Now I understand…‘What we really need to learn to achieve a healthy, happy, successful life?’

The 12th June 1983 and 18th November 1985 are the two most important dates in my life, when my two children, daughters, were born. I was in my thirties and spent about 10 years anticipating and preparing for parenthood. I’ve never used the phrase “I just want what’s best for my children” since I think it states the obvious, but when I began teaching in the early seventies I did begin researching the answer to this question:
‘What do we really need to learn to achieve a healthy, happy, successful life?’

The extensive research evidence, to be able to confidently answer this question was not available to me until the nineties, and to my great relief, both my daughters appear to have achieved this so far. In the last two decades I’ve provided hundreds of presentations to parents resulting in this comment on numerous occasions: ‘Why didn’t we know about this before?”, possibly you will also.

I began my research and quest to answer this question when I returned to my secondary school as a young P.E. teacher in September 1974. I was born in the blitzed East End of London, just after the Second World War to a very non-academic working class family, yet I was a 22 year old, with a degree in Chemistry, with a passion for sport, but clueless as to how or why I had attained this position and expected to help these teenagers develop and prepare for adult life, according to my self-awareness at the time.
From a very young age I had repeatedly asked questions and tried to understand as much as I could, so trying to discover the answer to this question has probably underpinned much of my life. Therefore, I’m relieved that following decades of extensive worldwide scientific research we can finally be confident that we can answer this question and the articles in this blog will repeatedly demonstrate it.

The 8 Skills
For many years I have used terms similar to skills such as abilities, capabilities, qualities, competencies, and I can understand why others may be more comfortable with them but as a huge fan of sport I have comfortably used the term skill since early childhood to describe various physical abilities or actions.
‘Skill – any action or activity that can be learnt’
As a teacher I became aware that skills could be used to describe any action or activity that could be learnt, with language skills, mathematical skills, scientific skills and many others being continually used. In fact, the term skills is now applied in a huge range of areas such as Employability, Management, Leadership, Parenting, Coaching, Teaching it aptly describes the actions or activities needed to perform these tasks or roles.

The great philosophers for many centuries have been reflecting and offering advice on overcoming the difficulties we are likely to meet to achieve healthy, happy, successful lives and throughout the 20th century this increasingly became a focus for scientists. In recent years there have been huge advances in the science of learning (what, why and how we learn) especially in developmental psychology (the scientific study of changes that occur in human beings over the course of their life span) and neuroscience (particularly brain imaging). All this extensive research and longitudinal, sociological studies means that we are finally able to be confident that in order to achieve healthy, happy, successful lives in the 21st century we need to have good development in key skills (or skill sets). These 8 skills will appear in numerous lists under a variety of names, but presently I have used what seem to me to be the most suitable names at present (I have changed the names several times).

1. Effective Learning
In July 2013, the BBC science series Horizon broadcast a programme entitled “What Makes Us Human?” in which ‘Professor Alice Roberts set out to explore what it is about our bodies, our genes and ultimately our brains that set us apart from our furry cousins – what is it that truly makes us human?’ The conclusion at the end is simply summarised as ‘our ability to learn to overcome the difficulties of life’.
The scientific research and discoveries in the last few centuries have been staggering, resulting in life in the 21st century being complicated for everyone in the modern technological world. The complexity of everyday life in the modern world means that it has become essential for everyone to learn to adapt to the continual changes and new situations they are certain to meet.
Skill is the any action or activity that can be learnt and so the development of a skill can be assessed and measured by close observation of these actions or activities. When I began teaching and coaching sport (P.E.) in the early seventies, I needed to learn to observe the students very carefully to try to identify and analyse their skill. I realised quickly that I needed to improve my own communication and cognitive skills in order to do this effectively. In each sport there are sets of skills that had key actions that had to occur to become effective or master it, so I had to develop my own skill in detecting these actions, fortunately I had lots of opportunities to practise and improve this skill..
The sections ‘Common Examples of Characteristics’ attempts to provide a examples and explanations on assessing and measuring each of the 8 skills. Most people will be able to become more effective in measuring the 8 skills with practice, but we already carry out these assessments (probably poorly) by observing the key actions, characteristics or behaviours that are described. It is important to appreciate that this is ‘continual assessment and measurement’ so frequent opportunities to display the skills in varied situations is crucial to accurate measurement.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Effective Learning
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They will feel and show that they are becoming more comfortable with changes to their life, no longer become upset by it and adapt easily.
• They will be keen to learn new things and do so without the need to have someone motivating or teaching them.
• They can and enjoy learning in a wide variety of ways (eg. books, computers, video, people) and environments (eg. alone, groups, school), being able to practice and study for many hours.

