Rethinking Work-Based Education

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Publication date:

August 03, 2021

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Formal education gives all of us a solid basis but then pushes everyone of us into ever narrowing career paths. This made sense when careers were stable, predictable, and sustainable. This is no longer the case because most, if not all, jobs are becoming increasingly susceptible to obsolescence or radical restructuring.

Just think of a radiologist. With the performance of medical imaging and recognition technologies rapidly approaching – and in some cases already surpassing – human accuracy, do we still need them? We currently need them to label the images that train the neural networks that drive recognition algorithms and perfect their diagnostic capabilities,  but then what? Note that, and a further consequence of narrow work-based education paths, no radiologist received any training in the technologies that could very well replace them.

What about lawyers, judges? On the latter, note that parole boards are already relying on AI algorithms to decide on whether to let an ex-convict back into society. Again, looking at law school curricula, I see none talking about AI and how it might (will) reshape the legal profession.

The reality is that most of us do jobs that smart algorithms – in part or as a whole – will do better, faster, error-free and, it must be said, with no human drama. Consequently, the concept of a job or a career as a predictable path has become far less certain. This begs the question of what the future is of work-based education? It slots many of us into career paths with little or no ability to wiggle ourselves out of when we meet a dead end. When that happens, we can reskill or upskill to switch to a new career path. Sooner or later, however, that path might lead to a dead end as well. As a result, we might well find ourselves in perpetual cycles of reskilling. Is this what lifelong learning is meant to be?

Repetitive reskilling to cover up a deficiency in our education model is not lifelong learning. It misses the whole long game of lifelong learning and the role basic education has to play in it. That role is one of enabling, strengthening, and supporting lifelong learning but not be the reason for it. The necessity for lifelong learning arises from an emerging reality that is increasingly at odds with work-based education. In that sense, lifelong learning should replace work-based education and not be the result of it.

In essence, work-based education molds students to fit into specific job templates, independent and irrespective of who they are and what they are made of. It shapes and grinds them but does strengthen them. Their unique human qualities and talent are not honed and perfected further. To use a tree analogy, work-based education grows branches without attending to the trunk of the tree. As we all remember from decorating the Christmas tree, the strength of the branches depends on how solid the trunk is.

With jobs/careers becoming more fragile, what once was the long game is now just a short game. The new long game is to develop, strengthen, and perfect ones true and unique core. Only a strong and mature core will withstand the test of time. Just look at a forest after a storm or a fire ravished it: only the strong and healthy trunks can sprout new shoots and find renewed strength and vitality.

Attending to our trunk will enable us to shoot healthy and strong branches when those might be needed. Hence, there is a long game and a short game that, when played strategically, will reinforce one another. The long game is to continuously hone our inherent talent and our core identity to perfection, and align both so they can evolve into a maturing entity with unlimited learning – and, hence, professional deployment – potential. The short game is to acquire skills that weaponize that entity for specific deployments; i.e., ones that would strengthen that entity further. That is not what education is currently aiming for.

Formal education shapes our basic core but that is not developed or strengthened further in higher education. The latter is almost exclusively job- or profession-focused. Just look at business schools. Their focus is on molding students into specialists in finance, marketing, accounting, etc. At the same time, little or no attention is devoted to how a student’s character, basic intelligence, and the combination of the two can be enhanced further. In that sense, work-based education shapes students to fit a mold with the focus more on the shape of the mold than on the material that is poured into it. Education has to come back from this and refocus on what each student is made of and help perfect that continuously. After all, it is the students who need to endure as the molds are being replaced more frequently.

To keep a proper perspective, we should all recognize that the strength of what comes out of a mold is much more dependent on the quality of the material that is poured into it than on the shape of the mold. Hence, strengthening that material should be the focus. Furthermore, if that material can also be made more flexible, it can be poured into any mold and still preserve its inherent strength.

Accordingly, strength and agility in what each person is uniquely made of – and not job skills – should be the core focus of lifelong learning.

In sum, lifelong learning should not be viewed as perpetual cycles of skills training to address the consequences of work-based education. Lifelong learning should replace work-based education as a new paradigm where the emphasis is on the persistant strengthening of ones core. Skills training, reskilling, and upskilling should be seen as ways to weaponize that core for professional deployments that would further strengthen that core. After all, only strong and healthy trunks sprout shoots that help secure a tree’s survival.

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