April 27, 2011
Many years ago, when I was a welfare recipient, I was assigned to a caseworker who thought I could help myself. Even that if I could hardly speak English he carved out time from our meetings to teach me things I could do on my own –for example, how to navigate job, children’s school and support service systems. That really helped and made a big difference for me.
Over the years I have tried my best to follow his example with the good fortune of working today in an organization whose work focuses on building skills. The work of the Right Question Project focused on building skills that are a foundation for taking action and transferable to a variety of settings and situations. Through years of trial and error we have found that there are many useful skills that people can learn but that there is a need to teach two basic skills that are usually skipped over – how to ask questions and how to focus effectively on decisions. We have developed a strategy that can be easily integrated into any program or service to develop these skills.
Last week I meet old friend I have not seen in years. She was surprised to hear that I was still working to help people across fields build skills and quickly reminded me about the difficulties of the work. “You are still doing that! There is so much going on… It is so difficult to bring people out of their homes, everybody is busy; they don’t have time!” Well, she had some good points…
She made me think about how much the work of the Right Question Project has evolved and how much we have learned. She was right, these are other times but to help people develop skills is as urgent as it was eighteen years ago. Like my social worker, there are many people working across fields who can make the building of skills part of the work they do. There are people organizing residents, working with youth or immigrants, implementing educational programs or working in micro-enterprise --regardless of the work they can build skills that will allow people to depend more on what they can do to help themselves.
Here are some of the things we earned along the way on how to effectively build skills:
o Narrow it down to what is most essential. One of our biggest lessons was that there are no limits on how much you could teach. At some point in our work we had a thirty-two hour curriculum to deliver and could have still added more. We noticed that people were not using everything but that they were “pulling out” some parts of what were teaching. After much trial an error we were able to pull out the most essential pieces to teach.
Our goal is to accomplish the maximum by teaching the minimum.
o Keep it simple. Again stay focused on what is essential. Find ways to make it easy to deliver. One of our challenges has been on how to ensure it the strategy is kept simple enough so people can easily teach it and learn it.
o Stay focused. Work with the end goal in mind. There will always be new issues and challenges you will need to address. Keep in mind how you are ensuring skill building is taking place.
o Deliver as you go. Make it an ongoing part of your work. Look for teachable moments. Think about what is it that they have now they didn’t have when they came in. Try not to create an additional structure but make it part of the work you do.
These are just some of the lessons that we've been able to learn. I know that I would not be in the position today to be sharing them with you if my caseworker didn't believe in my capacity to grow.
What kinds of skills are you building?
What strategies are you using?
What have you learned about how to do it effectively?