Effective learning appears to be the only one of the 8 skills that babies are born with some measurable level of development, which is probably explained with the reference to the “What Makes Us Human?” TV programme. Babies have to undergo massive changes to their environment when being born and most adapt to the changes to their life, becoming less upset by it – hopefully! Babies and toddlers show a keenness to learn new things and usually need little motivation. In fact, over the many decades I’ve been observing babies and toddlers closely I’ve referred to them as ‘Learning Machines’ for what I hope are obvious reasons.

2. Communication
Any scientific analysis or comparison with other species identifies human’s communication skills as being significant. However human babies are not born with good communication skills, in fact their concentration and attention span are poor, but unless they develop them, our babies cannot receive the variety of information around them through their senses (see, hear and feel) to detect potential problems or danger. Therefore learning to concentrate effectively means they can learn to detect and understand sounds, visual gestures, facial expressions, body language, touch, and develop their ability to listen, speak, read and write. In the 21st century modern world, communication with a very wide variety of people, in large range of ways, is commonplace for all, so developing these skills to a high level is essential.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Communication
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They will be able to keep focused on what they are doing for a long time (many hours) and avoid being distracted even though they may not be enjoying the activity.
• They will be able to understand and communicate using a wide variety of ways and information, such as speaking, listening, reading, writing, computers, but also non-verbally such as facial expressions, visual gestures, body language, touch and tone of voice.

Clearly when babies are born their communication skills are very limited, but recent scientific evidence indicates that they may be able to detect sounds in the womb. However, when people (eg. babies) have poor development in this skill they can get very frustrated and their behaviour may be considered to be loud, naughty, anti-social, aggressive, violent or possibly they become very withdrawn, ‘quiet or sulky’.

3. Cognition
Since the start of the 20th century the term intelligence has largely referred to cognitive skills. The highly developed prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe) of the human brain has been identified as having a large influence on cognitive skills (understanding, planning, problem solving and decision making) which for over a century has been considered to explain ‘human intelligence’. Academic and exam achievement is largely related to this skill, especially in mathematics and science.
In the 21st century modern world, most people are expected to make many important complex decisions throughout their lives, as part of normal everyday life, so good development in this skill has become essential to all if they are to achieve success and good well-being.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Cognition
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They will be traditionally described as ‘bright, quick-witted, clever, and intelligent’.
• They can think analytically so that they understand concepts and information that may be difficult for others (eg, science and maths) and also apply it to solve problems and see long term consequences to make good decisions.
• They can work out the ‘pros and cons’ accurately and see the ‘big picture’.

Scientific evidence indicates that when babies are born they have little development of this skill and initially show little evidence that they can solve problems. People who are poorly developed in this skill have been unfairly referred to as ‘slow, thick, retarded etc.’ yet often they have not had the opportunities to practice and develop this skill, especially in their early years, when their brain is most able to adapt and learn.

4. Self-awareness
This skill (action that can be learnt) is, basically our perception or understanding about who we are and how we relate to the world, consequently poor development in this skill is likely to be central to the huge rise in depression, bullying, self-harm and poor mental health in the 21st century. Humans are thought to be one of the few species that can develop their self-awareness sufficiently to learn to recognise themselves in a mirror, usually by the age of two years. We will learn to assess ourselves by feedback from people and our environment, becoming aware of our emotions and evaluating our strengths and weaknesses. The huge influence of the media and communication in the 21st century has meant the criteria on which people assess themselves has changed immensely, resulting in many having poor or fragile self-esteem.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Self -Awareness
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They can assess themselves very accurately using their development of the 8 skills as key criteria.
• They will know their strengths and weaknesses, and what they need to improve.
• They will regularly study (reflect on) their behaviour and emotions and why they occur, and avoid putting too much emphasis on the superficial (appearance).
• They will be confident with good, sound self-esteem.

In recent decades the advancement in scientific evidence indicates that when babies are born they have little development of self-awareness but within two to three years have surpassed virtually all other species in the development of this skill.
People who are poorly developed in this skill are likely to behave in a way that shows they lack an understanding of themselves, what they do and why they do it. Their actions may show that they lack confidence, have low self-worth or self-esteem by either being withdrawn or following other people, trends, fashions, behaviours.

5. Self-management
When babies are born they are unable to manage their emotions or control their impulses and parents are very familiar with toddlers ‘losing their temper’ when they cannot get what they want. Key to humans being able to overcome difficulties relies very much on ‘staying in control’, ‘doing what is needed and not what is wanted’. For several decades, scientists have been assessing this skill and detecting its importance in success in areas as widespread as academia, sport, business and leadership. Identification of poor development in this skill, largely occurring in the pre-fontal cortex, can often explain addictive personalities, anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Self-management
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They will not be impulsive or ‘lose control’ and use their emotions in a controlled effective positive way.
• They will express their emotions to others in ways that are clear and appropriate to the situation (suitable behaviour).
• They know how to behave and adapt their behaviour according to where they are and who they are with.
• They have strategies to manage their impulses and strong emotions (eg. anger, anxiety, stress, jealousy) to avoid them behaving in ways that has negative consequences for them or for other people.
• They do what they NEED to do and not what they WANT (‘avoid temptation’), avoid taking ‘quick fix solutions’ to problems.

