Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Unlocking The World of Work

There is an essential disconnect between how we educate our young people and what we expect them do afterwards. 

When in education, we assume a world which can be neatly divided into a world of ideas and the world of action. In the university settings, the world of ideas is higher, neatly rational, one to be mastered through disinterested inquiry. And, indeed, the world of ideas is sets the norms, with which one should guide the world of action. 

However, after this, we expect those educated enter real life and work. At work, the expectations are little different. Here, ideas are important, but they are not the norms within which all actions must be taken, but the tools to use in action, and indeed, actions shape as many ideas in their turn. There is no disinterested inquiry, but the messy world of practice - where human interests, follies, emotions, all must play out - is shaped by engagement. 

While these two views are so different, our current systems of education and work are shaped around the assumption that the transition from one to another is not so difficult. When it does not work, we blame our young people, their lack of character, attention and morals. They are left to live the life of the socially discarded, increasingly socially deviant and outcasts. 

Any questions about the shortcomings of the education systems we have are emphatically answered as well. We can cite so many very successful people that come out of the top universities, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of the students there were already very privileged before they got there. We ignore the warning signs that our education systems are becoming a legitimisation system for social inequities, rather than the engines of social mobility they were to become. 

We know the problems and are looking for solutions, in better teachers, better technologies and better testing. We assume one thing to be the silver bullet after another. We are thinking opening up access to the best universities teaching and content, as exemplified in the MOOCs, will solve the problem, unwilling to admit that the students come in with huge social advantages. And, as we arrange the deck chairs, so to speak, our middle class assumptions start falling apart, the promises of social mobility wither, jail population increases and jobs go vacant.

The problem we do not want to talk about is that the current form of universities, and the enlightenment assumption about preeminence of ideas behind it, are out of sync with the world of knowledge-in-action that we live in. At a time when our predominant cultural life is economic, language is binary code, Oracular sage is a strangely-named Google and nemesis is an intelligent machine, the education-work dualism is really unsustainable. We have tried, since the end of Second World War, in the bonhomie of national solidarity (and independence for some countries), to fit an institutional form designed to perpetuate privilege into the new imperative of creating knowledgable workers (which, by intent, challenges the mind and hand dualism embedded in our other assumptions), but without necessarily fusing the world of ideas and practice. 

Indeed, there are exceptions. Everyone is moist-eyed when they talk about the German vocational education, created around a solid foundation of apprentice system, and productive possibilities that unlocks. Yet, various countries miss the key roles played by employers and trade unions, rather than educational institutions, in making that system work. Stories of Apprentice Schools (see here) appear from time to time - and we still miss the point of employer engagement when thinking about our own contexts.  

Before it is too late, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee - universities would not solve the chasm between education and work. They can do a lot of other things, including producing politicians and academics and excellent research, but their institutional form is unsuited to produce productive workers for businesses. And, not just universities, but all the education institutions that try to emulate the institutional principles of the universities, arranged in departments of disciplines, structured around classrooms and whiteboards, would eventually fall short. In that gap, one would hope, a new institutional form would emerge - one that unlocks the world of work to the learners. As a colleague puts it (and the same metaphor was used in the article about Apprentice Schools), this is about opening the employers swimming pools to the learners who want to learn to swim! One would not break down the task of swimming into a hundred different learning outcomes like breathing, kicking and arm movement, but do all of that together in the water, addressing those tacit needs of overcoming the fear of sinking at the same time.


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