Promoting Life Skills Early: Lessons From Stanford, UCLA, And Harvard

In past few weeks, there were two articles in the New York Times that may not have received the public attention they deserve in the midst of the all-the-time, everywhere coverage of the Congressional impasse over the U.S. debt crisis. Both articles focus on how top universities are now screening applicants for competence in life skills as a part of the ticket for admission and they are intentionally teaching these skills too.

In "New for Aspiring Doctors, the People Skills Test", Gardiner Harris profiles a screening procedure that is being used in the admission process at a growing number of medical schools, including Stanford, UCLA, and Virginia Tech Carilion. The M.M.I. -- multiple mini interview -- simulates real life medical conundrums to see how applicants respond. Applicants are shown a written scenario depicting an ethical issue, such as using unproven therapies with patients, given a few minutes to read it, and then head into brief one-on-one interviews to discuss the case. Every few minutes, this process is repeated with different scenarios and different interviewers.

Administrators at the medical schools using the M.M.I. report that it is a fairer assessment of applicants because it puts them into the kind of situation they will face as doctors. In addition, they are judged -- not just by one -- but by many interviewers, thus reducing the possibility of bias. Finally, the M.M.I. helps the universities weed out the people who might get good college grades and good scores on the Medical College Admission Test, but be "insufferable know-it-alls who bully nurses and do not listen to patients."

So what are medical schools looking for in aspiring doctors? In my words, they want life skills -- skills that help individuals thrive in the present and in the future. In their words, they report looking for candidates who can think on their feet without jumping to false conclusions and for good problem solvers -- critical thinking skills. They are also looking for candidates who can work in teams, who know how to listen, who can communicate, and who establish trust with patients. These characteristics reflect the skill of perspective taking -- being able to understand how someone else thinks and feels and then the skill of communicating, expressing oneself with others' perspectives in mind.

Of course, medical schools hope to improve patients' experiences by screening for these skills, but they are also driven by dollars and cents considerations. As the article reports, a survey by the Joint Commission found that communicating problems are one of the leading causes of medical errors, leading as many as 98,000 deaths a year. In addition, candidates' scores on the M.M.I. are strongly predictive of scores on medical licensing exams three to five years later.

Medical schools have found that it is not enough to screen for these skills, they must also be promoted in classes. There are now teamwork classes at Virginia Carilion.

It was dollars and cents reasons that also led the Harvard Business School to create new classes that promote life skills -- skills necessary in the global economy. Nitin Nohria, the new dean reported in a New York Times interview with Adam Bryant that students today need to develop leadership skills that include emotional intelligence; they need to learn to be "far more savvy about what is going on around the world;" and they need to be "better at integrating everything they are learning, particularly to develop an entrepreneurial imagination." Interesting enough, the Business School is promoting these skills through direct experiences as well. For example, in the first year in the program, Harvard has introduced a course where student work on tasks in small teams so they can learn "how others perceive them" -- perspective taking. Student will go abroad too and they will be asked to create small start-up organizations to test an idea they have. Dean Nohria says that they will also give students cases that show how good people have been led astray because of pressures from bosses or the culture around them. The lessons from these cases promote the skill of taking on challenges, which Norhia describes as a life-long learning process.

It is certainly is a life-long process but we don't have to wait until graduate school at elite universities -- nor should we -- to promote life skills. Promoting perspective taking, communicating, critical thinking, and taking on challenges can and should begin in the early childhood years. In fact, although it is never too late to learn life skills, they are more solid if we begin promoting them when children are young.

While the debt crisis may be drowning out other important conversations such as the ones about life skills, there is a connection. I don't know about you, but as I watch and listen to the happenings in the halls of Congress, I wish that learning these skills were also required for leaders in our government. In one person-on-the-street-interview the other night, a woman put it perfectly when she said that members of Congress should have learned how to listen to each other, to work together and to solve problems in Kindergarten!