Again the scientific evidence indicates that when babies are born they have little development of this skill and their behaviour is impulsive and reactive. Poor development in self-management is frequently described as ‘being childish or babylike’ and provides the explanation for numerous problems with adults and adolescents. In fact, poor development in the skill has traditionally been called ‘bad behaviour’, even though often poor self-awareness may be the major factor.

6. Motivation
This skill has seen a huge amount of research in recent decades, with the conclusion that poor development in this skill invariably results in people struggling to achieve success or good well-being. Humans will experience difficulties from the moment they are born and in the womb; these setbacks help them to learn to become resilient. If children are protected excessively and prevented from experiencing these difficulties, they grow up unprepared to try to overcome difficulties they will meet in the future, which means they will fear failure and avoid challenges or new situations. It is important to note that what motivates us, which will depend greatly on our self-awareness, is very different from what keeps us motivated, as this will require developing resilience, persistence, determination, will power, responsibility etc.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Motivation
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They are resilient and bounce back from disappointment or failure
• They do not ‘fear failure’ and view errors as part of the normal learning process, studying any experience or outcome to see what can be learnt from it.
• They use their and other’s experiences, including mistakes and setbacks, to change (improve) their thinking and behaviour (growth mindset and internal locus of control).
• They take responsibility for their lives, not blaming others, believe that they can influence what happens to them and make wise choices.

When babies are born they do appear to have some resilience, often being termed as ‘fighters’ when they experience difficulties or setbacks. Babies and toddlers do not appear to fear failure and learn by experience (‘trial and error’). However, people who are poorly developed in this skill become reluctant to try new things, look for excuses and blame, lack optimism and become despondent easily.

7. Empathy
Humans have become successful (overcome the difficulties in their lives) by being ‘social animals’, their success as a species is because they work as together as a group or team, and much of their motivation and pleasure involves relationships with others. Consequently, it is important for us to become emotionally sensitive to other people and appreciate or ‘tune into’ their thoughts and feelings, and essential in forming good strong relationships. Poor development in this skill means they are likely to experience many difficulties with other people, falsely believe ‘everyone thinks and feels the same as they do’, or feel alienated and alone and likely to have frequent huge relationship problems.
In recent years, this inter-personal skill has increasingly become better understood, it’s importance and how it is developed. With travel, migration and integration becoming commonplace in the 21st century, this skill continues to become ever more important, sometimes being referred to as ‘diversity’.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Empathy
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They are able to see the world from other people’s emotions, beliefs and points of view, understanding how people are feeling through their words, body language, gestures, and tone.
• They refer to people’s feelings a great deal and try to explain behaviour in terms of their emotions and skills, being used as a counsellor or be confided in by others.
• They are able to show respect (care and consideration) for people from all cultures, backgrounds, interests, attainments, attitudes, and values.

When babies are born they do not appear to have any empathy and learning it is very dependent on the quality and quantity of interaction they have with other people (attachment). People poorly developed in this skill struggle to form good quality relationships, will try to stick to ‘like-minded people’ and tend to disrespect others. In recent years they are often diagnosed as being autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome.

8. Relationship/Social
With relationships and teamwork being so important to humans, unless we learn to handle a wide variety of relationships and deal effectively with them they are likely to feel lonely, rejected, frustrated, angry and unhappy. The quality of their lives is invariably greatly affected by how well we ‘get on with’ other people and social or relationship skills are essential to our popularity, effectiveness with others and whether we will be able to lead or ‘blindly’ follow others.

Common Examples of Characteristics for Relationship/Social Skills
When people have developed well in this skill:
• They work and learn well in groups and teams, taking on different roles, cooperating with others to achieve a joint outcome.
• They get on’ with lots of very varied people and will not ‘bitch or slag off’ others.
• They display an appropriate level of independence from others, while maintaining positive relationships with others.
• They put the team before themselves and make very good employees despite poor leadership.
• They try to support others, are comfortable with support but seen as a leader by many people.

Again, newborn babies do not appear to have any relationship/social skills and as with empathy, development is very dependent on the quality and quantity of interaction they have with other people. Poor development in this skill will result in people struggling to become team players, continually ‘falling out with others’, being selfish, and following others (like sheep).


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