Understanding Differences Among Content Knowledge, Competency, Expertise, and Dispositions

It is not a research paper. I have compiled this information for my students. Puting here just for knowledge sharing. Some of you may find it useful

Understanding Difference among Competency, Expertise, Content Knowledge, and Disposition

Expertise, competency, content knowledge and dispositions are commonly used terms. These terms are often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings depending on the context. Each term has its own theoretical construct and related knowledge which makes them distinct. Here I have tried to define each of these terms as they are important for our students who have recently joined university education.

Let’s start with Content Knowledge.

Content Knowledge

The traditional form of knowledge is often referred to as content knowledge. Knowledge is the systematic collection of information, such that it intends to be useful. Knowledge represents a state or potential for actions and decisions in a person, an organization or a group. It could be changed in the process of learning which causes changes in understanding, decision or action. Although knowledge is usually considered abstract concept, Content knowledge can be defined as the information and explicit knowledge that can be identified, stored, accessed, possessed, measured and translated/abstracted outside of the situation/environment in which it was created. Content knowledge is static and is minimally impacted through social interaction unless has social valuation. In other words, if content knowledge is not identified as being valuable it may be lost, and if it has perceived exceptional value, it may be controlled.

Ackoff (1999) considers knowledge as a deterministic process. When students “memorizes” information (as they often do), then they amass knowledge. This knowledge has useful meaning to them, but it provides little help in inferring new knowledge. For example, elementary school children memorize, or amass knowledge of “tables”. They can tell that “2 x 2 = 4” because they have amassed that knowledge; but if asked what “1267 x 300” is, they cannot respond correctly because that entry is not in their learnt tables. To correctly answer such questions, students need a true cognitive and analytical ability – known as understanding.

Students usually amass content knowledge reading text books, attending lectures, surfing the Internet or through dialog with their peers. As grades are the key objectives of our education system, most of our teachers focus on transferring content knowledge. Students memorize content knowledge and reproduce in examination for teachers to measure and award grades. Whereas, for succeeding in today’s world, possessing content knowledge alone is not as important for students as to be able to know how to use content knowledge in the real world. In other words, they need to have understanding and experience to use content knowledge efficiently and effectively. This is what in literature known as competence (Herling, 2000; Yaklief, 2010). As the majority of our students possess content knowledge without competency, they usually face difficulty in performing their assignments as the situation requires (Herling, 2000; Laufer & Glick, 1998). It not only shakes their confidence, but also distorts their image among peers. Hence, along with content knowledge, students need to develop competency as well.


Herling (2000) defines competence as “an ability to do something satisfactory-not necessarily outstandingly or even well, but rather to a minimum level of acceptable performance (p.9).” The “minimum level of acceptable performance” makes competency a relative term. Different organizations may have defined their own competency model based on the skill sets required to efficiently perform required work. The level of competency of required skill set also help organizations to quantify overall capacity among workers. Although students may discover the required skill set of a domain through surfing the Internet, it is the responsibility of academia to identify and list down the minimum level of competency of the required skill set of the domain in which students would be seeking employment. For this purpose, teachers can follow professional bodies’ guidelines and select appropriate course contents, classroom activities and associated pedagogy to help students to develop required level of competency.


Expertise is usually defined as individuals’ ability of translating content knowledge into practice. Some authors have associated it with the application of content knowledge to the in-hand problem/situation. Others have extended it further by including the capacity of individuals to modify or create content knowledge through research or discursive processes (Laufer & Glick, 1998; Yahlief, 2010). In general, expertise is correlated with the depth of understanding based on experience. For example, an expert not only knows what (content knowledge) and how (competency), but also why and when to use content knowledge (analogy and reasoning) (Allee, 1997). This requires a certain level of domain knowledge and know-how of the contexts in which the content knowledge can be applied (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999). Herling defines expertise as “displayed behavior within a specialized domain and/or related domain in the form of consistently demonstrated actions of an individual that are both optimally efficient in their execution and effective in their results (p.20).”
Sometimes expertise is categorized as generalized expertise and specialized expertise. Specialized expertise comes from experience and learning within a specific domain, such as heart surgery or brain surgery within the medical professions. Specialized expertise is gained through interaction with the environment, professional artifacts, and other professionals within a community of practice (Herling, 2000; Sternberg & Horvath, 1999; Yaklief, 2002). However, specialized expertise needs social recognition and the community considers it important. Without social recognition there is no expertise. Social recognition allows experts to convert their specialized understanding into content knowledge that can be disseminated among those who may be interested in joining the specialized community. Generalized expertise can either be developed through application of the specialized expertise across domains (Herling, 2000) or through a deep understanding of the domain as a whole, within multiple specializations within that domain linked together to create general expertise (Allee, 1997; Herling, 2000). Expertise is dynamic and constantly changing as deeper meaning is developed through interaction and understanding. Hence, the level of expertise may vary among experts of the same domain.


