Key competences for lifelong learning

In 2006, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted a Recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning. The Recommendation was a key reference document for the development of competence-oriented education, training and learning.

In the knowledge economy, memorisation of facts and procedures is key, but not enough for progress and success. Skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, ability to cooperate, creativity, computational thinking, self-regulation are more essential than ever before in our quickly changing society. They are the tools to make what has been learned work in real time, in order to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, and new knowledge. – Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competences for lifelong learning, (7)

The New Skills Agenda for Europe announced the review of the 2006 European Key Competences Framework.

The results of this review are contained in the Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competences for lifelong learning.

What are the key competences?

Key competences are defined as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes.


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.

According to the Recommendation adopted by the Council, key competences are those which all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development as well as for their employability.

Key competences are developed in a lifelong learning perspective, from childhood throughout adult life.

Key competences develop in various learning contexts, as defined by the European Commission:

  • formal learning: learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.
  • informal learning: learning resulting from daily activities related to work, family or leisure which is not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support; it may be unintentional from the learner’s perspective; examples of learning outcomes acquired through informal learning are: skills acquired through life and work experiences, project management skills, ICT skills acquired at work, languages learned, intercultural skills acquired during a stay in another country, ICT skills acquired outside work, skills acquired through volunteering, cultural activities, sports, youth work and through activities at home e.g. taking care of a child.
  • non-formal learning: learning which takes place through planned activities (in terms of learning objectives, learning time) where some form of learning support is present (e.g. learner-teacher relationships); it may cover programmes to impart work skills, adult literacy and basic education for early school leavers; very common cases of non-formal learning include in-company training, through which companies update and improve the skills of their workers such as ICT skills, structured on-line learning (e.g. by making use of open educational resources), and courses organised by civil society organisations for their members, their target group or the general public 

Eight key competences

The European Reference Framework sets out eight key competences.

1. Literacy competence

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, express, create, and interpret concepts, feelings, facts and opinions in both oral and written forms, using visual, sound/audio and digital materials across disciplines and contexts. It implies the ability to communicate and connect effectively with others, in an appropriate and creative way.

2. Multilingual competence

This competence defines the ability to use different languages appropriately and effectively for communication.

It broadly shares the main skill dimensions of literacy: it is based on the ability to understand, express and interpret concepts, thoughts, feelings, facts and opinions in both oral and written form (listening, speaking, reading and writing)

3. Mathematical competence and competence in science, technology, engineering

Competence in science, technology and engineering involves an understanding of the changes caused by human activity and responsibility as an individual citizen.

Competence in science

Competence in science refers to the ability and willingness to explain the natural world by making use of the body of knowledge and methodology employed, including observation and experimentation, in order to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions.

Competence in technology and engineering

Competences in technology and engineering are applications of that knowledge and methodology in response to perceived human wants or needs.

Mathematical competence

Mathematical competence is the ability to develop and apply mathematical thinking and insight in order to solve a range of problems in everyday situations.

4. Digital competence

Digital competence involves the confident, critical and responsible use of, and engagement with, digital technologies for learning, at work, and for participation in society.

5. Personal, social and learning to learn competence

Personal, social and learning to learn competence is the ability to reflect upon oneself, effectively manage time and information, work with others in a constructive way, remain resilient and manage one’s own learning and career.

6. Citizenship competence

Citizenship competence is the ability to act as responsible citizens and to fully participate in civic and social life, based on understanding of social, economic, legal and political concepts and structures, as well as global developments and sustainability.

7. Entrepreneurship competence

Entrepreneurship competence refers to the capacity to act upon opportunities and ideas, and to transform them into values for others.

8. Cultural awareness and expression competence

Competence in cultural awareness and expression involves having an understanding of and respect for how ideas and meaning are creatively expressed and communicated in different cultures and through a range of arts and other cultural forms.