Agile critical-reflexive students? Start them early!

For Julian Crockford, graduate skills training could start a long way before graduation, or even enrollment.

Julian Crockford is Chief Programmes Officer at Villiers Park.

I was delighted to read Debbie McVitty’s article on why breaking down knowledge silos is the next frontier in student development.

I was struck by the way in which universities are helping students develop the critical reflexivity and agility they will need to respond to a complex and uncertain future. Brilliant. This is just what they need to be doing. But should this vital work really be left to HEIs? If we genuinely want to nurture a generation of agile, critical-reflexive students, this work needs to start much earlier.

Future leaders

Universities are indeed working to prepare students to think for themselves about who they might want to become, and that personal reflection on values and identity is a core competence for anyone entering the modern workplace. Too right.

There does need to be “active development of students’ critical and self-reflective capability, and support to develop a sense of one or more possible future selves, and a development trajectory towards those possible futures”. This precisely is why we have built the Future Leaders programme (our new four-year programme for students from the age of 14 onwards) on the theoretical foundations of possible selves theory.

Put simply, this is the idea that young people can only aim for futures they can imagine and which seem realistic and achievable to them, and that their imagination can be limited by their context and prior experience. We encourage and support young people to try new experiences, engage with employers, academic subjects and skills and to achieve more than they previously imagined was possible. In so doing, we are broadening their pallet of future options and possibilities and giving them vital experience of success.

Attributing success

Without wanting to appear too cynical, lists of university graduate attributes are much like university mission statements – you don’t need to peruse more than two or three of them before a sense of déjà vu kicks in. On the other hand, the fact that there is general agreement about the type of attributes students will need to navigate the post-graduate world means we have a consensus framework describing the skills and attitude required to succeed. Not only do I agree with the graduate attributes espoused by most universities, we suggest that they make even more sense for pre-HE learners. So much so, that we have used them to underpin our programme of personal development. Through a specialist coaching model, we take a non-directive approach and support disadvantaged young people to explore their own values, identity and purpose. We help them imagine their best possible future selves and, crucially, support them to devise their own pathway to achieving their ambitions. At all times, young people have autonomy, agency and own their development.

Most universities also want to develop creative and critical thinkers. This is at the heart of what we do. While we offer coaching support and access to a wide range of courses, workshops and resources, it is down to each individual how they use and respond to them. Nonetheless, through the support offered by our coaching model and our critical and creative thinking resources, we hope that young people will challenge conventional expectations about what they could and should achieve – and discover they already have the best answers to questions about their own development (and often the best questions too).

Problem-solving and communication skills are also often high on the list for desirable graduate attributes. We have embedded these in our ‘Leadership Challenge’ activities, in which young people design and deliver sustainable impactful projects that make a different to their environment or community. Working in groups, these projects help them develop the skills and knowledge they will require to become agents for change. In the process, they will also accrue many of the practical skills (time and project management, effective team working) they will need to succeed in higher education or employment. Many, for example, will get their first taste of event management, public-speaking or networking; others describe the confidence boost of realising what they’re capable of.

Par for the course?

Universities’ graduate attributes often stress the importance of both subject expertise and the ability to deploy broader, more diverse forms of knowledge. While we at Villiers Park provide a range of courses and workshops covering academic, study and personal skills to support attainment raising at levels 2 and 3, we also want to smooth what can otherwise be a bumpy road for those who want to transition into HE study. So, in our subject-focused courses and resources, we offer young people stretch and challenge and the opportunity to extend their disciplinary knowledge and experience beyond the confines of the level 3 curriculum.

Just as importantly, we take care never to paint subject knowledge into disciplinary silos. We value curiosity and creativity for its own sake, so we offer young people free range on our growing curriculum of online courses to wander and discover at whim, in the belief that that the really interesting stuff happens beyond the strict boundaries of subject curricula, when you’re free to let your own interests and values determine what you learn.

Follow the leader

Just as universities want students to graduate with the confidence, knowledge and expertise to make a difference in the world, so do we. Let’s be blunt: far too many influential roles in journalism, politics and law are occupied by people from a limited range of prestige schools and universities. We want to help young people from less advantaged backgrounds to assume such positions of leadership and influence and ensure their voices, perspectives and experiences are better reflected in decision-making and public discourse. Like universities, we are very mindful that the work we do with young people is just a step leading to the next stage of their lives. We want to help them emerge prepared and ready for what comes next and to have the necessary agility, agency and self-knowledge to succeed in whatever they do. But within the confines of a three-year undergraduate degree, universities can only do so much. If this process is to bring the maximum possible benefit to young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, it must start long before they set foot on campus.

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