“Golden hands” – and what it takes to achieve them

Why vocational education must be properly evaluated

by Dr Eliane Perret, curative teacher and psychologist

“Noah, weighing 3520 g and 49 cm long», that’s how a young couple who are friends announced to us a few months ago the birth of their son, for whom they had been eagerly awaiting. We rejoiced with them. Of course, it was also on my mind – this can hardly be avoided in my profession – that they now had the task of introducing their son to the world. But into which world? That’s not only on my mind at the moment, but on many awake contemporaries’ minds!

A school – not like we had it

In the meantime, a few months have passed. Recently, the young parents told us that their thoughts kept circling around their son’s future. How do you think he will do at school? What profession will he want to take up? And much more. Thought far ahead but showing a sense of responsibility.
  The mother fears above all that her child will no longer have guided lessons at school. This had already been the case with her. She had struggled with a weekly schedule and had to organise her own learning in the workshop lessons. They would have said SOL1 – school without teachers (in German: Schule ohne Lehrer). “The teachers didn’t even correct the homework”, the young mother is still outraged and disappointed at the same time. The father felt the same way. He had learned to write late with fewer mistakes because he had been taught with a first reading course that was very common at the time, in which one was supposed to learn to read by writing independently with the help of initial sound pictures. “Yes, I learned on my own how to make a lot of mistakes when writing,” he says laconically. This affected him during his later school career and to this day.
 Now the two are considering saving money so that they can choose their child’s school according to their own quality standards. “We want a real school where the children are guided, the subject matter is structured logically, the children can work on the subject matter together and form a class community. That is important for the teamwork that is constantly required today,” the father said thoughtfully.

Porsche and flowers

Despite their problematic school careers, the two had successfully completed a vocational education and graduated with very good marks. The father had even repeated a form. Nevertheless, he was able to complete an apprenticeship as an automotive specialist, and today he is a workshop manager in a garage. “Porsche”, he smiles and says, “the apprenticeship was a second chance for me.” Noah’s mother also enthuses about her apprenticeship as a florist. She enjoyed it a lot and was able to learn the many names of plants and flowers without any problems. In the meantime, she has a broad knowledge of botany, floristry and composition.

It’s not the intelligence – “Talent pool” under the magnifying glass

The two confirm what the Swiss educationalist Margrit Stamm2 roves through her research. She had conducted a representative longitudinal study3 between 2005 and 2009, in which she took two cognitive performance tests at the beginning with 2706 first-year apprentices at 21 vocational schools in German-speaking Switzerland. 196 of the test persons achieved above-average scores and were subsequently assigned to the “talent pool”. They came from all occupational fields. Now they were compared with a group of trainees of about the same size who had performed with average results and combined into a sample. The result was a sample with two groups that only differed in their above-average performance in the intelligence tests. The test persons were now examined during their entire apprenticeship period. Interestingly, the “talented” ones, with the high IQ scores, only swung out at the top at the beginning of the apprenticeship. Towards the end, they were overtaken by the comparison group. From this, it could be concluded that bright minds alone do not guarantee skill in the form of “golden hands”, as Stamm notes. What was it then?

Despite problem-laden school career ...

Unravelling this mystery was the next task, because in the top third of the newly compiled ranking list were 58 people from the “talent pool” and 61 from the comparison group. It turned out that 30 % of them had only a lower secondary level certificate, 45 % a secondary level certificate and 25 % a progymnasium graduation. 23 % had repeated a grade once, 10 % twice, and 30 % had been considered lazy at school. However, they excelled in characteristics such as work motivation and identification, stress resistance, diligence and perseverance, which were significantly more pronounced than in the other test persons. In addition, the working atmosphere of the respective training company was characterised by performance recognition, support, challenge, stimulation and training and also played a prominent role in the trainees’ performance.

… strengths, undiscovered resources and false attributions

In other words, Margrit Stamm’s study showed that when selecting trainees, the focus should be less on the negative characteristics of young people and more on their strengths and undiscovered resources. Otherwise, tunnel vision blocks the view on young people suitable for training and possibly discriminates against them through prejudice.
  In our society, academic training is often valued more highly and associated with higher intelligence than vocational apprenticeships. The term “practically intelligent” is used (rather pejoratively) in connection with a craft activity and with good vocational specialists. This is wrong, however, because “golden hands” can certainly go hand in hand with a clever head, just as academics are not always of above-average intelligence, remain in the ivory tower of science and must have two left hands. Such attributions are therefore unhelpful. But what is it that makes young people ultimately experts in their profession, who carry out their work with “golden hands”?

Who is intelligent?

Today, a large part of research assumes that intelligence is not an unchangeable, innate quantity, but can change positively during the lifespan (which in turn is more successful in a supportive environment). However, the fact that different abilities are considered intelligent in different cultures is usually not taken into account. For example, in other cultures, the ability to listen well, to have strong communication skills, to ask adults for advice or to be involved in community life is considered a sign of high intelligence. The intelligence tests used in our latitudes are therefore often criticised for hardly including such competencies and for having been developed exclusively on the basis of our occidental culture. The so-called culturally fair tests are also criticised as unsatisfactory because they would still falsify results and disadvantage minority groups.

