Skills Are Not Enough: Developing Workers’ Dispositions to Succeed in an Uncertain, Disruptive World
The global economy underwent dramatic labor market shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone, approximately 114 million people worldwide lost their jobs (Richter, 2021). Millions of others experienced extensive transformations to their roles and workplace conditions. Some of these workers successfully pivoted, while others struggled to adjust to the new circumstances.
Dispositions, such as a growth mindset and resilience, may be a major factor that differentiated between these two responses (DeTore et al., 2022; Cho et al., 2021; Cutler, 2020). During the pandemic, we have seen that inculcating skills for a particular role is not enough to prepare workers for economic inclusion under turbulent workforce conditions. Whether a person also has the associated dispositions that encourage and enable using these skills will determine the extent to which that person is empowered or paralyzed by coming decades of disruptions.
As technologies such as artificial intelligence and data mining advance, forecasts suggest continued rapid changes in jobs and employer needs over the coming half-century (Muro, Maxim, & Whiton, 2019). This turbulence will be amplified by globalization, climate change and threats to sustainability (Dede & Richards, 2020). Though these future shifts might not occur as dramatically or as suddenly as COVID-19, over the next few decades multiple linked disruptions will impact the education and workforce sectors. Adding dispositions to current models of capacity building may make a crucial difference to workers’ responses to this turbulence.
What Are Dispositions?
Dispositions—what people tend to do with their skills when the occasion calls for it and how—are a vital link between having a skill and effectively applying it in real life (Perkins et al., 2000). As the definition implies, dispositions require the necessary skills or abilities—the competencies to express a certain behavior or perform a specific type of task, physical or mental, at some level of proficiency (Riveros et al., 2012). Dispositions also hinge on a person’s inclination, the intention to engage in the behavior; sensitivity, the probability of noticing occasions to engage in the behavior (Perkins et al., 2000; Tishman et al., 1994); and appraisal, the understanding of how much of a behavior is appropriate for the situation. All these elements of a disposition must be present for it to be successfully expressed.
Three characteristic distinctions between skills and dispositions highlight the dispositional aspect of how skills play out in practice (Riveros et al., 2012; Hampshire, 1971; Cartwright, 2002). First, contrary to a skill, which can be unused over long periods of time, a disposition involves behavioral expression, meaning it is displayed in appropriate situations (Hampshire, 1971). Second, unlike skills, which are developed and then used by the person, dispositions can be triggered, obstructed, enhanced and delayed by contextual factors such as educational interventions and workplace culture. Third, while people can quickly learn and forget skills, dispositions take time to practice and develop; once engrained, they cannot easily erode. Therefore, although we train for skills, test learners against our objectives and deem them prepared to exercise those skills when they pass our assessments, some learners’ skills will remain latent unless the training also builds the related dispositions for the expression of those capabilities.
Differences in teachers’ responses to the pandemic and the abrupt disruptions that ensued illustrate the significance of dispositions. When schools moved to remote learning in 2020, some teachers who had previously excelled in the classroom struggled to effectively teach their lessons virtually, as simply carrying over instructional designs from a face-to-face setting to an online one results in poor outcomes. In contrast, other teachers quickly transitioned their curricula to online environments, leveraging their knowledge of the elements that constitute exemplary pedagogy and learning to select the optimal virtual delivery mechanisms that would preserve instructional quality (Dede, 2021). As some educators were paralyzed by the shifts, others felt empowered—exercising adaptability, the tendency to reshape existing understandings and develop new ones to cater to new contexts, to come up with noteworthy new models for teaching. The Silver Lining for Learning series describes numerous novel teaching strategies coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides adaptability, some other important dispositions for changing times include growth mindset, agility, mindfulness, flexibility, resilience and curiosity (Dede & Etemadi, 2021). A common denominator among this list of dispositions is a focus on self-confidence and comfort with change.
