First published in Dutch on the 6th of December 2010

“Self-help advice lowers self-esteem”
This was the title of an article that appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad in May of 2009. American research had found that affirmations such as “I’m worth being loved”, do not increase the self-confidence of insecure people, but rather lowers it. This confirmed what I had long experienced in my own work; teaching competencies (I perceive self-confidence to be a competency) is not an easy matter.

Competencies in higher education
This insight is important as there is now ever more attention for comprehensive academic skills (read: competencies) and a general academic development. These are subjects that do not inherently qualify as field-specific skills or knowledge. Courses write up attainment levels using phrases such as critical thinking, creative thinking, a scientific attitude and a professional work-ethic.

It is a good thing that higher education does not limit its range to field-specific knowledge and skills, because one needs more than that to be successful in any field; the same applies to finishing your studies. Many students are very skilled in acquiring knowledge and skills; however, it is the students who went through secondary school effortlessly whom I often encounter in my practice. They have not been able to develop certain general competencies which are essential to succeed in their studies. Consider in this light, for instance, competencies such as self-management, goal-orientation, or the self-confidence needed to handle setbacks and uncertainty.

Studies-related and professional competencies
Schools are wise to train both professional and studies-related competencies.
Courses in the curriculum of academic teachers programmes point out what factors may be important by thinking about the professional competencies a teacher needs to acquire in order to teach and guide their students well. These courses focus, among other things, on empathy, setting boundaries, listening, and feedback.

A problem
All these competencies do pose a problem, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay. It is easy to inventory the needed competencies, but how do you compose a didactic programme which actually offers students the tools to acquire them? Subjects consisting entirely of knowledge and skills are easily broken down in comprehensive steps: the theory behind Family Law legislation, a description of clinical depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the statistical procedures to perform a factor analysis, all remain constant no matter the circumstances. This is why we can cut them up and offer them in comprehensive segments to our students.

The same is not true for competencies. Even a seemingly simple skill like giving feedback, can prove to be a tall order. It is not simply gaining knowledge about the rules of giving feedback or acquiring the skill to employ those rules. In this case, intent and result are an integral part of the competency. The function of feedback is to make something clear to someone else. Without this intention a positive result will only be a matter of luck, rather than a successful moment of offering feedback. And as soon as the intention is right, but the results are consistently off, one cannot be considered to be skilled at giving feedback either. Such a person will sooner be experienced as someone who “always criticises”.

Competencies are not objective
Giving feedback does have a theoretic component, but it only works in a practical situation. It is subjected to the capriciousness of those practical circumstances. This is why it is not as objective or constant as a statistic formula. One can know the rules for giving feedback by heart and even employ them with the proper intent to help someone else, without actually gaining the desired results. This would be a case of “the surgery was a success, but the patient died”.

Intent with matching result is, in my opinion, an essential component of all competencies. Self-management means having the intention to formulate and carry out actions independently, in order to reach set goals. This goes beyond having the skill to create a plan. A successful self-manager is capable of being flexible whenever they encounter unforeseen circumstances, while focusing on the original goals of the task.

Critical thinking, likewise, is more than applying, for instance, Socratic or formally logical procedures. The intention is to uncover truths (or falsehoods). Sometimes a purely rational method may work best and sometimes the same method proves desperately inadequate. Emotional experiences, for instance, can be illogical but simultaneously contain “truths”.

Tricky to teach
Teaching competencies is tricky, because reality can be complicated and unruly. Simple mechanisms of cause and effect often do not hold (telling yourself you have self-confidence, does not increase your self-confidence). Reality is chaos; not the colloquial meaning of the word, but the definition according to the chaos theory that is prevalent in several branches of academia. This theory holds that consequences in real circumstances can never be completely predicted, even if one has access to all available data. One can only limit the possible outcomes, but never to such an extent that only a single option remains open.

Chaos 1
In this way the default application of the rules of giving feedback can prove effective one moment, while they may be ineffective in a different, nearly identical, situation. The opposite is possible as well. In one circumstance making eye-contact and smiling may be an effective manner of communication while in another circumstance looking away and ignoring the other person proves to be a much better strategy of making contact. Sometimes one may demonstrate a strong sense of perseverance by ignoring someone else’s call and go with one’s own plans; other times the same competency is expressed by actively figuring out what the other person is trying to communicate.

A moment of education doesn’t equal a moment of learning
Now I have arrived at an important insight: if competencies can present themselves in different shapes and forms depending on the circumstances, forms of education that have a strong focus on specific knowledge and skills can fall short to a great extent. In other words, a moment of education does not equal a moment of learning.

Dutch colleges (hbo’s) tend to work with competency-driven education. Students are given the task to periodically write reports in which they reflect on their own learning. This task aims to increase students’ ability to reflect on their own development. Such a report is a moment of education. However, I know that many students moan and groan whenever they are given this task. The word ‘reflect’ alone is enough to inspire frustration and irritation. There is no moment of learning here; that is, not in the sense the educators had originally in mind.

Chaos 2
However, interventions that do not resemble a moment of education can still become moments of learning. I counsel students, who are writing their dissertations, using a series of hand-outs instead of a pre-arranged course reader. I am often asked whether I can present the information in a more structured manner. I always answer that I could but I will not. Students must learn to arrange information if they are to write a dissertation and so they might as well start the process in my classes.

Whenever I am teaching a course about self-management, I will show up at a meeting late. I expect the students to have gone to work and I will act surprised when they have not. Their self-management should, after all, not depend on me: it is called self-management for a reason.

Teaching competencies
There are two factors that, in my opinion, are important in order to help students develop certain competencies. First, teachers/supervisors must give full attention to the desired competencies, including the related intentions. This may be a little uncomfortable for some, because in higher education we are used to look at information from a neutral perspective. “Normative” is often a dangerous word in the sciences. However, competencies are by definition normative. How one defines a competency depends on one’s norms and values. My interpretation of self-management is a high level of independence and a self-directed attitude. In my definition conflict and negotiation are inevitable. Not all students agree with the extent of my emphasis on independence and a self-directed attitude. This is no problem; if anything, I welcome adversity. As I take a specific stance in the matter, it forces the student to develop their own interpretation of self-management. The same is true for other competencies such as critical thinking or a scientific attitude.

Second, in order to create effective moments of learning, we must employ an array of varied and flexible methods of education. The chaotic nature of reality makes it impossible to accurately predict which moments of education result in particular moments of learning. Variation and leaving room for some chaos, go a long way towards increasing the chances of creating moments of learning that fit the educational aims. The famous quote by Rogers is again applicable; “I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only provide an environment in which they can learn”.

In order to teach competencies one must allow for some chaos in order.