Self Skills as the Philosopher’s Stone

The theme of skills is one of the top trending topics today. As ancient alchemists were looking for the stone that could turn iron into gold, modern managers are trying to find a unique combination of key skills/skills of the 21st century that can turn regular employees into “universal soldiers” who were capable of surviving and moving the whole corporation forward, despite the times of super complex uncertainty. The discourse is not always competent, sometimes it has a highly speculative character, which means no scientific knowledge or real practice are taken into consideration. To make sure it is true, it is enough to google “self skills”. One can see an infinite number of links and resources and each of them would propose a certain number of skills that can guarantee turning a regular person into a “leader”.

One of the most popular skill classifications divides skills into two groups: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills define a person’s professional performance and business competence. Soft skills are social competencies, such as critical thinking, communicating, working in teams, etc. Some time ago, the emergence of the Digital Age and the Fourth Industrial revolution brought to light another group of skills – digital ones. But the process did not stop, classifications keep on occurring. Today, one can face such things as self-management, life competencies, and so on.

The state order for highly qualified professionals for federal and business corporations makes universities consider what skills must be classifies and how. It is easier for entrepreneurial and industry-specific universities to do that because such choice is made by managers of certain business sectors. As for classical universities, the problems of skill choice have not been solved yet.  

TSU Rector Eduard Galazhinskiy discussed this issue with Tatyana Kovalyova, President of the Interregional Tutoring Organization, and Head of the Laboratory for Individualization and life-Long Learning (Institute of Life-learning, Moscow). 


Eduard Galazhinskiy: Tatyana, you are one of the first people in Russia who turned their attention toward an instant need to distinguish self skills as those, necessary for self-actualization and self-carrying. The term self-competence was coined by Susan Harter, American psychologist, who presented it in 1982. But the whole world prefers to talk about developing hard and soft skills, avoiding the term self-competencies. As a researcher who deals with the issues of self-actualization, I consider such an approach as a reductionist and technological one. What do you think about that?

Tatyana Kovalyova: I always say how vital it is to expand the binary classification of skills by brining self-competencies into it. I have a couple of strong arguments in favor of this approach. First, it is important from the philosophical point of view. Nowadays, there is an opinion that the invention of new terms that define innovative phenomena kills the dichotomy of the “black and white” world. Such a dichotomy makes it impossible to see an innovative sparkle that always lies “in between”, it is never polar. It is known that the Noble laureates experienced great difficulties when they were preparing and defending their theses, because it was impossible to classify their works and assign them to particular areas. This proves that the innovative sector always lies between existing boundaries. 4.png

Dividing skills into hard and soft ones is a polar thinking. If we want to develop innovation skills of the current transition period, we need to apply to the innovation sector that lies between these two poles. But there are no marks that could help us to find it! The skills that are connected with this in-between sector are those that will be in demand by the people of the 21st century. We call them “self skills” or the “culture of carrying for the self”.   We did not invent it, Michael Foucault did. Self skills include soft and hard skills, because there are certain technologies that, for example, help to set goals. In other words, psychological technics are, in a way, hard skills. On the other hand, there is culture, flexibility, tolerance, and emotional intelligence in the “self” sector of skills. Communication is not just about the words. It is also about what is behind the words. You see whether some person likes you or not despite what they say. How is it possible to comprehend this twilight zone? This is the first way to explain why dividing skills into soft and hard ones is not enough. It is necessary to find an additional focus on innovation areas, for example, on self-competencies.

E.G.: For me, this new focus is a good one for the sake of the discussion. However, I see it differently. I think that at some point dividing skills into two groups was a good idea, but later it all began to fall apart. New competencies occur, along with new classifications. At the recent EdCrunch Conference I said that we had looked through all the letters but never figured out how to make a word out of them.


The main thing is still to be defined: what is the core of all the competencies. It seems to me that “self” is the very core. For me, getting into self-competencies is to shift the focus from the outer shell to the inner, core one, which builds on all soft, hard, and digital skills. It is the ability to work with one’s own core, that is, to engage in self-construction. And this needs to be done purposely, because by nature we are unconscious users of ourselves. It’s like buying a computer with the default settings and not even knowing that these settings can be changed or improved. Self-skills are competencies of one’s potential and development, creative building of one’s own life. We almost never talk about them. I agree with you that the idea of ​​self-competencies was very well described by Foucault. He pointed out that most people only occasionally think about themselves and the choices that they have to make in life. Including the choice of their education paths. 6.png

Professor Dmitry Leontyev developed this idea and argued that people are “dotted” creatures that move from one level of functioning to another. And even the most prominent people’s lives are not continuous lines. Living as a human being is hard, since it is a path of a great resistance. However, having decided on hard personal work, a person goes to the level of the conscious existence - the level of free choice and self-determination. In my opinion, this personal work develops self-competencies that allow people to live their lives consciously. Self-skills are core or "generic" competencies that define all other specific skills.

