School of hard knocks
One of my all-time favourite comedy shows was Blackadder. In the third series, the cynical butler played by Rowan Atkinson enviously lamented to the lowly Baldrick how poorly his life had turned out in comparison to the luxury enjoyed by his ‘bit of a thickee’ master Prince George. On the subject of education, Blackadder remarked that he was “a graduate of the University of Life, the School of Hard Knocks and the Kindergarten of Getting the Shit Kicked out of me.” (Kids today love Blackadder too, although they must get confused to see Prince George is actually Doctor House and Professor Johnson who wrote the dictionary is actually Hagrid from Harry Potter.) I choose to interpret Blackadder’s comments as a commonly held belief that formal education and qualifications are but one small plank in the platform of lifelong learning that should support us in our career and other aspirations. Indeed, isn’t the primary aim of the NZQA to give recognition to people who have learned from the school of hard knocks? Perhaps I over-simplify? I was after all educated during the era of School Certificate.
Any employer going through a recruitment process has some form of checklist of what they’re looking for – a list of skills, competencies, experience or whatever. Applicants need to be able to do X and they need to be able to do Y. It may be true that they need to be able to do X and Y today but there is no guarantee that X and Y will be relevant or even exist in five years’ time. The top item on that recruitment shopping list of skills should be the skill to develop new skills. Many of us would have received that homemade PowerPoint email doing the rounds with the goose-bumpy overly-dramatic orchestral soundtrack stressing the increase in the rate of change and the impact on learning. True or not, or to whatever extent exaggerated, it was quite a provocative little number. Is it true that the annual number of PhD graduates in China exceeds New Zealand’s entire population? Is it true that halfway through the third year of a four year engineering degree that half of what you learned in your first year is now obsolete? Is it true that two thirds of the children starting school this year will finish school in the not-too-distant future and begin a type of job that doesn’t even exist today?
Assuming even a skerrick of truth in the above predictions, it would seem that if employers were genuinely looking at capability development and productivity improvement that they should look at not only hiring people with a proven track record of learning ability but to also strengthen that skill in their existing people. We should help our people learn how to learn more efficiently and effectively. We all learn all the time but we’re mostly a bit random. For example, today I learned the word “skerrick”:
sker·rick / Pronunciation[sker-ik]
–noun Australian. A small piece or quantity; a bit: Not even a skerrick of cake was left.
Many employers have a policy or several when it comes to supporting study. Give us a receipt and a certificate to show you passed and if we consider it to be directly work-related then we’ll reimburse you for the tuition but not the books. That sort of thing. Sounds fair but I take issue with the “work-related” bit. It’s very short-sighted to hire a widget-polisher and train them only in widget polishing. What about creative thinking to stimulate widget innovation? What about conflict resolution to encourage less disruption on the polishing line? What about problem solving and the raft of other skills that a myopic bean-counter might not consider to be directly work-related? What if widgets are replaced by a new piece of functionality in the 2009 i-Pod?
It’s encouraging to sit in a primary school classroom today and see evidence that not only are kids being taught content; they’re being taught how to optimise their own ability to learn. From the biomechanical healthy snacking and rehydration to wall charts displaying DeBono’s six thinking hats, kids are getting some useful tools to set them up for the rest of their lives beyond school. There’s a large mass of older people who either don’t know or care that their thinking is being impaired by their lack of water drinking.
I’m cautiously encouraged by the practice (or prospect) of Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) working with schools. If any groups should have their fingers on the pulse of trends in society’s changing skill requirements it should be ITOs and they would be best positioned to tool up schools on what skills are currently required or are going to be. If nothing else, it might lessen the number of lawyers and accountants in society and this can only be a good thing. I’m constantly staggered that I can’t get a decent plumber for a reasonable price but if I throw a stone into a crowd I’m bound to hit at least two lawyers. Now, there’s a thought.