Sarah Brumwell – Resilience, transferable skills and higher ed

Sarah Brumwell

Sarah Brumwell, Researcher, HEQCO

One of HEQCO’s keynotes from the recent Transitions conference, Paul Tough, has a great piece in the June issue of The Atlantic on how kids learn resilience. This is familiar ground for him—Tough’s bestselling book, How Children Succeed, explains how qualities like perseverance, curiosity and self-control are just as crucial to a child’s success as academic ability. Tough’s Atlantic article is fascinating in that he takes on a question that has been rattling around since both How Children Succeed and Angela Duckworth’s research on grit first gained traction among educators. As Tough puts it, “Is the teaching paradigm the right one to use when it comes to helping young people develop non-cognitive capacities?”

Tough’s question strikes at the heart of a drama that has been unfolding in the K-12 sector, particularly in the United States. The postsecondary sector should be following this debate: just as character education concerns those non-academic qualities that can help a child succeed, transferable skills such as determination, initiative and teamwork are critical to success in the workplace. As colleges and universities focus more attention on preparing their graduates for the job market, interest in these skills is growing. But because transferable skills are so entwined with our personalities, they present some unique challenges to the learning outcomes approach.

The main challenge has to do with whether or not these skills can be taught and assessed reliably in a postsecondary course or program. Resilience, for instance, is influenced by a range of internal and external factors, including early childhood experiences, personality, support networks and coping strategies. Because resilience is multidimensional, it develops in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable intervals. And as the results of the Wabash National Study indicate, the factors affecting transferable skill development can be quite nuanced by the time a student reaches PSE. Demographic and sociocultural influences play a larger part in how students understand themselves and the world around them, to the point that students with certain experiences may respond well to teaching strategies that have no discernable effect on others. If transferable skills, like resilience, are so deeply individual, how can the postsecondary sector set outcomes and expectations for their development?

As noted in HEQCO’s recent report, Measuring Resilience as an Educational Outcome, resilience’s multidimensional makeup is difficult to capture in a single measurement or scale. For this reason, it may be more effective for educators to focus on its component parts. A supportive educational environment, for instance, can be an external source of strength for students. Other components like coping strategies can be taught and developed through targeted support programs. Resilience may not qualify as an educational outcome in its own right, but there is definitely potential for educators to provide students with the building blocks required for adaptive thought and behaviour patterns.

To return to Tough’s question, some non-cognitive abilities are better suited than others for the educational context. Resilience in particular may be too closely tied to our personalities and lived experiences for institutions to expect demonstrable growth over a course or program. But this does not mean that resilience and other transferable skills are outside of the scope of PSE. Rather, it reminds us that we still have much to learn about how we can help our students succeed.

Sarah Brumwell is a researcher at HEQCO.           

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