Dynamics of Lifelong Learning, Part III: Creating and Caring

If you’ll excuse the long quotations, I’d like to share two authors’ accounts of the same history.  It’s a history I’d never given much thought to before reading these descriptions, but we can draw powerful conclusions from it.

In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Selingo writes:

In the early 1900s, the “high-school movement” turned secondary schools into a nationwide system for mass education that provided training for life instead of small-scale institutions designed to prepare a select group of students for college. In 1910, just 9 percent of American youths earned a high-school diploma; by 1935, 40 percent did.

This expansion of high schools was the first wave in a century-long broadening of education in the United States in response to the changing needs of the economy. The high-school movement was “truly path breaking,” wrote Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University economist, in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “No other country underwent the transformation to virtually universal public secondary education” so early and so quickly. “Without the rapid rise of the high school,” Goldin argued, “America could not have put the GI Bill of Rights … into immediate action after 1944 for American youth would not yet have graduated high school.”

In his discussion of this period of history, Tim O’Reilly quotes famed Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam, who told him that “All of the great advances in our society have come when we have made investments in other people’s children.”  O’Reilly continues::

He’s right. Universal grade school education was one of the best investments of the nineteenth century, universal high school education of the twentieth…The GI Bill sent returning World War II veterans to college, enabling a smooth transition from wartime to peaceful employment. ( WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, 494)

Like Selingo, O’Reilly goes on to paint a picture of our present needs, and how the transformation this time around will need to be even more radical.  He writes:

But we don’t just need “more” education, or free education. We need a radically different kind of education…Advances in healthcare and technology, and the changing nature of employment, are compounding to obsolete our current educational model, which viewed schooling as preparation for a lifetime of work at a single employer…As “the job” is deconstructed, the need for education doesn’t go away. If anything, it is increased. But the nature of that education also needs to change. In a connected world where knowledge is available on demand, we need to rethink what people need to know and how they come to know it. (WTF, 494-5)

The deconstruction of “the job” is one side of the coin; the transformation of an outdated educational paradigm is the other.  The idea that being educated is synonymous with possessing a given set of information has always been wrong: as dehumanizing to those processed by its institutions as the employment that awaited them after their education.

Understanding how we thrive in a different developmental paradigm is part of coming to differentiate human work from machine work in the first place (I also write about this here).  It’s obvious how this distinction affects the workplace–you wouldn’t pay a human to do what a machine can do better (and for far less).  But it’s equally important to think about how this informs what we teach, and how we learn. As our work is augmented, distributed, and networked, so, too, our learning.  In other words, we’ll organize our learning around our uniquely human gifts, the capabilities we’ll always need and value and where humans will always outperform machines.  For O’Reilly, these capabilities come in two categories: creating and caring (WTF, 477).

For O’Reilly, creating and caring cover large swaths of human activity.  What they don’t cover, however, are the kinds of skills we often see in Adult Basic Ed catalogues or government sponsored Workforce Development programs.  Our imagination seems limited in what we think about teaching unemployed, under-skilled adults.  We somehow view people who had the sort menial, manufacturing or mechanical vocations that have been automated or off-shored as only capable of being re-skilled in more up-to-date menial, manufacturing or mechanical vocations. This seems like the definition of short-term thinking.

Caring and creating can happen with your hands, on shop or factory floors, or at building sites or repair facilities, in the manufacturing or hospitality industries, but the humans creating and caring there won’t be doing the same thing they always have.  Rather, they’ll be overseeing, troubleshooting, problem solving, meeting the needs of individual humans, and iterating on solutions to complex problems.  If we somehow think that these higher-order skills are beyond the adult basic ed learner, then we haven’t been paying attention to what these learners have already been doing (if you have any doubts, see the amazing work of Mike Rose).

In many cases, the educational system has already failed these learners once.  If we presume that caring and creating are beyond them, we’re repeating the dynamic that got us here in the first place.  If we can’t justify training “soft skills” like caring and creating, then we’re avoiding the exact lesson we should be learning: hard skills (skills where the knowledge required is standardizable, measurable, scalable) are things that can be done by robots (or learned by a search query or on a YouTube video).  Problem solving, process managing, human-to-human relating, negotiating, planning, and helping are what humans need to work together to do.

Again, Selingo, in The Atlantic:

“While we don’t know what skills will be required for the human-centric jobs of the future,”… said Alssid, who has spent more than two decades in the workforce-development field, “we do know that these jobs will require a highly adaptable workforce that can think critically, creatively, and work collaboratively to find solutions to rapidly developing, complex problems.”

Such skills, often referred to as “soft skills,” are typically seen in liberal-arts graduates, but those individuals often lack the technical skills employers want. Alssid said a hybrid of liberal-arts and technical education is what is most needed in training programs to allow workers to better navigate the ambiguity of the future job market.

As I see it, what unifies hard- and soft- skills–present technical know-how and lifelong training–is the necessity that the process if suffused with the meta-skill uniting it all: learning how to learn.  While long a value proposition of a liberal arts education, learning-to-learn is something many vocations require (and develop), including the trades, hospitality, and any work that requires frequent adaption to new situations or equipment.

Learning-to-learn is a productive, creative skill (which, ironically, may be harder to develop in the seminar room of a liberal arts college).  It’s not about consuming information and demonstrating that consumption on standardized assessments or by parroting received wisdom.  Rather, it’s about learning about the world by interacting with it, and observing the results, and interacting with it again.  It’s done creatively, by making and expressing things, in community and connected with others.  It’s what Joan Didion meant when she said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”  Or what’s at the heart of Kurt Lewin’s action research: you only understand the world by trying to change it.

If we reserve these skills for high brow writers and academic ethnographers, then we vastly underestimate everyone else.  Instead, our model should be more like MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten: more “creative tinkering,” less careful planning (Mitch Resnick).  Moreover, if we can learn-to-learn, then we also learn to teach, and wouldn’t the most amazing outcome be flooding the teaching ranks with those whose manufacturing jobs are now in Bangladesh or whose assembly line jobs are done by robots?

As O’Reilly suggests:

“Early childhood education could be revolutionized by an economic system that provided basic income and the flexibility for parents to spend time with their children. Hiring more teachers at better salaries and reducing class size in public schools to the level of the best private schools would be another pragmatic way to transition to the caring economy. It is slowly being recognized that the cost of insufficient care for children gets paid one way or another, if not up front, then in healthcare or prison costs later in life.” (WTF, 480)

But in this case, O’Reilly–normally a bold thinker–doesn’t go far enough.  Why duplicate the teacher-student ratio of elite private schools?  Why not increase the number of teachers five-fold?  Or ten-fold? Why not offer every child the massive two sigma benefits of high-intensity tutoring?  And lest we forget, the benefits go both ways: teachers learn and learners teach.  If we reconsider what it means to be a teacher-learner/learner-teacher, then people of all ages, throughout the stages of their development, can be teaching and learning from each other.  While this might seem entirely alien to our institutions and our processing of learners (and teachers), it seems likely that this was how teaching and learning was done through most of human history.  Of all the things I want to reserve for humans (and of all the places I’d redirect human energy), nurturing human curiosity, experimentation and discovery are at the very top.

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