No tunnel vision when choosing a career

There is still a widespread belief that academic intelligence is the gateway to career and life success. Many parents, and sometimes even teachers, mistakenly see a vocational apprenticeship as a second-class path for young people who are less successful in school and do not make it to grammar school. That is why it is important to get parents on board, because they are still the most important opinion-makers when it comes to choosing a career.
  The aim here is not to play off academic education against vocational education and training, but to take a stand against tunnel vision with regard to vocational apprenticeships (which otherwise run the risk of being classified as a transit stage on the way to a university of applied sciences). Today, there is a broad spectrum of vocational training programmes that are demanding and attractive even for young people who perform well at school. And that’s where the often underestimated practical intelligence is in demand.

Practical intelligence – what is it?

If one is dissatisfied with the performance of a craftsman, it is often commonly assumed that he did not acquire the necessary knowledge during his training. Behind this is the assumption that knowledge is the only and indispensable prerequisite for skill and the ability to solve problems. This ignores the great importance of practical intelligence. For there are several steps between knowledge and ability or even expertise, without which it is not possible. Nor is it a matter of diligence and motivation alone. Nor does it help anything in practice to be able to talk about problems in a highly scientific way. What is crucial is a competent approach to real problems. According to Margrit Stamm, “Practical intelligence is not simply the manual dexterity of the less gifted, but the ability to apply specialised knowledge at a high level in practice.”4

The long way to the certified specialist

If there is a problem for which a craftsman is called in, it is often only vaguely defined: The washing machine no longer works, the car engine makes a suspicious sound, or plants lose their leaves. The problem is only rudimentarily defined, more precise information is often missing. And now? If the expert called in wants to solve the problem, he has to grasp the situation quickly and holistically, relate his expert knowledge to the problem, think creatively about different ways and methods of solving the problem and run through them in his mind, choose the best solution and include experiences already made. This makes high demands, which a proven professional, starting from factual knowledge and rules, gradually acquires through intensive practice, reflection and observation, and which ultimately enable him to act intuitively in the right way, taking into account the most diverse problems. On his way to becoming a professional expert, he has acquired many things; this is often referred to as “tacit knowledge”, which generally increases with growing professional experience.

“Tacit knowledge” – a treasure of gold without which nothing works

People speak of “tacit knowledge” as the core of practical intelligence and mean by this the knowledge that every human being carries within him or herself and has acquired through every day and habitual actions, so that it is intuitively available. However, it is not about automatisms, routine or imitation. Rather, it is the knowledge that professionals acquire “incidentally” in their daily work, without always being aware of it. This knowledge, which is linked to action sequences, is usually acquired without the help of third parties, is linked to intensive and complex practice and training processes and often cannot be verbalised precisely. However, it is a golden treasure that is an indispensable part of practical intelligence and combines knowledge and skills.

“Golden hands” have made Switzerland great

With this understanding of practical intelligence, the classical models of intelligence experience an important supplement and expansion, with which a vocational apprenticeship is given the right weighting. Noah’s parents have succeeded and acquired the ability to deal successfully with real problems. They will also incorporate this experience into their education. Ideally, school provides a field to learn about this area and to give practical talents the opportunity to develop. But what about the fact that in recent years the relevant subjects have increasingly eked out a wallflower existence and have been reduced in favour of early foreign language teaching and media studies? Is this significantly promoted by Curriculum 21? How can a vocational apprenticeship remain attractive? The vocational competitions, in which Swiss participants have won many medals up to now, must not become folklore. This should be thoroughly rethought! “Golden hands are an important cultural asset that has made Switzerland great”5, says Margrit Stamm. There is nothing to add.  •

1 SOL is the abbreviation for Self-Organised Learning.
2 Margrit Stamm was a professor of education at the University of Fribourg and today heads the research institute she founded, Swiss Education. Based on her research, she has published numerous books on education and educational issues.
3 The following comments are based primarily on two of her publications: Stamm, Margrit. (2015). Praktische Intelligenz. Ihre missachtete Rolle in der beruflichen Ausbildung. Dossier 15/2; (Practical intelligence. Their disregarded role in vocational training); Stamm, Margrit. (2017). Goldene Hände. Praktische Intelligenz als Chance für die Berufsbildung. (Golden hands. Practical intelligence as an opportunity for vocational education) Bern: Hep-Verlag.
4 Stamm, Margrit. (2017). Goldene Hände. Praktische Intelligenz als Chance für die Berufsbildung. (Golden hands. Practical intelligence as an opportunity for vocational education) Bern: Hep-Verlag. P. 26
5 Stamm, Margrit. (2017). Goldene Hände. Praktische Intelligenz als Chance für die Berufsbildung. (Golden hands. Practical intelligence as an opportunity for vocational education), Bern: Hep-Verlag. P. 95

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