about the activities of the common people, which were considered worthless since they were passed down through the generations by word of mouth and pattern.


The few medieval cookbooks that have been passed down through the ages are symptomatic of the habits and customs of the time. They never mention basic recipes, such as the common recipe for brouet, for example. Simply transcribed are the additional recipes that will transform this same brouet to the tastes of the people of the house for whom this book was written. Only what makes the popular recipe an extraordinary or tasty dish for the Maistre de la Maison is found.

The so-called noble knowledge taught in the early religious schools at the origin of the medieval universities was theology, canon law, music, and then the sciences. The students were mainly the nobility, the religious. The teachings provided were an extension of the beliefs of the medieval church with censorship and validation of the knowledge provided.

In fact, it was more than 1 000 years ago that craft skills were already considered boorish, while knowledge of the mind was magnified as the achievement of a brilliant life. Being brilliant was a life goal of the nobility and the upper class for centuries. Salons opened for centuries on subjects like poetry, music, writing, painting, the arts, while the common people used their skills to support their families or simply often to survive.

This pattern has persisted, beyond revolutions, through time until the very last few years. Yet there have been revolutions, as well as a very large paradigm shift in the 16th century with the Renaissance.

But, this one, did not question the knowledge, it enriched it, it revolutionized it with the arrival of the printing press, the arrival of the spinning wheel. It sowed the seeds of industrialization, communication, but also of man physically attached to the machine and later by extension to his profession.

The example of the spinning wheel is the most telling. Before the 16th century, everyone spun his wool with his spindle in an individual way everywhere, in the fields, by the fire. Then came the spinning wheel! There, a radical change in society takes place.

The spinning wheel is not easily transported, the man or woman is thus tied to the object and its location. They produce more than is necessary for their families. They start to produce for others. And then come the first large looms that will later be the soul of the spinning mills.

At this time, we are still dealing with trades, of visual and oral transmissions, carried out by the little people. We are still dealing with a world separated between the common people and the so-called people of good conditions who have been joined by the bourgeoisie.

Until the 20th century, then, there was never any interaction between academic knowledge and popular skills. It is from the last century that everything changes, culminating in France with the arrival of Jules Ferry's compulsory school. Everyone can start to access schools and universities according to their academic merits. This movement grows with the decades. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, we see a situation reversed from previous centuries with Western states aiming to lead as many children as possible to university studies.

But, at the same time, we also see a hardening of the economic context. Jobs are becoming scarcer, graduates are more numerous and faced with unemployment are pushing their studies even further. Today, the result is that there are far too many graduates and opposite jobs, some of which do not require a plethora of diplomas. Human resources departments are overwhelmed with resumes that do not correspond to the jobs offered. And, a new paradigm shift is knocking at the door. It doesn't have a name yet, but it's powerful. It puts human practice back at the heart of companies, at the heart of management and teaching. It values collective intelligence and business learning.

Skills, towards an era of unity?

Skills are deployed everywhere, in all knowledge. Today, we are experiencing an area of rejection of theoretical knowledge in favor of applied knowledge. Intermediate phase, to get out of a situation, we tear ourselves away by going to the other extreme. Today, we seem to be moving more towards a refocusing of objectives whose heart is the individual. An individual is made of a unique mixture of percentages of the knowledge mentioned above. In the future, we can imagine a reconciliation of these 4 skills that would allow us to evaluate each candidate according to an ideal pre-match for the position proposed. This is an avenue to follow.

Pixabay images:Empty amp by Johnyksslr
Woman at spinning wheel by WikiImages


Skills in college - by Amaury Daele

The Types of Knowledge - by Patrick Giroux

Publishing Knowledge - by Jacques Cool 

Cookbooks in the Middle Ages by Wikipedia

The birth of the university by Wikipedia

Jules Ferry by Wikipedia

See more articles by this author




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