T.K.: Yes, this “biological” logic is advantageous because it defines transparency and generic relationships. If a classification misses the generic level, genera that cannot be assigned to any particular type occur. It is important to mention that any classification or typology represents some author’s position. At some point in my life, I was surprised to learn that along with the Mendeleev’s periodic table, more than a dozen of other typologies existed. But the strength of the Mendeleev’s table turned out to be that it was based on the valency of chemical elements. Therefore, it turned out to be the most advanced and universally recognized.


If we talk about the skills necessary for the humanity, there may be multiple typologies. But ours is different from the other in terms of its anthropological foundation. Hard skills have always existed, but their content in each particular era was determined by the technological achievements of this era. At the beginning of the human history, it was necessary to be able to sew clothes from skin. Today, it is important to be able to use a computer. As for soft competencies, their content is relatively stable: for a person, as a collective being, it has always been vital to be able to communicate with other people, work in teams, and so on.  8.jpg

Of course, you can talk about a person from different points of view. But we, as representatives of a classical university, must argue anthropologically. We should be concerned about HOW to equip a person with knowledge about self and with all the basic life skills and the skills of cooperation with other people that civilization has developed during its existence. Therefore, we are talking about self-competencies. Generally speaking, all other competencies (hard, life and others) are about HOW TO SURVIVE. “Self-competencies” is a very accurate term. It is about people themselves.

E.G.: Each type of professional activity may have different hierarchy of these three types of competencies (hard, software and self). It is clear that from the point of view of IT specialists, the main competencies are “hard”. But in order to understand that you need just them and nothing else, one must deal with the self skills in the first place. I talked about it at the forum and the audience supported me. A survey among our freshmen has confirmed the fundamental importance of self skills. At least 60% of them say that their main goal is "to find themselves" and this is why they enter our university. Not to acquire a profession, but to find themselves. Maybe they enter industry-specific universities for a profession, but they choose us to determine who they are. Therefore, in a classical university, tutorial positions are extremely important. And these new positions occur at TSU. We are thinking about how to put it all together.


There is another term that is important for our discourse, which is life creativity. It is something that can be opposed to helplessness. Universities should offer such workshops in life creativity. The problem is how to teach and develop these skills. It is clear now that teaching soft skills is not effective when it is done in training situations. All soft skills must be developed inside hard ones. In other words, the same teachers who form hard skills should develop self-competencies. And here is another question: what kind of training should a teacher have to be able to hold this whole triangle: hard, software, and self skills. But the most talented teachers work exactly like that!

T.K.: Yes, there are options: to have a talented teacher or to have a tutor. A Teacher with a capital letter, as a character in the play by Moliere who did not know that all his life he spoke in prose. A teacher may have never heard the word “tutor” or known about the “hard-soft-self” triangle, but intuitively he or she does just the right things. And if a teacher does not do them, a tutor should come and bring it all together. How, for example, does this system work in Oxford? A student comes to a tutor once a week. The tutor asks what lectures the student had; what was understood and what it may be needed for. This work lasts all six years of studying at a university. Young people need to discuss all this with someone. I remembered a funny but informative case. The organizers of the “Ostrov 10-22” Forum introduced its participants to the Pushkin robot, which was supposed to help navigate the intensive program, choose among the events and so on. But young people began to ask “Pushkin” completely different questions: about themselves, about love, and about the meaning of life. As a result, “Pushkin” broke down just a day later: he kept silent and nodded to everyone.


E.G.: Why did we start this conversation? Because a risk of simplification has occurred. EdCrunch showed that the entire discourse on competencies has begun to turn into a manipulative issue. Everyone is trying to identify competencies that would allow a person to successfully manage other people and the whole world. But at the same time they started to miss the most important point - competencies in self-management and self-development. We see this and must defend our anthropological concept. But the question of self-skills as the “core” of the key competencies of the 21st century person for us has not only philosophical and psychological aspects. We need to figure out how the educational process in a classical university can be transformed, taking into account such an anthropological approach to developing competencies. There is another complicated question: what should be done so that we rely not on talented teachers who work, using their intuition, but on some teaching technology? We hope that the discussion we have launched will be continued by our colleagues from other universities. It will help all of us to solve the problems connected with developing key competencies in our students.


The interview was recorded by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan