In the first part of this post, I discussed the need to develop more broad and inclusive understandings of knowledge and to move away from unhelpfully simplistic and reductive notions like ‘study skills’ which, it is wrongly assumed, stand somehow outside the realm of what we call ‘knowledge’. Here, I want to interrogate more closely the discourse surrounding so-called ‘transferable skills’.
As Hager and Hodkinson (2009) argue, the ‘metaphor of transfer’ provides neither a helpful nor plausible way of conceptualising or understanding human learning and transition. This is not to say that certain habits, values, practices, orientations etc. one develops during a course of study within formal education can’t be relevant and useful in a variety of contexts beyond that course (and vice versa). However, and picking up on part one of this post, I want to emphasise that the operative term here is ‘contexts’. This is the case for two reasons: i) all human practices are developed in some context or other; and 2) the extent to which these might be appropriate or legitimate in other, even closely related, contexts is itself a context-dependent question.
Take ‘argumentation’ as an example. None of us form arguments in an entirely abstract way; we’re always arguing about something and in ways that serve some purpose (even if that purpose is mainly to provide the sometimes guilty pleasures of a good argument). As Christian Smith (2010: 180) points out: ‘human knowledge, language and experience are always about something’. We develop, exercise, refine etc. various arguments, in other words, in contexts where it is in some way purposeful and meaningful for us and others. Academic disciplines (the questions and problems they pose, the topics and themes they focus on, the methods of enquiry they develop, the debates and disagreements they produce etc.) can provide wonderfully rich and rewarding spaces of purpose and meaning, as can other areas of our lives. I suspect that what might be going on when people refer to academic practices like argumentation as ‘generic’ or ‘transferable’, is that they’re confusing the experience of being able to utilise a capacity in varied contexts, with a belief that therefore that same capacity itself has a life independent of context. From this flows the erroneous belief that practices like argumentation can therefore somehow be ‘taught’ in abstracted and context-independent ways when in fact the two – practice and context – are dynamic, highly co-dependent and in constant dialogue and interaction with each other.
This is also why those awful, but alas it seems perennially popular, ‘Top Ten 21st Century Skills’-type lists are so unhelpful. First, a set of complex and context-dependent social practices are abstracted, genericised and reified to the point of near meaninglessness – to become apparent things such as ‘team working’, ‘problem solving’, ‘critical thinking’ etc. Next, we educators seize on these things-that-aren’t-actually-things, proclaiming: ‘Look! Proof that these are the things our students will need out there in the ‘REAL WORLD’! Let’s make sure we teach them these things!’ Now, I’m not saying that students shouldn’t do activities like group work projects and/or learn to present their knowledge in a variety of ways, and for a variety of audiences. Far from it, I think they absolutely should. I’m simply suggesting that we need to find far more meaningful ways of both conceptualising and supporting students’ development in these kinds of practices than our all-too-often superficial focus on abstract ‘skills’.
If we are to understand how, and what it really means, to exercise an ability to do stuff in different contexts, it’s important also that we know (that word again!) enough about these contexts (their ways of doing things, their codes of legitimation, their dominant values, their practices of reward, validation, recognition, punishment and exclusion etc.) in the first place. Again, to use a personal example from my undergraduate days, as well as studying History, I was involved in various groups of the political Left. Being politically active involved (like being an undergraduate historian) reading lots, forming arguments and counter arguments, drawing on evidence, articulating ideas, engaging in debate etc. Now, whilst there were certainly strong inter-relationships between each sphere – the academic and the activist – it wasn’t a case of somehow just ‘transferring’ various ‘skills’ between them. Being critical, argumentative, persuasive etc. in an activist space is qualitatively different (and similar in some ways, too, of course) from being so in an academic one. So, if my improving capacities for criticality and argumentation were to ‘work’ in a more overtly political sphere, that would also depend on my knowing how that sphere itself worked, including how it was different from, although at the same time often also closely related to, the academic sphere. The same went for when this process worked the other way. Being an activist did certainly help me to refine my approaches to argumentation. It also played a huge role in motivating me to engage with my subject, and particular research traditions and methodologies within it. So, I’m definitely not arguing that the academic and activist spheres are entirely separate – they’re not and nor should they be. As any politically-literate scholar will attest, knowledge production – whatever its circumstances and motivations – is a profoundly, and always already, political activity. Likewise, there are plenty of examples (in participatory critical action research, for example) where self-consciously political and scholarly objectives are co-existent and co-constitutive. I am simply trying to point out, here, that context matters and can have real effects when it comes to how practices are developed and recognised as legitimate in different spheres of life, even when these spheres are closely interconnected.
This centrality of context is surely also why colleagues in careers advice and education place such an importance on relevant work experience and work-based learning opportunities. It is in such immersive and experiential contexts that students get to truly learn what ‘working effectively with others’, ‘communicating effectively with clients and colleagues’ etc. actually mean in terms of the particular values, practices, ideologies, mythologies and power-relations that prevail in often radically different kinds of professional and organisational settings. You can’t really learn these (other than in the most superficial ways) entirely outside of such contexts since it’s the very contexts themselves that determine what ‘working effectively (or ineffectively) with others’ or ‘communicating effectively (or ineffectively) with clients and colleagues’ involve people being able to do, and be more or less like, in the first place.
I think one of the dangers of the ‘transferrable skills’ discourse is that it risks us forgetting that it’s not ‘skills’ that move from place to place, context to context – it’s human beings (again, see Hager and Hodkinson, 2009 for a discussion of this, but see also Holmes, 2013 and Finn, 2016). As they do so, they have to learn, by way of knowing and coming to know, what legitimate practice involves, including the identity work that becoming a more ‘legitimate’ participant in different contexts often requires (Wenger, 2009). This is true even if their ultimate ends, as in emancipatory politics, are to challenge and transform those contexts. This is why more sociologically-informed insights, which explore how students’ agency is developed, enabled, constrained etc. within complex and contested structural contexts (an academic discipline, a contemporary university, a political movement, a workplace etc.) are so important and valuable (see, for example, Case, 2015; Williams, 2014). Such insights remind us that there are no such things as disembodied, generic and context-independent ‘skills’ that somehow get ‘transferred’ – like special powers accumulated at one level of a computer game, and then utilised to score points at subsequent levels. Rather, there are complex and diverse human agents, negotiating their participation (including their partial or non-participation) in various social spaces via certain social practices that have become recognised, at any given time, as more or less legitimate. The task of supporting students in this process of negotiation, and in reflecting critically on how our own dominant practices might both enable and inhibit this process, isn’t particularly helped by reductive dichotomies between ‘knowledge and skills’ or poorly-theorised talk of ‘transferability’.
 This was the 1990s, so unlike today (when the prospect of producing a genuinely transformative, counter-hegemonic moment seems at least not completely out of the question) being on the political Left in the UK was a largely dispiriting and futile pursuit.
Case, J. (2013) Researching Student Learning in Higher Education: A Social Realist Approach. Abgingdon: Routledge.
Finn, K. (2016) Relational transitions, emotional decisions: new directions for theorising graduate employment, Journal of Education and Work, 1-13.
Hager, P. & Hodkinson, P. (2009) Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning, British Educational Research Journal, 35:4, 619-638.
Holmes, L. (2013) Competing perspectives on graduate employability: possession, position or process? Studies in Higher Education, 38:4, 538-554.
Smith, C. (2010) What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wenger, E. (2009) A Social Theory of Learning. In Illeris, K. (ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words. London: Routledge.
Williams, K. (2012) Rethinking ‘learning’ in higher education: Viewing the student as social actor, Journal of Critical Realism, 11(3), 296-323.