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Beyond Employability part 2: We know more than we can tell

  • 18 September 2023
  • By Doug Cole and Jon Down
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Dr Doug Cole SFHEA, Associate Director – Academic in Employability Services at Nottingham Trent University, and Jon Down, Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes.
  • Grit delivers intensive personal development and coaching programmes in universities across the UK.

“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”

John Dewey

In our previous article we argue that employability is much more than simply about gaining a job or a set of generic and ambiguous skills. We suggest the importance of a more holistic approach to learning that takes into account ‘lifewide’ experiences (e.g. learning happening in multiple spaces simultaneously across all aspects of daily life; part-time work, sport, volunteering, caring responsibilities etc.), alongside and in addition to more formal education opportunities. Taken together, these can generate attitudes and behaviours that supercharge the knowledge and technical skills students gain through their individual journeys.

Others have argued that, with the increasingly heterogenous student population, we need to be thinking about the conscious development of “the whole person” in a way that enables students to break through the limitations other people put on them and the limitations they put on themselves  – whether resulting from their social background, personal characteristics or, indeed, education discipline. In this way, we can move on those students who start from a deficit position when academic grades are the only benchmark of success, who believe they will always fall short, that they have something lacking. They can come to recognise the value of a much richer tapestry of experiences and learning in life – one which these same students often have in abundance. This is critical if we are to move the dial on student self-efficacy.

It’s in the reflection

Social identity approaches to supporting students are, then, becoming increasingly essential: who am I?; how do I fit in?; who will I become?  Professor Julie Hulme talks about how, as students transition through the stages of their university experience (from fresher to second year, from undergraduate to postgraduate, from finalist to job seeker), they need to reflect again and again on these key questions. As we also argue, students can only make informed choices throughout their journey that are right for them, when they have a real understanding of who they are and who they want to be. 

Reflection, then, has to be at the heart of the student experience: reflection that is scaffolded, guided and which has purpose, direction and clarity. We can all easily cite many, many examples of where students reflect in our modules and on our courses but how often is this planned and structured in a way that will develop effective and transformative reflective practitioners over time?

What might this mean in practice? How can we make for a more dynamic reflective student experience? How can we empower students to curate and articulate their assets, strengths and talents to serve them throughout their journey in university and beyond? How do we enable them to be actively aware of the environment around them and those actors that they need to effectively engage with in order to be successful? It is a psychosocial perspective that combines these elements that will have students see where they are going more clearly and identify what it is they need to get there.

It’s about having a space where students are challenged and supported to consider how their learning is contributing to their personal development. It’s about how they shape a learning journey that takes them head up, eyes forward, in a direction where they want to go – rather than operating with an inherited or assumed direction.

It requires space and time to think about what they are learning across all aspects of their life, lifewide learning in practice: a space to challenge the paradigms they are learning in; a space for metacognition; a space to question and challenge their thinking and the thinking and actions of others. 

Making it work

As the Institute of Student Employers reports, post-Covid, employers are looking for graduates with resilience and adaptability, an ability to deal with change and the confidence that they can navigate it, creativity and a willingness to take risks. They are looking for graduates unafraid to make mistakes, to take on feedback and learn from the insights this brings. Underpinning all this is the ability of students to reflect effectively.

The capability to reflect is not simply useful in finding a career today. It is essential for navigating your whole working life. Indeed, the recent arrival of AI at scale in the workplace is evidence enough that we cannot predict what the world of work is going to look like in 10 years time: the pace and scale of change in the workplace is only going to increase.

BUT reflection can be more radical than that. At its roots reflection as we suggest, should be a transformative process – as  Polanyi put it ‘We know more than we can tell’. In its purest form, it is not just an individualistic pursuit to examine one’s own thoughts and feelings, but the chance to really challenge the self, the collective, the system and make informed choices and decisions across all spaces in our lives.

How then can we make sure that, over time, ‘reflective practice’ doesn’t revert to being simply a process, a ‘to do’, a random mix of disconnected reflective type activities? How do we make sure through reflection, we continue to challenge norms and power dynamics; liberating learners and professionals to, as Helen Bradbury puts it, break out of their paradigms and experience their own lightbulb moments? How can we enable students to tell more of what they know?

We know that even 15 minutes of reflection a day over a 10 day period increases workplace productivity. By creating spaces for structured and challenging reflection, we could see students increase their ability to ‘tell what they know’ and to own and plan their individual journeys. As a student on a Grit programme put it,

I’ve been able to avoid projecting my expectations. I’ve stopped trying to force things. I’ve been able to understand what really drives me. It’s enabled me to use the experiences I’ve had in my life so far to respond much better to new situations, to the uncertain, to the imperfect. You can’t teach that. You have to experience it.”

Radical reflection

For academic and professional staff to engage in this transformative reflective approach, facilitate it and make it more than just another ‘to-do’, calls for a willingness to let go of ‘the way things are,’ a re-examination of the way they engage and interact with students. But, with engaged professionals creating structured opportunities for students’ ‘radical reflection’, we can enable and empower a more challenging, articulate, engaged student body.

And we move towards Paulo Freire’s definition of effective education built upon on relationship of equals where both can admit to learning from each other – genuine collaboration and co-creation of the learning experience, a partnership with the learner at its heart.

The challenge, then, is to work out what reflection we, as professionals and as institutions, really need to engage in; what discomfort would we have to endure in terms of uncertainty and relinquishing ownership of ‘what’s not working’ in order to continuously evolve more reflective cultures?

Where we get it right the results will be transformational.  As another student told us,

Now I’ve got a clearer mind. I can focus on what it is I really want to be. I’m so much surer, confident, clearer about where I am with everything.  I can see over the wall, to life after uni. Now I’m in charge of my career path.”

While many of us are commonly doing reflective activities with our students, is this scaffolded, developmental, progressive and connected across the levels of study and on all courses and programmes? Are we asking the right questions, at the right time for them and the stage they are at? Perhaps it’s time for us to reflect ourselves.

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  1. Cath says:

    Number 1 – don’t ever award marks that are based on the content of the reflection. That immediately renders it worthless as the focus will be on saying what is needed to get the marks, not what is actually helpful.

  2. Kerith Esterhuizen says:

    Yes and yes again! My PhD is exploring how students construe being employable graduates using constructive methodology, with a view to develop a transformative employability pedagogy.

  3. Albert Wright says:

    Reflection is an important part of self development but to boldly state :

    “We know that even 15 minutes of reflection a day over a 10 day period increases workplace productivity.” may be over stating the effect “reflecting” can have.

    The authors of the report actually state this may be the case but only if there is a specific set of circumstances. The degree of success depends on many factors including the prior experience of the reflector, the context of the task and the type of reflection undertaken.

    In some circumstances, greater productivity may be achieved by more “doing” than reflecting.

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