«Non-Cognitive» Skills Development – go beyond qualifications!


By Yug_and_her

Earlier in the year I emailed a number of HR managers in Norwegian companies asking them what skills they desired from their “entry level” employees. In other words, what do they want from the young people that come into their companies to “start at the bottom”. 

The top answers?
• Ability to work in teams
• Ability to solve problems
• Motivation
• Willingness to learn new tasks (the key here is “tasks” – it is activity based)
In other words, all the soft skills, the “non-cognitive” skills that are hidden away in the school curriculum, and sometimes sacrificed in the name of exam results.
This all came back to me again on a recent project for IntoLife near Oslo with a team focusing on getting young “drop outs” into work. Our project used experiential learning and self-awareness to bring attention to team skills, problem-solving, leadership and motivation, and we used a technique that works well with all age groups :
– Ask for input on how people rate themselves as teamplayers, problem-solvers, leaders etc
– Provide an experience that allows these behaviours to be demonstrated
– Review and reflect on how actual behaviour compared to previously perceived behaviours, and how we can transfer this to other situations
This is the effectiveness of experiential learning techniques – they highlight differences between the self-awareness we think we have, and the reality of the behaviours we show. There are no rules in all this, some people show themselves to be less effective in a certain behaviour than they thought, and some people find that they are actually pretty good at things they did not even realise were their strengths.
Two things I observed in the recent project were that we could quickly identify areas that needed some focus, and also quickly identify areas that were potential strengths. If you are trying to get into meaningful work (ie, work that suits your strengths and therefore will have a motivating influence on you), then you need to be aware where your strengths lie. Additionally if you are participating on a project to get you into work, then there is a good chance that your CV may not be a full and glorious thing. So through these projects you get the chance to show that you can be effective, given the right environment. Some of the young people on this project showed a genuine willingness to learn new skills (tick that box from the feedback HR managers gave me); other showed they really could function as a team (again, tick that box); others showed that they had the motivation to keep trying to find a solution to the existing problem (another tick for the HR managers). Of course some found that, in that environment, they did not work well in a team environment, but that only helps to open up another question – why not, and in what circumstances would they work well in a team environment? They are now on the road to more proactive self-awareness, and we have something to work with.
When projects like this are run well, then it is justifiable for young people to state that they have shown these skills in relevant environments, so not only are they gaining valuable self-awareness, they are also gaining something to show potential employers – to show they have value in work.
So this seemed to be an effective project, and it is hoped that it will be repeated in the future, but the question remains as to whether this can be of benefit in normal education for young people? I believe schools should have the ability to focus on these areas, the “non-cognitive” areas, not just for the students who are struggling with “normal education” but for everyone. And schools should have the ability to take these learning experiences outside of the classroom.
A key element to this project was to take the group away from their normal environment – we used nature and some simple problem-solving tasks designed specifically to test certain skills. Not a throw-back to the old days of “raft building” for teamwork, but using the bits from the old days that were good, and applying them to more individual elements of behaviour and awareness. It is the change of environment that is important, as it removes deliberate situational behaviours.
The same is true for all of us – a bit of self-awareness can only be a good thing. For example, at work if you think you have the capability to be a good leader, you need to put yourself in situations where you find out if you really are. Normally you find out that leadership is a different thing to the leadership the media portrays, and is much closer to teamwork than leaders like to imagine. And if you find out you are not the leader you thought you were, no problem, you have something to work with and you are on a road towards this.
So for 2012, get to know yourself better by trying things out, you never know where it will lead you!
For more on teambuilding, leadership and problem-solving projects for charities, youth groups and businesses, please contact will@intolife.no (Oslo).

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