In 1992, the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) coined the term Dispositions. The Council defined it as “the values, commitments and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities and affect student learning, motivation, and development as well as the educator’s own professional growth (INTASC, 2009). Dispositions are differentiated from skills or items of knowledge and are usually considered as habits of mind or tendencies to respond to certain situations in certain ways (Katz, 1995). Pink (2006) brought in the idea of “Right Brain Dispositions” i.e., to shift programmatic thinking of education from left brain (analytical) alone to include the right brain (global).

The concept of disposition is getting popularity among various disciplines, like teacher education, computing, engineering, medicine, etc. This is due to the reason that the integration of technologies has made graduates role more complex in today’s work places. They are expected to be involved in more real-time scenarios than ten years before. Such challenges demand from graduates a very high level of creativity, responsiveness, proactive thinking, agile decision making, analytical mindset, etc. Once these skills were considered as competitive edge, but today these have become as perennial capabilities of successful graduates. Such challenges demand from teachers to adopt a full brain approach and shift students’ learning objects from skill development to disposition development. For example, “having the disposition to be a programmer” is more effective than “having programming skills”; same is the case with “having the disposition to be a software developer” than “having software development skills”.

Dispositions are not learned through formal instruction or exhortation (Kohn, 1993). To acquire or strengthen a particular disposition, a student must have the opportunity to express the disposition in behavior. Teachers can strengthen the required dispositions by setting learning goals rather than performance goals. A teacher who says, “See how much you can find out about something,” rather than, “I want to see how well you can do,” encourages students to focus on what they are learning rather than on an external evaluation of their performance (Dweck, 1991). For strengthening students’ dispositions we need to learn from John Dewey statement, “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action” (Dewey, 1893, p.652).

There is another aspect related to job satisfaction. Fresh graduates need to develop dispositions regarding their professional career. In the last decade a stream of research has appeared which suggests that judgments of job satisfaction are significantly influenced by the individual’s affective disposition (Arvey, Bouchard, Segal, & Abraham, 1989; Judge &Hillin, Levin & Stokes, 1989; Pulakos & Schmitt, 1983; Staw & Ross, 1985; Staw, Bell, & Clausen, 1986). Affective disposition has also been linked to behaviors such as absence (George, 1989), turn over, and pro-social behaviors (George, 1991). Therefore, teachers need to promote affective disposition of the students through teaching-learning-assessment experiences, so that the practical attributes of affective disposition could be available to every student in their classrooms, institutional environment, and teachers’ routines practices.

Making a right kind of dispositional decisions is not only important but also a challenging task. Teachers and curriculum experts need to consider this aspect seriously so that the students should be prepared to be successful in today’s competitive age.

Consulted Resources

    • Wikipedia
    • http://connecting2theworld.blogspot.com/undefined?&lang=en_us&output=json
    • Herling, R. (2000). Operational       definition of expertise and competence. Advances in Developing Human       Resources, 8-21.
    • Laufer, E., & Glick, J.       (1998). Expert and novice differences in cognition and activity: A       practical work activity. In Y. Engeström, & D. Middleton, Cognition       and communication at work (pp. 177-198). Cambridge: Cambridge University       Press.
    • Yaklief, A. (2010). The three       facets of knowledge: A critique of practice based learning theory.       Research Policy, 39-46.
    • Allee, V. (1997). The Knowledge Evolution.       Newton, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.
    • Sternberg, R. & Horvath, J.,       eds. (1999). Tacit knowledge in professional practice: researcher and       practitioner perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    • Yakhlef, A. (2002). Towards a       discursive approach to organisational knowledge formation. Scandinavian       Journal of Management, 18, 319-339.
    • Interstate New Teacher Assessment       and Support Consortium (INTASC). (1992) Model standards for beginning       teacher licensing, assessment and development: A resource for state       dialogue. Retrieved online April 22, 2009, from http://www.ccsso.org/projects/Interstate_New_Teacher_Assessment_and_Supp…
    • National Council for the       Accreditation of Teacher Education.(2002). Professional standards for the       accreditation of schools, colleges, and departments of education.       Washington, DC: Author
    • Katz, L. G. (1995). Dispositions       in early childhood education.In L. G. Katz (Ed.), Talks with teachers of       young children.A collection. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. ED 380 232.
    • Pink, D. (2006). A whole new       mind: Why right brainers will rule the future. Riverhead, NY: Riverhead       Trade Publications.
    • Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by       rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and       other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
    • Dweck, C. S. (1991).       Self-theories and goals: Their role in motivation, personality, and       development. In Richard A. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on       motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 199-235). Lincoln:       University of Nebraska Press.
    • Dewey, J. (1893).       Self-realization as the moral ideal. The Philosophical Review, 2,(6),       652-664.


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