Talent or Labour and Learning

I read a great post by Harold Jarche where he talked about an article in the NY Times about this topic. I wanted to explore it a bit in regards to what our students learn, and what they want to learn.

The difference, as Harold hi-lighted, is that talent is related to initiative, creativity, and passion, and is not easily replaceable by automation. Labour can be, and is being, automated and outsourced. Our post industrial, capitalist society is destroying labour, and elevating talent.

So, what does this have to do with learning, or more precisely, what does this have to do with what students want to learn.

I have the opportunity to teach hundreds of students research methods and statistics in a large psychology department. I have done this for about 20 years, and deal with about 300 students a year. One of the most difficult things that I have to teach them (and usually fail with too many) is to use their judgment in the interpretation of their findings. They want rules to follow, checklists to refer to, and algorithms to run. They want to be able to use formulaic language to describe their outcomes.

As an example, they will write that “Group A performed higher than Group B, and the difference was significant, t(43) = 4.72, p = .001, and therefore the null hypothesis is not accepted.” Very safe, but utterly meaningless. Completely devoid of any need for judgement. What I want them to write is the following “The Social Learning group learned significantly more than the Individual Learning Group, t(43) = 4.72, p = .001, meaning that students learn more in groups than when studying alone.”

What does this have to do with talent or labour? I think that being a labourer is much easier than being someone who uses talent. Being a labourer relies on following rules and procedures, referring to checklists, and running algorithms. Expressing talent means you must rely more on yourself, make judgments, and take a chance. I know that the illustration above doesn’t take a lot of talent, however, I think that a willingness to take the difficult step of putting yourself out there.

The illustration relies on rules, checklists, and algorithms, but they don’t define the outcome, only guide it. I think that real talent knows the rules, can rely on them for guidance, and then steps outside expectations to use expertise and judgment to come up with novel solutions. This can’t be reduced to a set of algorithms. This is what higher order skills should foster. This should be our goal as educators in Higher Education.

This is why teaching content is a dead end for HE. Content, and content alone is only information. In order for information to become knowledge, an internal transformation must take place that allows connections to be made, and information to become usable.


8 thoughts on “Talent or Labour and Learning

  1. I agree with you completely. Higher education ought to be more about learning how to ask and pursue the answers to the right questions – not memorizing the right answers. Here’s a question for you, though. How does this apply to the proliferation of online/automated “teaching” and MOOC? Aren’t these just example of taking a create enterprise (teaching) and trying to automate it to the level of mere labor?


  2. I think you are spot on. In my OU Potential blog that is the point I was trying to make. The OU does some of the best teaching in the world, and it is all based on a distance education model. The new xMOOCs (see http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/10/01/daniels-comprehensive-review-of-mooc-developments/) are just an automated teaching machine based on poor teaching methods – the cMOOCs are much better, but lack expert guidance for novice learners. We’re moving in the right direction, but have a ways to go.


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