Eliminating The Education/Employment Divide

Having worked on the Education-to-Employment gap, I have come to recognise this as a false concept altogether. The metaphor is powerful, and indeed popular, and consultancies and For-Profit schools try to make much of it. But, despite its appeal, it stands on a mistaken assumption - that of education and employment being two distinct stages of life. Indeed, it perhaps used to be, and that is the way we are programmed to think. At the same time, however, the nature of learning has changed - it has become far more of a continuous activity, lifelong as we would call it now - and the demands of employment have been transformed, from a well-defined set of skills and competencies, to a more fluid, more open approach of being adaptable and being able to learn continuously. Seen this way, the ideas are converging - one is expecting the education to go on beyond the school and the employment is reconfiguring itself as a learning opportunity - and the staged metaphor of education and then employment is becoming out-of-date.

Despite this apparent transformation of both learning and the workplace, the old ideas die hard. There are educators who see employment as a pursuit of narrow material ends, rather than a way of being, a process of constructing ones identity. They want to be in denial of the fact that we have to introduce ourselves these days not whose children we are, or what caste or tribe we belong to, but what we do. It is ironic that publicly funded, arch-bureaucratic Higher Education institutions tend to find their reason for existence in pretending to be medieval monasteries, notwithstanding the public goal that they have been evidently set up to serve. From the outside, though, this looks very much designed to escape accountability - with focus on a narrow set of institutionally defined outcomes rather than meeting the self-declared challenge of creating complete individuals - and this is exactly why the purpose and process of Higher Education is being questioned in almost every society around the world.

There are employers too, who, despite their professed goals of innovation and learning, see education and employment as two distinct stages. They complain, as almost all employers do today, that educators are not preparing students for jobs, and invest in vast remedial infrastructure. They are, however, unable and unwilling to see that their own demands have shifted - and this has made the staged approach of life rather redundant. Their own engagement, hands off and more as a consumer of the Higher Education systems, is increasingly falling short. Low cost of capital has led many employers now pursue the nuclear option - of replacing people with software and robots as they come - but this is creating a deep disconnection between the corporations and its communities, ultimately cutting it off from the people and causing, using a term popular with Hayek and other Austrian economists, a lot of malinvestment in capital-intensive technologies.

From either side, this state of affairs is not sustainable. Educators can not cut themselves off from the desires and aspirations of their students, nor corporate activity can become a disconnected, algorithmic enterprise - and the combined effects of the two have the making of a breakdown of the society we have built. But, to address this, it is insufficient to just think of closing the gap between education and employment, as they exist in two separate processes, but rather eliminate the divide altogether. In this format, education becomes life-intensive, built around practise and challenges of everyday, as employment becomes a pursuit of excellence and development of self. There is nothing new in this - this is what successful professional lives are made of in our times - and we are indeed doing a great disservice to all those young people seeking a productive and engaged life by keeping them in separate boxes and building narrow causeways inbetween.

So, if education is built around employment, and employment comes with the spirit of inquiry and development at its heart, what would it look like? A lot of it would look like the ancient apprenticeships, though it may jump over the modern version limited to the skilled trades and encompass the original idea of life of the mind too. The point of such transformation is indeed that tacit knowledge, the very human insights and tendencies that we bring to work, is increasingly the trump card for the humans in the workplace - every task that follow explicit instructions are already being automated - and development of such knowledge can only come from learning by doing. Enabling such learning - situated learning as some people will call it - is the point of modern education and is at the core of development of a professional. 

Translating into more practical elements, this would perhaps combine informational activities, enabling the learners to do career design (making career choices through observation and conversation, rather than assumptions - read my notes on Career Design and How To Do Career Design), learning through long apprenticeships (see my note on how it makes sense) and educating for character (earlier post here). One way to think about it is as a period of employment with a coach at hand, along with some kind of safety net so that trying and failing is okay. Our current institutional structures, built around commercial companies and professional educators, somewhat fall short of this, but this is an easier problem to solve than the education-to-employment gap as it exists. One part of my work, now postponed, was to reverse the education-to-employment thinking, and rather imagine educational qualifications based on actual practice (as it exists in some UK universities, under the name of Masters by Negotiated Learning, example here). Anything else, and we are back to the world of separate domains and narrow causeways!



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