All dispositions can be useful or problematic, depending on the degree to which they are held and the situation in which they are applied (Dede & Etemadi, 2021). Flexibility, for example, may help a worker thrive despite an organizational culture shift within the workplace, but too much flexibility with responsibilities and organizational priorities may be deemed irresponsible, and inexorable fluidity with one’s position on a matter when it demands choice among possible actions may be considered indecisive.
Although dispositions may have emotional and social dimensions, they are not the same as soft skills or social-emotional skills, which involve working well with others (Dede & Etemadi, 2021). These skills are capabilities, whereas dispositions are the tendencies to manifest the soft and social-emotional abilities when appropriate. For example, a person may possess the skill to collaborate, but a disposition to collaborate only with people with a certain type of personality. Or a person may have skills for conflict resolution, but a disposition to apply those only when there is a strong inclination one way or the other, rather than when the person’s stance is neutral. In these illustrations, the skills fail to manifest helpfully in the workplace, yet soft skills trainings often omits the dispositional aspect of how these skills are deployed in challenging situations.
Developing Dispositions and Implications for Education and Training
Each component of a disposition—skills, inclination, sensitivity and appraisal—can be suppressed, reinforced or altered through repeated learning experiences. This involves a systematic, multi-pronged approach to skill-building, practice and reflection on the diverse contexts in which the disposition could appear. Throughout, learners must understand the meaning of the skills and dispositions they are honing, feel intrinsically motivated and build the situational awareness to apply them, recognize the costs and benefits of deploying a disposition, and possess the metacognitive abilities to reflect on their skillfulness and areas for improvement (Perkins et al., 2000; Norris, 2003; Costa & Kallick, 2014; Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993).
Practitioners and leaders can create the curriculum and culture to support learners in fostering helpful dispositions. Specifically, they can:
- Explain what the disposition under consideration means and what its associated skills encompass
- Present examples
- Encourage students to treat the examples as models to be analyzed and followed,
- Justify the exemplified behavior
- Develop authentic scenarios and exercises for practical application and prompting student reflection
- Cultivate an overarching culture of dispositional excellence (Riveros et al., 2012; Costa & Kallick, 2014)
Training programs, and research studies assessing their efficacy, have shown that dispositions useful for dealing with constant uncertainty and upheaval may be inculcated over time and that such inculcation might help improve people’s abilities to adjust and flourish (Magtibay, 2017; Maunder et al., 2010). For instance, military training has long demonstrated the power of building dispositions such as resilience and mindfulness for effectively operating in extreme situations (Meredith et al., 2011). The same has been true in medicine where, even before 2020, hospitals and healthcare institutions like UMass Memorial Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Penn Medicine and the University of Virginia Health System offered programs to equip their healthcare practitioners with the dispositions to effectively function and ideally thrive, despite the inexorable stress of their surroundings. Trainings of this nature have become valuable and more common since the beginning of the pandemic, as essential workers have been faced with increasing pressures and worsening conditions.
Dispositions take time to teach, but they are critical in job performance. Interviewing for a job, landing work, maintaining employment, and succeeding in the workforce requires a suite of skills and their associated dispositions. Skills-focused rhetoric that sidelines dispositions may undermine learners’ preparedness to excel in the variety of circumstances they might encounter in the workplace.
Research predicts that technological disruptions over the following years will impact everyone to varying degrees, depending on their occupations, locations and demographic groups (Muro, Maxim, & Whiton, 2019). To prepare learners, we need to simultaneously address skills and the dispositions for embodying those skills, so when the shifts impact workers—whether personally or professionally—they are equipped to overcome challenges and obstacles. Even more importantly, dispositions such as self-confidence, comfort with change and initiative can enable workers to take advantage of the many opportunities that uncertainty and turbulence create. As the dead hand of the past is disrupted, long-outdated traditions and cultures can be transformed.
As members of The Next Level Lab, the authors appreciate the contributions of their lab colleagues as thought partners in this work. The Next Level Lab is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It brings together expertise in cognitive science, neuroscience, the learning sciences and innovative learning design and technology towards research and innovation to address emerging and urgent issues in K-12 and Workforce Development and to increase access and equity in developing mastery across the lifespan.
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