Transferable Skills by Keith White

As processes associated with globalisation and the revolution in communications develop apace, employers and those in the jobs market, as well as people involved in sport, are increasingly alert to the value of transferable skills.  Changes in social life as well as industry mean that a once in a life training or qualification are unlikely to be adequate in a rapidly changing context. 

Intrigued by how children learn I have always been interested in which of their skills are transferable, which are the most important, which children have them, and why. 

One of my emerging conclusions is that it is skills learnt in the very early months and years of a child’s life that could be the most significant.  It may not be an earth-shattering discovery, but I would like to share with you how I came to it all the same.  It has a very down to earth beginning. 

I was trying to get one of our Mirror dinghies out of the garage recently and alongside me at the time was one of the Mill Grove extended family.  Our intention had been to play football, but an opportunity to move the boat appeared out of the blue.  It does not take much imagination to know that there would be several steps and tasks to be undertaken to achieve this modest goal. They included ensuring that the boat was balanced, removing anything in the way, pulling the trailer to its nearby destination, and relocating one or two of the items that had been moved.  Nothing difficult or challenging you might think.  I did too. 

But my friend found himself completely at sea (if you will forgive the unintentional pun).  He could not anticipate any of the actions needed, and even when I explained what needed to be done, he was still unable to execute the simplest of tasks.  We managed to muddle our way through, but it was far from pleasurable for either of us, and before we had finished, he had left me to my own devices, and resumed kicking the football around in the hope that I would soon join him. 

It was when reflecting on why he was unable to help with the most basic of practical tasks that I realised he lacked the simplest of transferable skills.  This included something as fundamental as the motivation to help with such tasks, and the recognition that his help could make a difference to someone else who was carrying out some practical work near him.  In the light of how he engaged in this simple task, it was obvious that he would not be able to help at home, school, when playing, when shopping, or when travelling.  If someone were to be lying on the ground having been attacked and robbed, like the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, he would have walked by on the other side.  He would not have had the faintest ideas what else to do.  And in his life to date it is highly likely that he has indeed walked past people needing a neighbour. 

So what might be going on, I wondered?  And it didn’t take long to work it out.  From his earliest years, his father is chronically unemployed, and has provided no role model for him in any of this, while his sensitive and protective mother would never have asked him to undertake any practical tasks. There are reasons for this, which are not relevant to this specific line of enquiry. 

The result was that he lacked the confidence and ability to help virtually at all.  And if this remains unaltered it is difficult to see how he will ever be able to undertake any form of employment.  At this point, I realised that this was true of an older member of the Mill Grove family.  He had been separated from his father at a very early age, and his mother had struggled with her functioning and mental health.  This meant that he too lacked the most elementary of transferable skills.  In case it needs saying, this had nothing to do with intelligence: both young people are alert and bright. 

What they have in common is that they have never been in situations at home where simple practical actions are necessary and where they see themselves as expected or capable of responding to them.  Over time my sense is that they have come not to notice them.  It is as basic as that.  They have grown up in a world where their abilities might mean that they can play sport well, and they can function well in certain aspects of education and school.  But they have never become part of the informal attunement and team-building process that starts at home.   

The absence of these most fundamental of practical and social skills means that it is far from easy, if not impossible, for someone to help develop them in other settings and later in life.  Worryingly there seems to be a point where they may be past the point of no return. 

So for example I have sought to help each of them, and there have been signs of progress over time with say, putting up a badminton net, or pumping up a football, putting dustbins out, and putting Christmas decorations up, cooking and tossing pancakes.  But this should not disguise the fact that they are not learning transferable skills:  each of these activities or tasks is conceived as self-contained.  There is no incremental development. 

One of the effects of this is that they rarely have the satisfaction of reflecting with satisfaction on what they have achieved.  And they both tend to lack a sense of self-worth. It is significant that both have experienced chronic bullying at school.  This is, of course, a topic meriting a separate article, but it makes complete sense of the line of argument thus far.   

How then to address the practical issue of how to nurture transferable skills in such children and young people? It surely means that one needs to start when the children are young.  For example, all involved in pre-school activities with children should pay attention this. And parenting courses need to ensure that such a basic element of life is not overlooked. 

In foster and residential care, it is important that children and young people are alongside adults who can mentor and involve them in such skills as knitting, cooking, gardening and DIY, with patience, and a recognition of the significance of such shared activity.  It is not simply about teaching them how to change a light bulb or cut a hedge, important though they will be later in life, but about expectations, relationships and mutual support.  Psychologists and therapists are regularly enlisted, but what priority is given to the basic practical and social skills needed to develop and responsible adults, work colleagues, and good neighbours? 

It is possible that there are labels and syndromes currently in vogue that obscure this basic reality from view.  What I have described could easily be located on an autistic spectrum for example.  But, I do not believe that this is the essence of the matter. 

Young children need role models in transferable skills: aunties, uncles, grandparents, older siblings, teachers.  But make no mistake about it, it is parents and substitute parents who are likely to hold the key. 

And this is consistent with what we know of learning in general: the time to start is from the earliest moments, and the place to start is at home.  And children do not distinguish between work and play until they find themselves in formal education! 

Keith J. White 

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